Why men like Larry Craig continue to court danger in public places.

A wartime lexicon.
Sept. 3 2007 12:24 PM

So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time

Why men like Larry Craig continue to court danger in public places.

I knew it was all over for Sen. Larry Craig when he appeared with his long-suffering wife to say that he wasn't gay. Such moments are now steppingstones on the way to apology, counseling, and rehab, and a case could be made for cutting out the spousal stage of the ritual altogether. Along with a string of votes to establish "don't ask, don't tell" and to prohibit homosexual marriage, Craig leaves as his political legacy the telling phrase "wide stance," which may or may not join "big tent" and "broad church" as an attempt to make the Republican Party seem more "inclusive" than it really is.

But there's actually a chance—a 38 percent chance, to be more precise—that the senator can cop a plea on the charge of hypocrisy. In his study of men who frequent public restrooms in search of sex, Laud Humphreys discovered that 54 percent were married and living with their wives, 38 percent did not consider themselves homosexual or bisexual, and only 14 percent identified themselves as openly gay. Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Personal Places, a doctoral thesis which was published in 1970, detailed exactly the pattern—of foot-tapping in code, hand-gestures, and other tactics—which has lately been garishly publicized at a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport men's room. The word tearoom seems to have become archaic, but in all other respects the fidelity to tradition is impressive.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

The men interviewed by Humphreys wanted what many men want: a sexual encounter that was quick and easy and didn't involve any wining and dining. Some of the heterosexuals among them had also evolved a tactic for dealing with the cognitive dissonance that was involved. They compensated for their conduct by adopting extreme conservative postures in public. Humphreys, a former Episcopalian priest, came up with the phrase "breastplate of righteousness" to describe this mixture of repression and denial. So, it is quite thinkable that when Sen. Craig claims not to be gay, he is telling what he honestly believes to be the truth.

However, this still leaves a slight mystery. In the 1960s, homosexuality was illegal in general, and gay men were forced to cruise in places where (if I can phrase it like this) every man and boy in the world has to come sometime. Today, anyone wanting a swift male caress can book it online or go to a discreet resort. Yet people still persist in haunting the tearoom, where they risk arrest not for their sexuality but for "disorderly conduct." Why should this be?

In my youth, I was a friend of a man named Tom Driberg, a British politician who set the bar very high in these matters. In his memoir, Ruling Passions, he described his "chronic, lifelong, love-hate relationship with lavatories." He could talk by the hour about the variety and marvel of these "public conveniences," as Victorian euphemism had dubbed them. In Britain, they were called "cottages" in gay argot, instead of "tearooms," and an experienced "cottager" knew all the ins and outs, if you will pardon the expression. There was the commodious underground loo in Leicester Square that specialized in those whose passion was for members of the armed forces. There was the one at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, much favored by aesthetes, where on the very foot of the partition, above the 6-inch space, someone had scribbled "beware of limbo dancers." (The graffiti in cottages was all part of the fun: On the toilet wall at Paddington Station was written: "I am 9 inches long and two inches thick. Interested?" Underneath, in different handwriting: "Fascinated, dear, but how big is your dick?") On Clapham Common, the men's toilet had acquired such a lavish reputation for the variety of lurid actions performed within its precincts that, as I once heard it said: "If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it's like a breath of fresh air."

Perhaps I digress. What Driberg told me was this. The thrills were twofold. First came the exhilaration of danger: the permanent risk of being caught and exposed. Second was the sense of superiority that a double life could give. What bliss it was to enter the House of Commons, bow to the speaker, and take your seat amid the trappings of lawmaking, having five minutes earlier fellated a guardsman (and on one unforgettable occasion, a policeman) in the crapper in St. James' Park. Assuming the story about the men's room in Union Station to be true, Sen. Craig could have gone straight from that encounter to the Senate floor in about the same amount of time.

Driberg was a public campaigner for gay rights and carried on as such even after being elevated to the House of Lords (where I am pretty sure he told me there was more going on in the lavatory than most people would guess). But it was with a distinct hint of melancholy that he voted for the successful repeal of the laws criminalizing homosexuality. "I rather miss the old days," he would say, wistfully. Well, the law legalized homosexual behavior only "in private," so he could (and did) continue to court danger in public places. The House of Lords actually debated the question of whether a stall in a public lavatory constituted "privacy," the reason being that in Britain you have to put money in a slot in order to enter such a place, and this could be held to constitute rent. Private Eye printed a poem about the learned exchange on this between two elderly peers of the realm: "Said Lord Arran to Lord Dilhorne, a penny/ should entitle me to any/ thing I may choose privately to do. Except you."

Thus, without overthinking it or attempting too much by way of amateur psychiatry, I think it's safe to assume that many tearoom traders have a need, which they only imperfectly understand, to get caught. And this may be truest of all of those who are armored with "the breastplate of righteousness." Next time you hear some particularly moralizing speech, set your watch. You won't have to wait long before the man who made it is found, crouched awkwardly yet ecstatically while the cistern drips and the roar of the flush maddens him like wine.