Larry Craig is the latest politician to get caught with his pants down. So what is the eternal allure of sex in a stall, and does it make you gay?
When Idaho Sen. Larry Craig says, “I’m not gay,” I believe him. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t cruising for sex last June when he was arrested in a bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport on charges of disorderly conduct. Surely any homosexual worth his capri pants saw the loopholes in Craig’s televised declaration of non-gayness, amplified by the presence of his wife. Even some straight folks, wised up after the scandals of Ted Haggard and Mark Foley, must have noted that Craig did not add a qualifying phrase like, “Nor am I bisexual,” “I’ve never had sex with a man” or even one of those oldies but goodies like, “Doing what I did doesn’t make you gay,” “I was so drunk!” or “I’m only queer for some guys.”
As Haggard and Foley could perhaps have told Craig, bathroom stalls may be tight quarters, but the closet is big enough to fit plenty of religious, conservative Republicans. (In fact, they seem to be crowding everyone else out lately.) What no straight Republican man has the balls to explain — no matter how much Democratic gay sex he’s had — is the eternal appeal of cottaging.
“Cottaging” is the British term for soliciting sex in public bathrooms. In England, stall doors usually extend to the floor — like little cottages, how quaint! — providing maximum privacy for enterprising fellows. I’m calling it “cottaging” because the American expression “cruising” is far less specific: Cruising can take place anywhere (well, maybe not so wantonly on a construction site) and doesn’t even require reciprocation. The term also reminds me of the playwright Joe Orton, whose published diaries, made into the movie “Prick Up Your Ears,” contain many accounts of potty coitus, and his fellow Englishman George Michael, one of the few men outed and publicly shamed for soliciting sex in public bathrooms to make a music video satirizing the incident afterward.
It seems logical that closeted men — that included Michael before his arrest — would seek out anonymous, fleeting encounters, typically in the most transitory sorts of restrooms, at truck stops, airports and other areas of high pedestrian traffic. But this cultural phenomenon is not limited to closeted men or even Catholic priests. So why would openly gay and bisexual men who have access to more comfortable venues like their homes, and the option of attending events such as the Black Party, an annual public sex extravaganza disguised as a dance, indulge in restroom tricks?
Men are sluts. Gay men who have embraced their slut (not technically an “inner” one) may feel they have less at stake when participating in a bit of lavatory horseplay, but the transgression and fear of being caught add an extra thrill to the experience, as Michael has admitted. Some gay men are also turned on by servicing straight guys, perhaps especially while in service stations. And no one cares about your “orientation” in a lavatory — in there, it’s all business.
While I’ve never done it in a public bathroom (no, really!), I’ve been to lots of sex clubs and orgies, which I’ve always found cleaner and comfier. Video booths in porno shops could be a safe substitute for bathrooms, too, but if you’re caught in a porno shop, you can’t say you were just taking a leak. In all cases, though, the protocol is the same: A dude will grab you by the biscuits, and you can either let him continue or gently remove his hand. You may not blurt out, “Hey! Get your hands off me!” like a friend of mine once did in a back room, before he was snappily reminded of where he was. In clubs where men walk around in towels, suitors will gently tweak your nipple to gauge your interest, a greeting another friend dubbed “the Chelsea handshake.”
Most homosexual men spend our formative years in the closet, and once we come out, we tend to deny that closetedness has its pleasures — and damned juicy ones, truth be told. Having a secret, perhaps double, life gives you a sense of importance, of life as drama, a sense you’ll probably relish if you find yourself elected governor of New Jersey. Sex feels otherworldly, forbidden and scary, like you’ve gone so deep into the closet that you’ve arrived in Narnia. For this reason, some openly gay men end up seeking out closets within outness: the closets of sex and/or drug addiction, fetish scenes, knitting circles — it can get crazy.
But at first it’s not easy for queer goslings in the U.S. to find the gay world. (In a few other countries it’s much easier. I’ll never forget my astonishment at how many gay bars in Holland are outdoor cafes, one of which screams “Gay Life” in large letters across its facade; in middle America, gay bars are still in unmarked storefronts with tinted windows.) One of the first ways you learn to find other gay Americans is to listen closely when straight people denounce homosexuals. If a relative grumbles about “faggots doing it in the park,” you might think to ask, as innocently as possible, “Faggots? Really? I’ve never heard that. Which park? What are the cross streets?” After which you’ll go there in the dead of night and find some sense of community, however narrowly focused. If a senator in your state is involved in a scandal, you might search the Internet to find his hunting grounds, even if he’s not your type.
Newbies quickly learn that tapping your feet while sitting in a stall is a good way of letting other cruisers know you’re on the prowl. This may be what alerted the officer who nabbed Sen. Craig, and since foot tapping is such an ordinary activity, I suspect that once it becomes common knowledge, straight men will learn to keep their feet frozen stiff in the stalls. Or not.
But even these explanations for the enduring joy of cottaging seem overwrought, since what motivates a lot of men sexually is simply the prospect of easy prey with no room for intimacy. If there’s one thing for which straight men envy gay men, aside from that fashion-sense stereotype, it’s that we have institutions that promote no-strings sexual encounters, and that on nights when we haven’t gotten lucky by last call, we can stop off at a sex club, a bar with a back room, a park or a public bathroom to find like-minded guys, usually at no charge beyond admission. So if you’re a slut and all you want is a mouth on your dick, it might not matter to you whether that hole’s wearing lipstick, a goatee or both.
Imagining that closeted gay men are the only ones involved in bathroom sex is naive, since it assumes that homosexual acts are synonymous with homosexual identity, which is silly. One hardly needs to be reminded of the many hyper-masculine settings with a reputation for fostering homosexual behavior: prisons, armies, the high seas, the Village People, etc. (Historian B.R. Burg has argued that the 17th century buccaneers of the Caribbean engaged exclusively in homosexual behavior. Take that, Johnny Depp!)
There’s an age-old phenomenon known as “trade,” an exchange between two men, at least one of whom is ostensibly heterosexual, in which the recipient of a blow job or the active partner in anal sex can walk away from his hanky-panky with plausible deniability. In other words, he can console himself with the belief that he is “not gay,” because for some reason (misogyny, let’s say) a lot of men think that whoever gets penetrated is “the woman,” or more womanlike.
Which brings us back to Sen. Craig. Though the Idaho Statesman has cataloged a series of incidents that point to homosexual pickups dating back to 1967, he’s sticking to the straight story, unlike Ted Haggard, who admitted partial guilt, confessed completely and then claimed to have been “cured” after three weeks of so-called reparative therapy. So unless we can get a full, graphic report on who was planning to do what to whom in that airport bathroom stall, the senator is free to believe that he is not gay, and has never been gay. Until then, we’ll all be tapping our feet.
James Hannaham is a staff writer at Salon. More James Hannaham.
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