The worst thing about the Larry Craig scandal was the lack of context.
On the surface it seemed like yet another tedious example of American rightwing hypocrisy and not even a cute one at that. A notoriously homophobic US senator gets caught putting the moves on an undercover cop in a Minneapolis washroom, pleads guilty and then says he isn’t gay.
A helmet-headed Dick Cheney look-alike, Craig, 62, isn’t exactly a pornstar and the thought of him stooping to conquer was not an enticing one. But the media knew a juicy story when it saw one and the opinion-makers did their best to give it legs. The right reacted with a predictable mixture of outrage, the left with an equally predictable mix of sympathy, psychology and worldliness, and of course everyone just lapped up the hypocrisy. Sex columnist Dan Savage had a particularly good time with the “not gay” line.
But of course the only reason anyone was sticking around for this particular round of pin the tail on the donkey — or should it be “elephant” in honour of Craig’s Republican affiliation? — was the titillation. There’s nothing the American public enjoys more than a great man brought low by his own human impulses and this episode met the criteria in spades.
But the story was over before you knew it, which is too bad really because it was a great chance for law-abiding Americans to get in touch with some of the more baroque expressions of their fellow citizens’ sexuality. Jokes about the mile-high club have accustomed most people to the idea of public sex, but not to gay public sex. That’s always treated as something quite apart, a one-off event. It only pops into view when people get arrested and that gives people the idea that it’s an aberration, something outside daily life. (Edmund White provided a detailed description of washroom sex in The Beautiful Room is Empty but of course the general public doesn’t read gay fiction so that had no effect.)
Sure, George Michael got arrested in a Los Angeles loo and had the nerve to make a video about it, but he’s just a nutty celebrity, right?
In fact, of course, washroom sex is part of a long and grotty tradition. There are names for the practice — tearoom sex in the US and cottaging in Britain — and even a book on the subject, Tearoom Trade, written in the 1970s by the US sociologist Laud Humphreys.
Here at home homos have been doing it in public cans since, like, almost forever. Historian Steven Maynard has documented cases of washroom sex in the 1910s and 1920s and he talked about his discoveries, some years back, in these pages.
“Lavatories in Allan Gardens and Queen’s Park were popular sites [in the early 20th century],” wrote Maynard, “but men also had sex in the washrooms of certain hotels, Union Station, Sunnyside Amusement Park and the YMCA.”
For the men peering through the holes in the washroom stalls, wrote Maynard, it “was an act of possibility, a moment in the making of an alternative sexual world.”
Sometimes it wasn’t a very pleasant alternative. We only know about these men because they were observed and arrested, a tradition that continues in many places but may have reached its peak, locally at least, in the aftermath of the bathhouse raids. In the early 1980s hundreds of men were arrested for washroom sex in cities across southern Ontario. The famous Orillia Opera House scandal saw 31 men charged with sex offences in 1983. Two years later 32 men were charged in a St Catharines shopping mall bust. One of them, a married Sunday school teacher with two kids, committed suicide when his name was released to the public.
Nobody remembers those men today because nobody thinks of them as part of an ongoing tradition. They got arrested and, for most of us, that’s not normal. Of course they were just doing what millions of men do every day and the banality of the act only accents its centrality.
I’m not keen to promote washroom sex. It seems so uncomfortable, doing it in shabby little metallic stalls that are harder and smaller than a bathhouse cubicle, difficult though that may be to believe. Still it is an ongoing part of our history and it deserves something better than embarrassed snickers.
Lots of famous people have cruised loos — everyone from actor John Gielgud, arrested in a famous case in 1953, to playwright Joe Orton — and you wonder what they got out of it. Was it just physical release, a flight from a complicated world or did it sometimes lead to something more? Liberal commentators usually ascribe the practice to denial, closetry and tons of internalized homophobia but a 1998 British study of cottaging and other forms of public sex suggests most of the men involved are gay-identified and at least somewhat in touch with the larger community.
Whatever the case the tradition deserves as much attention as any more “respectable” variation on relationship. It’s part of our history.