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Tearooms & Sympathy: Larry Craig, Cont’d.

There’s one aspect of the Larry Craig Scandal that’s been in the back of my mind ot write about since the story broke yesterday, and yoshi touched on it in a comment on the previous post.

I am fascinated by the cultural differences between generations. There is this whole culture of sneaking around bathrooms and parks and secret hand signals that I never was exposed too (and quite frankly don’t want to experience). I don’t know one person my age (35) or younger that does this.

Whether anyone under 35 does it or not, and arguably some do, what Senator Craig allegedly got caught doing (though I’m not sure I need to add the “allegedly” qualifier, since he pleaded guilty earlier this month, and didn’t have his fingers crossed as far as I know) isn’t anything new. It’s called “tearoom trade“, and it’s as old as the public restroom itself, and entire histories have been written about it.

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For over 100 years, police surveillance and sting operations have targeted public toilets – or “tearooms” – frequented by gay men in search of sex.

Restroom facilities were probably first used for sex in the days before indoor plumbing. In crowded urban areas, where families and neighbors lived in close quarters and privacy was nonexistent, sex could take place unobserved in outhouses.

By the late 19th century, many cities were overcrowded and had poor sanitation. For public health purposes, public restrooms were built in parks and near transportation facilities. Called “comfort stations,” these restrooms dotted the landscape in cities from New York to Seattle. However, some men quickly began to use them for a different kind of comfort.

… Though it’s unclear when and where it originated, the slang term “tearoom” (that is, “t-room,” which was short for “toilet-room”) enabled men to discuss their public sexual encounters with each other in a coded way. Heterosexuals understood tearooms very differently, as genteel cafes where people enjoyed afternoon tea and pastries.

One historian notes that, ironically, the use of public facilities for homosexual encounters gave men a measure of privacy. Sex in city parks was risky because it was out in the open. For many poor and working-class men, then, public restrooms doubled as private sexual space.

But tearooms were also frequented by other classes. The washrooms of New York’s subway system were “(the) meeting place for everyone,” as one man put it. A businessman on his way home to his wife and children in one of the outer boroughs could engage in quick sex at the end of the workday but still not identify as gay. With the growth of suburbs after World War II, tearoom activity shifted away from urban centers to rest stops on the highways that surrounded cities.

If I were to add anything to the above, I’d also say that the evolution of “tearoom trade” probably also stemmed from the reality that in the pre-Stonewall era there were few places for men who were interested in other men sexually to meet each other, and almost no safe places that weren’t subject to police raids, etc. And even the existence of gay bars in some locales wouldn’t have served the needs men who sought sex with other men bud did not identify as gay, because walking through the door of an establishment known for “catering to homosexuals” required a degree of identification that some couldn’t manage.

And it still does. In the realm of HIV prevention and education, it was necessary to create the “MSM” designation for “men who have sex with men” but do not identify as gay, in order to reach that population with effective prevention education and services. As I noted in an earlier post, there’s a percentage of men who identify as “straight” but have sex with other men. About 10%, and 70% of them are married.

How anyone can look at stories like Larry Craig’s and research like that above an not ask themselves what’s going on there is a mystery to me. But the reality is that we live with the reality that (a) there are still places where same-sex oriented men have limited choices, and not just limited by the availability of meeting places but by the stigma that is still attached to being “out” about one’s orientation (whatever one chooses to call it); and (b) the reality that stories like this happen more often than we’d like to consider, just not with the same outcome. Glenden Brown makes this points at One Utah, and notes an earlier report of

… I’d actually like to come out with both barrels blasting and reduce Craig to a quivering mess, but I just can’t. I actually feel bad for him – sure he’s a self-loathing, hypocritical, conservative sell-out, but I feel bad for him. He’s actually pretty pathetic and pitiable.

A few years ago, while attending the Utah Gay Men’s Health Summit, I was surprised when one of the leaders of a workshop (and a local social worker) commented that half of his practice was court ordered – married men arrested for having sex with other men in public parks in and around the state. There are a lot of men in Utah on the downlow – married, and discretely or not having sex with men on the side; I suspect Larry Craig feels many of the same pressures these men, pressures he simply cannot manage to reconcile in a mature way. Salt Lake City is up to its eyeballs in Returned Missionaries who tell bathetic stories of falling in love with their missionary companions, of being told to “just get married” and the problem will go away. Salt Lake is up to its ears in men who are safely, securely married with a wife, a few kids, a house in the burbs, and a regular spot at the Fruit Loop Park* by the old Oxbow Jail where they have a bit of the sex under the bridge.

Some of these men defend themselves saying that two men can’t have sex together – sex only happens between men and women. Others are so in denial they actually believe that they’re doing it with other men because their wives won’t do some things. Many of these probably know their gay but are so trapped in a world where being gay is shameful, horrible and wrong that they cannot imagine a way to reconcile their identity with the world around them. For many closeted, married gay men, a bit on the side with the guys at the park is as close as they have ever come to a real, fulfilling sexual relationship and it’s impossible for me to look at that reality and not feel incredible pity.

And a bit of contempt. Maturity ultimately requires honesty – which at times hurts like hell and is scary as hell and sometimes has a price. But a hallmark of maturity is facing facts. I once read that a person doesn’t come out of the closet, a family does. I think a community comes out of the closet. I’ve been told, in all seriousness, that people in Utah don’t believe there are gay people in Utah (I’m sure the same goes for Idaho). Many conservative communities are unable to honestly admit that they have glbt citizens. Those citizens learn, quickly, the price of belonging is systematic and systemic dishonesty. People will, generally, politely choose not to know that men are having sex in the public park if the men are willing to let everyone continue in their bliss-less ignorance. Openly gay and lesbian people threaten the balance and force many people even deeper into denial and the closet. Anti-gay sermons and letters and pamphlets are intended to keep the queers quiet and keep the straight people in line. If every gay Returned Missionary inUtah were to walk out of Mormon churches, there’d be a lot of empty pews. But the threat of being cast out keeps them quiet. The message, “We are all you have every known and if you come out, we will kick you out and you will have nothing” keeps many individuals from coming out – they’d rather lie than lose everything. It’s not just the Mormons – small towns, conservative churches, even familieis, use this emotional blackmail.

Senator Craig on the downlow isn’t just some wicked, stupid man – he’s a man trapped between brutal choices with no easy way out.

Glenden also links to an Idaho Statesman article about past allegations concerning Sen. Craig.

In an interview on May 14, Craig told the Idaho Statesman he’d never engaged in sex with a man or solicited sex with a man. The Craig interview was the culmination of a Statesman investigation that began after a blogger accused Craig of homosexual sex in October. Over five months, the Statesman examined rumors about Craig dating to his college days and his 1982 pre-emptive denial that he had sex with underage congressional pages.

The most serious finding by the Statesman was the report by a professional man with close ties to Republican officials. The 40-year-old man reported having oral sex with Craig at Washington’s Union Station, probably in 2004. The Statesman also spoke with a man who said Craig made a sexual advance toward him at the University of Idaho in 1967 and a man who said Craig “cruised” him for sex in 1994 at the REI store in Boise. The Statesman also explored dozens of allegations that proved untrue, unclear or unverifiable.

And thus Sen. Craig responds to the Statesman article with statements he himself may honestly believe, even if the allegations about his behavior and intent in the bathroom are true.

Sen. Larry Craig said that he “overreacted and made a poor decision” in pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after his June arrest following an incident in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Tuesday, in his first public statement on the arrest, the Idaho Republican said he did nothing “inappropriate.”

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“Let me be clear: I am not gay and never have been,” said Craig, who has aligned himself with conservative groups who oppose gay rights.

With his wife by his side, Craig said he is the victim of a “witch hunt” conducted by the Idaho Statesman newspaper.

“In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman’s investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho,” he said. “Again, that overreaction was a mistake, and I apologize for my misjudgment.”

He added: “I should not have kept this arrest to myself, and should have told my family and friends about it. I wasn’t eager to share this failure, but I should have done so anyway.”

They will never be verifiable unless there were witnesses to the alleged solicitations, activities, or Craig himself left Haggard-like phone messages or Foley-esque text messages and emails that could implicate him. And it’s my understanding the much of the negotiation in these situations is done without even speaking, but through symbols and codes like Sen. Craig’s alleged “toe tapping.” Participants may go through the whole process, complete their activities, and depart without exchanging so much as a “hello”; a throwback to a time when secrecy was a requirement for survival.

Besides, we’ve gone to war based on evidence no more credible or verifiable than this. And may do so yet again.

I’m reminded of an advisor I had in college. He was a retire professor, but his emeritus status enabled him to maintain an office in the department and even in retirement he worked part-time as an advisor. It wasn’t until later, after he was no longer my advisor, that I heard the rumor that he’d been arrested at least once in a police sweep of a park that was a well-known “cruising area” for men seeking sex with men, and that his wife got called to pick him up from the police station. It was over 20 years ago that I heard that rumor, and his alleged arrest had happened several decades before that.

I couldn’t help but wonder what he and his wife might have self at that time, caught between the realities of his presumed attraction to men, the consequences of of acting on that attraction, and the consequences of suppressing it. Years later, the reality of that story — lived by many people in that era, whether the rumors about my advisor were true — came home to me when my fellow co-director of the LGBT student group and I successfully lobbied the University Council to pass a non-discrimination policy on sexual orientation concerning work and/or study at the university. We were invited to be part of the faculty committee that would hammer out the actual policy. And during the course of those meetings I learned that my former advisor’s wife was on that committee.

The consequences were pretty stiff. In some locales, an arrest under those circumstances meant having your name published in the paper, and the result was often lost jobs, lost families, and ruined lives. Even if there was no public humiliation, there was always the threat of a call to an employer to set the same wheels in motion.

The consequences could be even worse than that. A while back I posted about some of those consequences when Warren posted about what came to be known as “the purge” in Greensboro, NC.

On Feb. 4, 1957, a Guilford County grand jury emerged from its closed session and issued a bundle of indictments of a scope unlike any before or since — against 32 men accused of being homosexual.

After witnesses named the men during police interrogations, the suspects were tried one by one in a Greensboro courtroom for crimes against nature, almost exclusively with consenting adults.

The now-obscure episode, which some longtime residents came to call “the purge,” was the largest attempted roundup of homosexuals in Greensboro history and marked one of the most intense gay scares of the 1950s.

Unlike sweeps of subsequent decades, involving raids on public parks and gay bars, Greensboro’s 1957 trials focused on private acts behind closed doors.

The purpose, in the words of the police chief, was to “remove these individuals from society who would prey upon our youth,” and to protect the town from what a presiding judge called “a menace.”

Some 32 trials in the winter and spring of 1957 would end in guilty verdicts, 24 of them resulting in prison terms of five to 20 years, with some defendants assigned to highway chain gangs.

It reminded me of when I read Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s, about a similar round-up of gay men in 1950’s Iowa.

Doug Thorson and Duane Wheeler emerged from the rear of the automobile and were led through an inconspicuous side entrance into the main building of the Mount Pleasant State Mental Hospital.

The men had been traveling all day from Sioux City. They hadn’t eaten throughout the entire 10-hour journey, permitted to stop only to go to the bathroom. Doug and Duane carried no suitcases. They were dressed in the same clothes they had been wearing the day they had been arrested three weeks before, charged with conspiracy to commit a felony.

In Sioux City, Doug had been a management trainee at S.S. Kresge, the five-and-10 cent store downtown on 4th Street, and Duane had been a student at Marie Ellis’s School of Cosmetology. But that counted for little now. In the admissions area, on the first floor of the hospital, a doctor was asking them the standard series of questions that was asked of all incoming mental patients:

“Do you know what your name is?”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Do you know what the date is?”

“Do you hear voices?”

He spoke in a Slavic-sounding accent so thick that the young men could barely make out a word.

The doctor seemed satisfied with their answers and scribbled down the same diagnosis for both of them: “Sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality).”

… They were there because they were homosexuals, “sexual deviates” in the popular language of the time. They were among 20 men from Sioux City and the surrounding towns who had been rounded up and declared to be criminal sexual psychopaths and sentenced to the state mental hospital at Mount Pleasant for an indefinite period of time — until they were “cured.” They were there because in Sioux City, a little boy named Jimmy Bremmers and a little girl named Donna Sue Davis were dead: victims of two terrible sex crimes. These men had nothing to do with those crimes; the authorities never claimed they did. However, in Sioux City, indeed in the entire state of Iowa, the public was clamoring for action. Something had to be done. So Doug and Duane and the other men were arrested and put in a locked ward in a mental hospital far from Sioux City. They were scapegoats in a “sex crime panic.” …

That was in 1955, just two years before the Greensboro “purge,” and it was happening around the same time as another “purge” going on in Washington, DC, around the same time, chronicled in The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. This was all happening at a time when Larry Craig would have been about 10 when the Iowa story happened, and just 12 when the Greensboro purge happened. And while he may not have heard about them, every town probably had its own stories similar to these, never printed in the paper and most likely spoken of only in whispers. And even if those whispers stopped when a child enters the room, a child understands more than he or she is given credit for.

And Craig probably absorbed every sermon, every whispered story, and learned very well the lesson that, as Glendon said, “the price of belonging is dishonesty” and the price of not belonging or at least appearing to belong is pretty much a wrecked life.

But dishonesty has consequences too. External and internal. Im reminded of another story from the Southern Poverty Law Center report.

Beverly Sicherer found her 76-year-old father’s dead body in his Aventura, Fla., apartment on July 23. Soon enough, she made another discovery: Irving Sicherer, whose wife of nearly 40 years died in 1995, had kept his attraction to men a secret. And now it had apparently played a part in his brutal murder.

Police said Sicherer was bludgeoned to death by a man in his 20s who had come home with him from a gay club in nearby Sunny Isles Beach. The killer allegedly tortured Sicherer while ransacking his apartment, though he ultimately made off with nothing but the older man’s Lincoln Mark VIII.

At first, authorities suspected Adam Ezerski (see the story of Anthony Martilotto, above) of killing Sicherer because he was gay, but a bloody footprint in the apartment did not match Ezerski’s.

As the investigation continues into what police have classified as a “possible hate crime,” Sicherer’s daughter is left to mull over her discoveries.

Her father seemed the picture of a devoted husband, she says. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Irving Sicherer had spent his career in the food and beverage industry. For a year after his wife died in 1995, he kept her hairbrush, comb and slippers just as she had left them in their bedroom.

His daughter wonders if loneliness led him to seek out the company of young men.

“It upset me that my father had to hide that side of his whole life,” Beverly Sicherer told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “Maybe if he didn’t have to hide it we could have talked, and I could have told him to be careful.”

And internally, the consequences of the closet are just as destructive.

Here’s the thing. When you prefer or even require your homosexuals to be closeted and/or psychologically and spiritually tormented, you do not get to bitch when something like this happens, because you made it inevitable.

See, when you start moaning about why this was exposed now, as opposed to questioning why there was anything to expose in the first place, you’re digging down levels deeper than your usual baseline neurosis, which is the equivalent of if ignoring the fact that the elephant you’ve been pretending isn’t in the room has just crapped in the middle of it. And he’s crapped just what you’ve been shoveling all along. What doesn’t occur to you is that if Foley and Haggard had been able to be healthy, happy, honest homosexuals in your world (an impossibility because first you have to be willing to consider that one can be gay all those things as well) then Foley would still be in Congress and Mark Jones would still be an unknown former male prostitute from Colorado instead of the newest media whore from Colorado.

But back to what I said. You made this inevitable? How? Well, I’m reminded of a saying I heard in recovery circles years ago: We’re as sick as our secrets. I’d extend that by just adding that our secrets make us sick. Require someone to keep a secret, or construct some pretty serious disincentives to honesty, and … well … you make people sick.

Or as Keith put it:

If the Republicans were smart, they would get out of the business of serving as the nation’s morality police once and for all. The only reason why the Monica Lewinsky scandal didn’t kill Bill Clinton’s political career is because he never pretended to be a saint in the first place. But any kind of scandal with the Republicans is going to be magnified until the party learns to stop lecturing adults about what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Once society finally opens up and allows gays and lesbians the free expression to be themselves, then people like Craig won’t have to go trolling the public restrooms looking for a hookup.

It’s a question of what kind of world we want to live in, and whether we want to continue abstaining from reality, and in the process create more stories like Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, and the rest.

6 Comments

  1. Since you quoted me I’ll respond. I am familiar with the concept of the Tearooms and the destructive properties of being forced to be in the closet for long periods of time. I just have a hard time feeling sympathetic in most cases and its difficult to relate. I do feel some bit of sympathy for my older friends who still appear to be looking over their shoulder most of the time and are still unable to come out at work.

    The extra bit of history was interesting – thanks.

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  3. Now, now, we must be fair to Ted Haggard and Mark Foley. No matter how accepting the world may become of homosexuality, it will probably not stop men from going to prostitutes or from perving on young boys. Even if they were completely comfortable with gayness, Haggard and Foley would probably have had to keep some aspects of their behavior secret.

  4. Thank you very much for the informative post.

  5. They were there because in Sioux City, a little boy named Jimmy Bremmers and a little girl named Donna Sue Davis were dead: victims of two terrible sex crimes.

    Yet they didn’t round up heterosexuals en masse.

  6. I wish just one national journalist would bring widespread attention to the fact that lack of equality and expression for GLBT’s is almost always the cause of these “scandals”, mental anguish and suffering. I want to scream when I see stories like Craig’s with nobody around to explain it and put it into its proper perspective for society at large. Excellent post. Great job.

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