In the 1992 film “Basic Instinct,” a pivotal scene occurs when Michael Douglas follows Sharon Stone’s character to a San Francisco dance-club; there, Douglas, playing a homicide detective who suspects Stone is responsible for a particularly grisly murder, finds the bi-sexual Stone in a men’s room stall being served by her lesbian lover and a “gay” man; before – as Douglas walked through the door, the camera quickly passes a myriad of bizarre sexual couplings – it’s a perverse court of half-dazed pleasure seekers: all centered around a cocaine-snorting Stone who sits enthroned upon a toilet; when she notices Douglas – she lets him look for a while, then dramatically, with her foot, slams the steel partition door in his face; tellingly, the whole spectacle resembles the jumbled mounds of naked bodies in Hieronymus Bosch’s luridly beautiful painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
When I saw “Basic Instinct” for the first time, I thought of it as a dazzling mix of glamour and sleaze; especially the restroom scene I found exceptionally memorable as years earlier I had been initiated into the semi-underground world of “gay” bathroom sex. It happened sort of effortlessly just a few days after my arrival in San Francisco’s “gay’ Castro District; I was at a local bar and a guy walked up to me and said: “Let’s go.” At first I thought we were going to his place, so – I got immediately confused when he proceeded to the back of the building towards the restrooms. The hallway leading to the bathroom door was dimly lit and crowded with intertwined couples and small semi-circles of men with their heads lowered and their hands vigorously moving up and down. I followed him, thinking he had to go to the toilet before we leave, I naively waited outside; a few seconds later he popped back out, looked at me strangely and said: “Come on!” The place was crowded, but he took me into an empty stall, shut the door and we had sex.
From that point on, I became a regular inside the various “gay” bathrooms throughout San Francisco; for a while, it was incredibly liberating as you no longer had to go through even the minuscule pretense of having a drink together and making some idiotic attempt at small-talk before leaving the bar together; instead, I could simply head for the men’s room and have anonymous sex. Yet, as I learned, there was more to it than just that: most importantly, in existence were a whole set of non-verbal cues which “gay” men used to signal their attraction (or lack thereof) to other men; oftentimes, this would casually take place as one approached the restroom and instantly evaluated the cadre of men waiting right outside the men’s room door; this was part of the excitement, having sex very quickly with someone you first met a second ago; also, there was the exhilaration of having sex in a public space: part of that was a swerve towards exhibitionism caused by the inevitable burn-out and boredom in “gay’ that bred a desire for ever more kinkier situations; yet, there was also a need to unashamedly exhibit our sexuality – presumably for the world to see. In a sense, it was a massive sort of coming-out, and a declaration of who we were – it was a stronger and more desperate version of purposefully bringing home the boyfriend, for the first time, so our parents were forcibly made to see us together.
Later, mostly through word-of-mouth, I discovered a whole series of “cruisy” bathrooms located all around the Bay Area; redubbed as tea-rooms, these public spaces were converted into “gay” theatrical stages. This was expertly explored in the film version, “Prick Up Your Ears,” of “gay” playwright John Odet’s life, when actor Gary Oldman, playing Odet, rushes into a seedy-looking railway lavatory, unscrews the lightbulbs, and proceeds to organize an impromptu orgy with the various men who trailed him. This appropriation, by “gay” sex chasers, of once seemingly benign male public spaces was perfectly expressed in the 1970s by the hit song “YMCA” from The Village People. There was and is no equivalent in lesbianism. For the most part, the tea-room concept had its roots in the more closeted and restrained past whereby “gay” men did not have their own places in which to meet; consequently, certain locations, frequented and inhabited strictly by straight men and women within the wider heterosexual world, usually after dark, sometimes became clandestine hot-spots for arranging “gay” sexual rendezvous.
Constantly interested in history, I will always remember a conversation I had with an elderly “gay” storyteller at a Castro piano-bar; we were talking, and I asked the man, then in his 70s, what it was like to be “gay” in 1950s San Francisco: half-nostalgically he reminisced about a network of “gay” men married to women who often met and had sex with each other behind their wives’ back; he told about a restaurant, owned by a member of this unorganized group, that at the restaurant’s bar, it became a secretive (although officially unofficially sanctioned) place to pick-up guys, and hence the beginning of the non-verbal cues. Then, in the 1970s, with the rise of bars and clubs catering exclusively to homosexuals, the enduring tea-room phenomena marked a rather reckless attempt by “gay” men to include themselves into the male heterosexual sphere that they felt always rejected them.
Oftentimes, these tea-rooms were located in such divergent settings as Macy’s or a particular restroom at the UC Berkeley library; I hit most of them and, as I discovered, this practice afforded a new kind of thrill – mixing in with the public anonymous sex the possibility of being caught by straight males; although arrests in liberal San Francisco for public sex were nonexistent, there was always the possibility of some danger as witnessed by the bad luck of such diverse characters ranging from pop-singer George Michael to Republican Congressman Larry Craig. By the end of the 1990s, as I was checking-out of “gay,” internet sites appeared that specifically listed and rated various cruisy bathrooms.
When I reached my late-20s, I looked older than I was and men no longer blankly invited me to the dance-club restrooms; therefore, I began to hang-out at the outdoor public lavatories located in the parks around San Francisco; most were squalid and frequented by drug addicts and mentally deranged transients; a number of them maintained a reputation for a quick and easy release-and-go. Almost immediately, I noticed the dramatic decline in quality of clientele here as opposed to the bars and discos; for the most part, they were older, heavier, and far less attractive bordering on the grotesque; for many rejected “gay” men – this was there last pathetic stop. Over the span of about 2 years, I met and befriended several transvestite men (now given the more prestigious label of transgendered) who haunted these dark and smelly pits; some were prostitutes, many were “gay” men who had a particular penchant for straight men or at least “straight-acting” homosexuals. One man that I always felt sorry for – would wait, night after night, for the stray blue-collar guy who inevitably showed up, sometimes one after another, looking for a free blow-job from someone who, at least passingly, in the near pitch-black restroom, looked like a girl.
The scary underside of this whole tragic venture were the often shadowy figures who were inexplicably drawn to these places; most of the time they were the trolls whom even the so-called all-accepting “gay” community had disregarded; some, were of an indeterminate orientation or classification; others, as I learned later, were incredibly frightening straight men who liked to watch and masturbate from the side-lines; sporadically I would come into contact with them; what made them unnerving was their often cold and emotionless stare, I will never forget when I was preoccupied with my partner in a bathroom stall – several of these guys pushed their faces against the gaps in the partitions – all I could see were their barely lit eye sockets; the guy I was with yelled at them and pounded against the metal walls – they wouldn’t leave.
With some major retailers and public institutions purposefully promoting non-gender specific bathrooms, the actual probability of assault upon a woman by a transvestite man, or an actual male to female transsexual, is probably low, but certainly not impossible; as a corollary, for years, the relatively few transmen or female to male transsexuals (who normally can barely afford the top-only surgery) have gone in and out of the men’s room unnoticed; yet, the difference is – that the male public bathroom has already been sexualized; the same cannot be said for the ladies room. Therefore, on a clearly subconscious level, the current political and social pressures are actually an effort to radically take what was ordinarily considered a public but private space into a sex and gender forum; the near sacrosanct status of the women’s restroom is somewhat preserved in such divergent sources as the song “Meeting in the Ladies Room” by all-girl 80s R&B band Klymaxx to the catty encounter by Celeste Holm and Anne Baxter in the powder-room from “All About Live;” this reveals a complex interaction of women that is contrasted by the fact that men do not accompany each other to the restroom nor rarely talk while taking care of business.
When I am among my male friends who are married with children, I have noticed the pronounced ritual of the boy following dad to the boy’s room and the girls going with mom, in a sense, this moment is an early rite of passage that marks a distinct and irrevocable separation of the sexes. By many, the recent confusion is seen as an intrusion by men and or a somewhat sinister attempt to blur-the-lines not simply between masculinity and femininity, but between male and female; rightly, women are concerned, for the hyper type of sexualization of the restroom, that took place in the men’s room over 40 years ago, invariably creates a space in which social and cultural regulations, which are ordinarily unwritten but collectively understood, begin to quickly break down and, as I saw in the lavatories of San Francisco, a dangerous and unpredictable element, represented by the incredibly creepy male voyeur, is carelessly invited inside.