Queer: Again (Bathrooms)

On any given night, so the story goes, the bushes outside Carnivore function as gardens of earthly delight. My sister (who does not read this blog, for which I am quite grateful), has mentioned intimate encounters in close quarters. Euphemism for bathroom sex. I am indulging in the childish “you do it too” argument so beloved by those who believe the term “hypocrite” carries more weight than it does. I find it inadequate. And infantilizing. And moralistic. Not to mention, it denies complexity and often refuses to accept change: one is always judged by a history one may no longer embrace.

Larry Craig, a congressman from Idaho, was caught trying to solicit sex in an airport bathroom by an undercover cop. Much has been made over his status as a conservative republican and his well-publicized opposition to homosexuality. I will not belabor the point, merely point out that many happy racists are quite comfortable having sex with—or raping—groups they consider sub-human. The illogic of desire is such that it circumvents political posturing.

I am more interested in what we call the “discoursegenerated by the event—the ways in which various constituencies are positioning themselves and, indeed, understanding themselves. First, in a move that seems familiar from sexology, we have the “this is what gay men do” accounts that explain how “cottaging” really works. Blow by blow (pun intended) descriptions of how a typical encounter might occur, accompanied by some psychological speculations: it’s the thrill of the forbidden; it’s a sign of pathology; it’s related to the psychology of the closet. Take your pick. Explaining gay men to everyone else. Tedious.

Next, we have the tedious “good gay” and “bad gay” arguments. Good gays are largely proclaiming their opposition to “bathroom sex,” claiming that bathrooms are “dirty,” “nasty,” “uncomfortable,” “undignified,” worrying about what such actions “say about homosexuals.” Our “good name” is “sullied” when “irresponsible” thrill-chasers indulge in public displays of affection. (I have stored in my mind a long rant about the meaning of “public affection” across the sexuality line. What might “closeted” heterosexuality look like? Why might it be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine?)

Of course, part of what remains unspoken, though always implicit, is that all gay sex is “bathroom sex.” Space—the spaces of the body and the spaces bodies occupy—collapse in claims that “gays are okay; except they have public, bathroom sex.” Denouncements of the spaces in which “gays,” or my favorite new phrasing “the gays,” have sex cannot be absolutely separated from denouncements of “the gays.”

Part of what remains interesting for me are the ways we seem unable, at least in popular discussions, to think more imaginatively about sex and space. The ways, that is, space is the background in which sex might take place, but adds nothing to the encounter. Such that, given the option between a lavishly appointed apartment and a public bathroom, one would choose the apartment. We might think, instead, of how an encounter may start in one space and move to the other, a movement between and within spaces, that is.

It’s important to pay attention to the way politics and sex are coming together in this encounter, if only so we can register the ways hetero/homonormativity become complicit—we denounce hypocrisy even as we denounce deviant homosexuality. The gays learn, once again, that we are acceptable in our asexual, closeted (as private, if out) selves, but not in any way that disrupts the sanctity of normative space—even when that space is the bathroom.

6 thoughts on “Queer: Again (Bathrooms)

  1. I know you’re familiar with Samuel Delany’s opus, so I’d just point to three of his works, the novel The Man Man, with its Heideggerian exploration of movement and transition, from one class position to another as marked in and through urban space; the study Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; and his most recently novel, Dark Reflections, which includes several sections that evoke the vivid connections between sex, sexual practices, and space. Also, have you read the work of Elizabeth Grosz? She’s written quite a bit on this–Renee Gladman turned me onto her!

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. Times Square Red sits happily in my canon and on my syllabuses/syllabi. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to engage with rural spaces in the same way (non-US, preferably; I begin to approach some of this in my chapter on McKay’s Banana Bottom). The other two, on my list. It’s been some time since I read Liz Grosz. I remember loving her Space, Time, and Perversion (?) as an undergrad (has it really been that long?).To be fair, and you know this much better than I, a lot of fantastic stuff with queer space happens in fiction, much less so in popular discussions.

    Back to the dissertation, and to looking at jobs.

  3. impressive! I have no claim as to understanding space and its politics when it comes to sex, but I do have noticed the divide between good gays and bad gays and I wouldn’t be surprised that class, race and religion also create further tensions between them.
    “Closeted” heterosexuality would be only possible in a universally and generally homosexual world where everyone comes to life as homosexual and heterosexuals have to fight to be represented but some remain “closeted” in fear of punishment.
    This exchange of seats has never seemed to achieve much because it follows the erroneous argument that women as leaders are more peaceful than men and less likely to start a war, but history proves this argument false.
    I am indeed looking forward though to your piece on non US rural spaces. I am sure there’s a wealth of information to be enjoyed.

  4. I’ve been thinking of how difficult it feels to *return* to these posts–in the years since they were written I’ve lost the thread that connected me to them. Now, they are a kind of historical index, a trace, a stain, if you will, of where I once was. At one point the impossibility of “closeted heterosexuality” seemed to name a knot I could not begin to unravel; now, the knot feels just as unfamiliar, just as strange. And perhaps I’ve lost the courage or patience to try unraveling it.

    The broader urgencies still exist: a tedious opposition between good and bad gays; unimaginative ways of envisioning space and sexuality coupled with expressions of outrage–Kenya’s “park scandal” was about how class and ethnicity complicate what we think of as heterosexual relations (though, as Berlant and Warner remind us, heterosexuality is not the same thing as heteronormativity); and in NGO-Kenya, a fascinating brand of homonormativity rules, fissured across class and generational lines. To say this is to suggest the ideological violence of class-inflected homonormativity but not, I hope, to dismiss quotidian pleasures: the (extra)ordinariness of love and domesticity. Too often I have dismissed these quotidian pleasures, fighting against what Claude McKay described as “domestic death.” I’m not sure he was *right* though I understand his attitude toward certain domestic arrangements.

    Now, I wonder what it is to *return* to what one writes when its urgencies still feel urgent, but not as proximate.

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