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Tearoom Trade Senator

Larry Craig on the Seat

by GARY LEUPP

The Jeff Gannon Affair drew our attention to the fact that a male prostitute with minimal journalistic credentials can spend many hours in the White House on days when there were no press briefings, with the Secret Service log of his comings and goings mysteriously incomplete. The Mark Foley Affair alerted us to the phenomenon of conservative Republican lawmakers’ passion for teenage pageboys. The Ted Haggard Scandal showed us that conservative Republican preachers who sermonize against gay rights can smolder with lust for man-to-man action. The arrest of Republican Florida State Rep. Bob Allen at a park in Central Florida, showed us that the coauthor of a recent public lewdness bill can lewdly solicit sex from an undercover male cop. And now, the Larry Craig Scandal draws our attention to the phenomenon of conservative Republican lawmakers firmly opposed to gay rights getting off on impersonal anonymous homo-sex in men’s room toilet stalls.

It looks like two more conservative "family values" Republican senators may be "outed" soon. Mike Rogers, the same blogger who originally fingered Craig, claims that South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham is gay. Howie Klein meanwhile claims that, "Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s quick expulsion from the Army—for fondling a private’s privates—is finally being discussed in Kentucky." He notes that McConnell, discharged after just 10 days in the Army in 1967, "has consistently prevented anyone from seeing his military discharge papers" but a Freedom of Information suit may bring them to light. (After the revelation of Craig’s arrest and confession, McConnell cosigned a statement with other top Republican legislators stating, "This is a serious matter" and indicating he is examining "other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required.")

Schadenfreude aside, I almost feel badly for the rank and file homophobic Christian rightists who have to read about these scandalous goings-on. Perusing some blogs I encounter a couple of their confused, angry reactions:

(1) it’s the Log Cabin Republicans’ fault,

(2) the Democrats are to blame for promoting the idea that such behavior is "normal." (I haven’t found anyone accusing the cop of a politically-motivated set-up.)

The widespread occurrence of such depravity in their own ranks must produce some frustration among the ultras. These men they trust as sincere homophobes, taking their cue from Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27, turn out to be such hypocrites. Of course if the sinner repents, and seeks treatment for his sickness, the Christian can forgive. But this cascade of scandals has got to produce some doubts about the whole antigay campaign central to the religious right’s political program. The rigid un-nuanced minds of these people crave authority figures, and when the latter so suddenly and deeply disappoint, there has to be some wavering of faith. But that’s a good thing.

Forgive my failure to express moral outrage about these scandals. I am among other things an historian of sexuality and attempt to address sexual issues dispassionately. I’m not going to dwell on the Idaho senator’s two-facedness—everybody else is doing that anyway—or rejoice in his embarrassing situation, which if he weren’t such a fraud would strike me as rather tragic. After all, he was just a guy in an airport restroom, signaling the guy in the next stall that he had some urgent needs which a consenting partner might be able to satisfy. For his trouble he got busted by a cop, apparently well versed in gay subculture protocols, sitting there on a toilet with his pants up for God knows how long (and compensated by how many taxpayer dollars) for the express purpose of arresting men for tapping their feet, and intruding those feet or their hands into the neighboring space expecting a positive response. Sgt. Dave Karsnia was there to crack down on this sort of behavior on the grounds that it infringed the typical toilet-user’s privacy. That strikes me as reasonable enough, although I’d think a simple, "get your foot out of my stall, dude," would have immediately aborted the overture.

I wonder how many of these police missions are triggered by complaints by men never threatened or meaningfully harassed during their stall-time but merely disgusted by the realization that there are men in this world so sick as to play footsie on the toilet, soliciting gay sex, and inclined to visit the wrath of God on their degenerate selves by doing so. I don’t mean to minimize the sense of privacy invasion felt by those experiencing unwanted stall intrusions, but I can see homophobia as a factor fueling appeals for police action.

The point of the police action in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last June, which resulted in Craig’s arrest, was to discourage men with Craig’s particular fetish by arresting a bunch of them. Every so often police departments, responding to complaints from public restroom patrons, undertake these clean-up missions. One Canadian study (published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice) indicates that in one day in one restroom around 1990, police charged 17 men. The owner of a facility in another case requested police action, and in one day 30 men were warned. These figures suggest that that the facilities that had come to serve as reliable centers for sexual contact and were visited largely for that purpose. This appears to be a widespread phenomenon.

Yes, I confess I’ve done some research on this issue over the last 36 hours. As an historian of sexuality, among other things, I tend to approach these issues in a dispassionate, academic fashion. So I checked out Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, written under the direction of Harvard sociologist Lee Rainwater, published in 1970 and recipient of the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. "Tearoom trade" refers to homosexual activity (almost always oral) in public men’s rooms, and Humphreys examines it in clinical detail. His most interesting finding was that over half of the men involved in this activity were married (to women) and carefully separated their private and social selves, donning "the breastplate of righteousness" in public as conservative "moral crusaders" (p. 131f). They expressed no anti-police sentiment, but encouraged more vice squad activity, suggesting that "deviant behavior may be plagued by a sort of moral arms race, in which the deviant is caught in the cycle of establishing new strategic defenses to protect himself from the fallout of his own defensive weapons. It is not necessary to adapt a psychoanalytic viewpoint in order to discern the self-hatred behind such a punishment process" (p. 141). This is not to say that their private, men’s room self is at war with their social, official self; it can be flushed away and forgotten as they leave their stalls. But the latter self that takes over at that point wants to appear cleaner than the norm and to sneer with particular distain at all moral defilement.

One thinks of Mark Foley coauthoring legislation criminalizing the sharing of obscenity over the internet with minors. Or Bob Allen authoring a statute against public lewdness. There’s a specific pathology here. Craig’s record on gay rights has been among the most conservative in the Senate. In 2005 the American Conservative Union gave his voting record a score of 96 out of 100. Outwardly a pious Methodist, a member of the board of directors of the National Rifle Association since 1983, he’s the picture of far-right respectability. But there sits, on the tearoom toilet seat, tapping his foot as he solicits gay sex. It’s just too amusing. But also sort of sad.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu