ST Review: Homosexuality in the US (Sept 1)

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Sep 1, 2007
Of private lives and public restrooms
By David Ehrenstein

GENTLE reader, by now you would probably have read more than you ever
nightmared you would want to know about the latest Republican gay-sex

The revelation that Idaho senator Larry Craig was caught allegedly
trolling for sex in a Minnesota airport men's room in June comes on
the heels of Florida state representative Robert Allen's July restroom
arrest, making it reasonable to suspect that yet another GOP bathroom
bust may burst forth any time soon.

But barring further white-tiled tragedy, the all-too-obvious question
remains: 'What on earth is going on here?' The answer rests on what
can safely be described as bipartisan grounds.

To get there, think back to Oct 7, 1964 - when Walter Jenkins, one of
the most senior aides in then-president Lyndon B. Johnson's
administration, was arrested for soliciting sex in the men's room of a
Washington YMCA. Being that it was three weeks before the election, Mr
Johnson suspected some kind of Republican foul play, but the GOP chose
not to exploit the incident.

The Jenkins affair put 'homosexuality' on the front pages of the
United States media in a way it had not been since Dr Alfred Kinsey's
famous report in 1948.

Like Mr Craig, Jenkins could well have said he 'wasn't gay'. But who
was in 1964? Then as now, if you were rich and well-connected, you
could enjoy what is contemporarily referred to as a 'gay lifestyle'
with some ease - and a soupcon of caution.

But for those less well-off, danger lurked. Sodomy laws were on the
books. Bars and clubs catering to the same-sex-oriented were
'speakeasy' affairs often run by Mafiosi who bribed the police to stay
open. When the money did not arrive on time or was insufficient, such
clubs were raided.

On June 28, 1969, when the far-from-fashionable Stonewall Inn in New
York was raided, the patrons responded by fighting the cops. Although
gays and lesbians had resisted before, this Manhattan uprising served
to jump-start the modern phase of the gay rights movement.

That movement, with its defiant insistence on being free to be as gay
as all-get-out, quickly left the likes of Walter Jenkins and, if the
cops were right, Larry Craig in the dust. They are part of a
sub-culture within a sub-culture that was memorably identified by the
daring sociologist Laud Humphreys in a landmark sociological study
titled Tearoom Trade.

Taking his cue from Dr Kinsey, Mr Humphreys was fascinated with
married-with-children men who did not self-identify as gay or
bisexual, yet sought clandestine sex with other men on the side.

Mr Humphreys, when he began his research, was one of these
I'm-not-gay(s) himself, though he eventually came out.

Published in 1970, Tearoom Trade is full of useful information about
foot-tapping, shoe-touching, hand signalling and all the other rituals
those so inclined use to make contact with one another in such places.
Clearly no media outlet should be without a copy - especially, whose editors revealed their cluelessness on the subject
recently in a 'real-time conversation' rife with unintentional
hilarity: 'I can't believe it's a crime to tap your foot.' 'Can
someone explain the mechanics of how two people are supposed to commit
a sex act in a stall where legs are visible from the knee down?'

For the less blinkered among us, in the age of Ellen DeGeneres, Neil
Patrick Harris, Brokeback Mountain and the smooching gay teens on As
The World Turns, bathroom cruisers seem almost antique. Today's gays
want to get married, and an airport men's room is no place to propose.

Moreover, if what you are 'proposing' falls well short of marriage,
there is always the Internet. Larry Craig, meet Craigslist.

In short, never has the admonition 'Get a room!' seemed more apropos.
It is now up to the I'm-not-gay(s) to discover the real freedoms
fought for and won by the people they so fiercely claim they are not.

The writer is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998.

This commentary appeared in the Los Angeles Times.