True public space enables complex, messy, erotic inter-class contact
It’s impossible to imagine gays – our cultures, habits, presence – without cities, without urban spaces. The sparse freedoms of urbanisation, starting, in Europe, in the early modern period, created a crack in society large and dark enough for men who prefer men to meet, socialise, mix and grow something in. What we grew was an identity; not just a sexual identity, but a collective identity, and a cultural one.
Likewise, it’s almost as hard to imagine cities without gays, although many people have tried. I remember as a young teen visiting London from a quiet and pretty rural county, and realising that something was different here, something anxiety-inducing and thrilling, in the presence of bars which hung flags from their windows. A few years later I came to realise that these bars were a key part of a social and sexual infrastructure for gay men. Later still, I visited them, and then I took them for granted. I’m only just realising that there’s nothing about gay bars that isn’t entirely contingent, transitory, vulnerable. Perhaps the last few decades of the 20th century will be looked on as a brief social peace, when such places could operate openly, profitably and provide a home for a few snatched moments of joy. A peace, of course, straddling a cataclysm.
‘I’m only just realising that there’s nothing about gay bars that isn’t entirely contingent, transitory, vulnerable’
The bars and saunas have always been commercial ventures, and lucrative ones at that. Prior to decriminalisation in the United States, they were frequently run by organised crime, and profitable enough to be worth the kickbacks to law enforcement. The Continental Baths, a vast subterranean bathhouse opened beneath the Ansonia Hotel in New York City in the late 1960s, was an early honourable exception of being one of the first run for gay men by gay men. Even then, Malcolm Ingram’s documentary on the baths strongly hints that funding for the premise, which quickly became a cultural lodestone for the city, wasn’t all above board.
The premiums paid by customers remain, and so now they’re often prohibitively expensive for many LGBT people, who are priced out. This remains a contentious issue, but highlights an important truth about them: for generations, private gay bars have been de facto public space for gay men. Their gayness is often strictly policed, and by punters rather than landlords. The exclusion of otherwise hegemonic heterosexuality is somewhat the point, but while some work hard to be welcoming and vibrant community hubs for queer people, others display worryingly restrictive cultures, excluding people of colour, queer women, trans people, or any gay subculture deemed unworthy, inappropriate, or, godforbid, unsexy.
‘The intrusion of the police and judiciary into sex lives became a powerful tool not just of legal policing, but of social and class policing too’
These significant problems notwithstanding, these curate’s eggs help demonstrate that gay men, through choice, necessity and oppression, have created a different relationship towards a simple public/private dichotomy within our understanding of urban space. There’s a reason they call us queers, after all. In his excellent history of London’s queer life in the early 20th-century Queer London, Matt Houlbrook draws attention to this: ‘Residential space was only legally private if it was domestic space. When domesticity was defined to exclude queer men, the privileges of privacy – the freedom from official surveillance – were nominally afforded only to those who conformed to bourgeois notions of family life’.
The intrusion of the police and judiciary into sex lives became a powerful tool not just of legal policing, but of social and class policing too. Private homes and chambers could, despite the potential for arrest, afford enough privacy for an independent sex life, while shared rooms, lodgings and tenements opened up rich pickings for blackmail and worse. The rich would buy not just sex, but the space for sex.
Faced with this, public space can become a form of private space: space to fuck unwatched by cops and neighbours. Literal space too – space to get lost in, space unlit by public lamps, space where you can see trouble coming and lose yourself in the undergrowth. Fear, flesh, the smell of mulching leaves and the sensation of wet knees; smoky breath and dew and secrecy: all these things are a heady erotic brew, like hot löyly, the heat that fills a sauna. The necessities for stolen moments of sex become the desire itself. Backlit by a summer storm, sheltered under the vaulted boughs of a rhododendron, the taste of iron on your hands from climbing the Victorian railings – these are not sexual sensations equivalent to running your toes along the soft cotton of a duvet.
‘True public space enables complex, messy, erotic inter-class contact’
The passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act might have enabled a legal safety in a limited bourgeois home life, but it takes longer to remove the learnt lessons and lived experiences of a shared culture. These public-private spaces are not only sexy in themselves, but the quality and nature of the contacts they enable are also different. In his double essay on the sexual culture of porno cinemas in Times Square, New York, novelist Samuel R Delany reflects on these relationships. True public space enables complex, messy, erotic inter-class contact: ‘… if every sexual encounter involves bringing someone back to your house, the general sexual activity in a city becomes anxiety-filled, class-bound, and choosy. This is precisely why public restrooms, peep shows, sex movies, bars with grope rooms, and parks with enough greenery are necessary for a relaxed and friendly sexual atmosphere in a democratic metropolis’.
The gentrification of Times Square by Mayor Rudi Giuliani in the mid-’90s was, Delany argues, not simply an exercise in economic regeneration, but an exercise in a class war that ‘perpetually works for the erosion of the social practices through which interclass communication takes place’. This process has gone hand in hand with the gentrification of gay identity. Now we’re just like you, which for many of us was never the aim.
For some people, including other gay men, the idea of public sex is not just personally risky, but socially dangerous and morally disgusting. So be it. For others, like Delany, the risk and reward of anonymous and unchecked interpersonal contact is the very essence of the city. It’s why we moved here in the first place, from those small towns and quiet and pretty counties where everybody knew their place and your business.
Top: a secluded area of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, known as the ‘Vale of Cashmere’, has been a popular cruising spot since the 1970s. Photograph by Thomas Roma, from ‘The Vale of Cashmere’ series, 2008-11. Courtesy Thomas Roma / Steven Kasher Gallery