5 min

Naked Lunch: An interview with Thomas Waugh

Queer cinema pioneer takes a trip to Bain Colonial and gives interviewer beating of his life

Thomas Waugh. Credit: photo by Robert Laliberté

If I had ever wanted to explore Bain Colonial, the last bathhouse in Montreal with a natural stone steam system and heavily frequented by the Russian community, director David Cronenberg snuffed out that curiosity in me with his film Eastern Promises. In it, actor Viggo Mortensen gores a mob nemesis in a Russian bathhouse, revelling in the glory of more blood spatter than I can handle.

I was curious to visit Bain Colonial but refused to go alone. Luckily, Thomas Waugh offered to take me, and I couldn’t have found a better guide to this underground cinema of men beating each other silly with oak switches.

Waugh emerged as a pioneer in gay film and theory and criticism in the late 1970s, publishing his vim, vigour and vitriol in such journals as Jump Cut and The Body Politic, predecessor to Xtra. He has taught queer cinema at Concordia University for more than 20 years, founded the Concordia HIV/AIDS lecture series, and authored and edited nearly a dozen tomes on homoeroticism and sexual representation in film and photography, including The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas, and The Fruit Machine: Twenty Years of Writings on Queer Cinema.

When Waugh laid me down on a mortuary-style marble massage slab and laved scalding water over me to kick off our Naked Lunch interview, I soon realized that I was the “Lunch,” and that he may very well have been Viggo Mortensen.

Daniel Allen Cox: When did you first discover this place? (Tom pounds my back with his fists.) Oww! Yes, harder, please…

Tom Waugh:
I ignored it for many years because the outside is so unprepossessing, then I finally ventured in 15 years ago and fell in love with the slightly weird atmosphere. It reeks of authenticity and is a genuine physical experience. Bain Colonial is a social community space rather than a sex space, though it has a definite erotic charge. I’ll take my gay and straight friends here instead of going out for a drink.

You can say that this place has awakened my adolescence in me. When I was a teen going through puberty, the lockerroom was a place of terror and magic. The boys developing into men were so beautiful, and I was so pale and physically immature. The locker-room environment became a charged space for me, and Bain Colonial has brought that alive for me.

DAC: You dedicated a movie review you co-wrote with Joyce Rock for the April 1981 edition of Cinema Canada to the 286 men arrested in the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. Can you re-create the scene for us?

TW: I wasn’t there, but this historic raid on several gay bathhouses on the same night was intrusive and violent, a kind of Canadian Stonewall. It was shocking because Canadian queers were making gains in the cultural arena, and this showed us that we were absolutely powerless.

The article you mentioned was a review of a really bad CBC documentary called Sharing the Secret, one that used a cinema verité style to show the inner workings of a Toronto bathhouse. It was infuriating that a few months after it aired, cops were brutally smashing in the doors of that very bathhouse and others. In the protests that followed, agents provocateurs were very active. In fact, in the front-page photo of The Body Politic issue reporting on the event, you could see people who were later identified as plainclothes police officers leading a march, clearly hoping to cause confrontation.

DAC: In that same article, you mention that “the CBC cafeteria is cruisier than the Place Bonaventure toilets.” Maybe I should spend more time there. Care to elaborate?

TW: At the time, I had noticed that the CBC cafeteria was very gay. Place Bonaventure toilets were very active and the target of some very nasty police sweeps. I was on my high horse about how many privileged gay people working within cultural institutions seemed complicit with the embargo that these institutions placed on gay imagery while their brothers were getting arrested.

That makes me think about the title of your book of essays, The Fruit Machine. It’s a linguistic nod to the Canadian biometric device used in the ’50s and ’60s to weed out homosexuals from the civil service, the RCMP and the military. Is there a “fruit machine” in place today?

Today the fruit machines target mostly, and most blatantly, other sexual minorities, from “abusers” to prostitutes.

DAC: Your hands are magic. (Tom turns me over and lathers my front with soap, while onlookers mutter, undoubtedly planning my death.) How do we get one of those oak switches?

There’s an 85-year-old Russian man in the neighbourhood who makes and sells them. But we’ll just borrow one when nobody is looking and hope we don’t get caught.

DAC: In The Fruit Machine you write about an “atmosphere of permanent crisis.” Could you explain what this is? Are we still living in it?

I wrote many of the essays in that book in the late ’70s, when the gay community was living in a real crisis. There was the assassination of Harvey Milk, and there were campaigns in Florida and California to fire LGBT teachers. We were not immune to this in Canada. The Body Politic went on trial for obscenity multiple times, and it seemed that the state and the police were able to act with complete impunity.

As a film reviewer for BP, it seemed impossible not to get caught up. We had a mission as cultural critics to relate everything to social survival and progress. Then, just as we were easing out of this violence, we were in the midst of the AIDS crisis, with no end in sight. That continued this state of heightened vigilance.

With the same-sex marriage situation in Canada, we have been able to move beyond that. The arena of sexual politics is somewhat stabilized, but with all the eruptions about sex work, kiddie porn, sex offenders and intergenerational sex, we can’t forget that we’re living in a continued state of alert.

DAC: What was it like to write for The Body Politic?

It was a wonderful experience. Part of my political mandate as an academic in Canada was reaching a general audience, and the BP gave me that opportunity. At the same time, it was a real challenge for me to tone down scholarly language into a readable format. My editor Ed Jackson was constantly on my case about keeping articles short and punchy.

BP was really the cutting edge of queer scholarship. John D’Emilio, Jonathan Katz, Michael Lynch and Jane Rule were all part of this network, and so it was exciting to be part of that stable of writers.

DAC: (Tom steals a nearby bundle of oak twigs and flays me into heaven. Gently and sweetly, of course.) Ahhh… Working on any new projects we should know about?

Yes, the new Queer Film Classics from Arsenal Pulp Press, which will give co-editor Matthew Hays and me a framework to cover 21 of the most influential films by and about LGBTQ people, at the rate of three a year until 2015. We’ve just celebrated the first three books in the series, about the films Trash, Gods and Monsters and Law of Desire.

It’s not surprising that this series hasn’t happened yet. Thankfully, Arsenal Pulp Press is much more responsive than many of the academic presses and has given us the chance to keep a lot of these great works from as early as the 1950s in circulation.

With retirement on the horizon in the next five to seven years, this is also a way for me to give a boost to younger writers, the boost I never really had.