28 August 2007

The Senator and the Bathroom Stall

Washington loves a scandal, even or perhaps especially a manufactured one. And although lucky enough to initially break on the day of even bigger news, Senator Larry Craig’s foibles and fumbles under a stall wall in a men's room at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in June, and his rather rapid descent and evacuation into Republican Siberia, is one juicy scandal. Glenn Greenwald over at Salon has a pretty good roundup of the right wing blogosphere’s back flips on Craig, who was outed last fall by a leftist gay blogger, primarily for supporting a conservative “family values” platform while engaging in anonymous sex with men in public places.

On some level, of course, this pantomime is what we have come to expect from our politicians and politicos. The doughy faces intoning a saccharine and implausible familial and sexual utopia, while in the realm of the personal they hone their practice of the seven deadly sins. Money, greed, image, distortion, and farce seemingly remain the guiding principles of the American political apparatus. And there is something awfully rewarding, schadenfraudic and almost with a sense of jouissance (pardon the pun) about seeing Senator Craig numbly deny the conditions of his arrest, which are contained in the dry, laconic description of the police report. Just this afternoon the New York Times reported the denial of his gayness at a robotic press conference without questions (“Senator Craig, are you a Sodomite?”). This is most likely true, as Senator Craig in fact does not have a gay social-cultural identity, certainly not with his luckless wife next to him. However, the sex he likes to participate in is gay, whatever that may mean at any given time it means male cock and male ass and a male mouth, however you slice it.

A perusal of the details of the police report will convince any gay man that, indeed, Senator Craig was looking for more than a dropped piece of paper in the men’s room of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. Yet, ultimately, I feel ambivalent about the conditions of his arrest, which amounted to being in a suspicious place, and performing suspicious acts, but in the end doing nothing untoward. There was no slow reveal of the senatorial member, no embarrassing close-up of the congressional money shot under an enameled stall wall. Senator Craig is guilty of several things— a) tapping his foot and bumping it against the foot of the undercover police officer under the stall wall, b) lingering outside of the stalls suspiciously, and c) reaching under the stall wall with his hand, waving it back and forth but establishing no physical contact with the police officer. So, this is where we are in 2007: you can be arrested for tapping your foot.

As I said before, only an imbecile would mistake Senator Craig’s actions for anything other than what he was arrested for, the inchoate desire to have sexual relations in a men’s loo with another man. This is a crime. Senator Craig was charged with Invasion of Privacy and Disorderly Conduct. In court, the first charge was dropped but the second sustained by his guilty plea, for which he paid a fine and was put on probation. However, what exactly was Senator Craig guilty of? My thinking on this matter has been guided by recent events in Cold City, where all summer local police forces have been conducting stings against men who “cruise” for sex in public places.

Lacking the star power of a United States Senator, however, many of these men have seen their lives destroyed by the process of entrapment and vengeful publicity that has characterised these sting operations. Many of these men have been forced to register permanently as sex offenders. Many have lost their jobs, through being charged with "sexual assault" for touching a fully clothed police officer on the thigh or buttock. And yes, many have had their pictures, addresses, and places of employment plastered on the front page of Cold City newspapers and on television. All of this reminds me a little too much, as someone who studies and analyses gay history, of the pre-Stonewall period, where to be gay or lesbian was to be constantly and consistently vulnerable to the rages of heterodominant society, including falling within active and brutal containment stategies of incarceration, arrest, institutionalisation in mental health facilities, and the public shaming and pariah status that drove many lesbians and gay men to suicide.

It is hard for many post-Stonewall LGBT people to defend public cruising, especially in front of straight people. In fact, many gay men actively disavow public sex, with responses along the lines of “Haven’t we moved beyond all that?” and “Men who do such things are either closeted or have real self-esteem problems.” Indeed, the local Cold City gay press and Cold State LGBT civil rights organisations have been largely silent on the parading of the new sex offenders on the front pages of our newspapers. Unlike the 1950s, when police entrapment and criminalisation of cruising was recognised by gay men and homophile organisations for what it was, the heartless enforcement of heterodomination, today LGBT people demur. We shuffle. We blush. We focus on the positive images that are designed to reassure and recruit straight allies: we are not deviant, we are just like you, and we have nothing in common with those icky butches/cruisers/drag queens/queers.

This is an immense and dangerous failure of LGBT political community. I am not here defending the “crime” of public cruising, although obviously I have my doubts as to who is really damaged here, for cruising as a gay art has a long history, and if practiced with some sense of discretion and care, offends no one and delights many. My beef with the latest series of entrapments in Cold City, as well as the Craig case in the airport stall, is the degree of punishment, not punishment itself. If public cruising is a behaviour we seek as a society to dissuade, is the best methodology to march in the footsteps of a legal and policing tradition that pathologises and publicly shames men who have sex with men, that blatantly and shamelessly loathes gay men (and by extension all LGBT people) as freaks, as “sick,” as sex criminals?

For instance, wouldn’t CCTV cameras, public signage, and police patrols with mild misdemeanor citation (violation of park hours, for instance) be a better, more progressive solution? Some cities have experimented successfully with less punitive measures to discourage public sex, or at the very least make it more subterranean. Sexuality is a complicated business, and there will always be men (and many women) who enjoy the thrill of public sex, the erotics of space that it represents, the desires it unleashes. Nothing, no punition, will ever eliminate it. And indeed, I suppose I can imagine how coming upon someone in the wood engaging in sex would disturb, although when it has happened to me (with aggressive straight couples, by the way, who have glared at me as if I had walked into their bedroom), I have discreetly averted my eyes and continued on. Chacun à son goût.

But does the punishment here match the crime? A destroyed life, a wrecked career, a permanent tag as sex offender? No, these are not just consequences. This is heterodomination at its worst: a self-justifying tautology that consigns LGBT sexuality to the pathological and then reinforces that conclusion through its own mechanisms. Public sex is only the most extreme instance in this regard. If one thinks critically about how heteronormativity warps our daily lives, the extension of socio-pathology from "illegal" public sex to kissing, holding hands, or even walking together is only the shortest logical step. Any LGBT person can relate their experiences of containment and self-control, of not feeling safe in public space doing something that straight people unconsciously take for granted everyday: the demonstration of their affection, sexual and otherwise.

Mr. Gordo and I have experienced two significant instances of public gay bashing together: one was on the New York subway, where a deranged homeless man singled us out and unleashed a barrage of homophobic taunts and physical threats, for the simple fact of sitting together. The other was just last month, where walking home from a restaurant in Yarmouthport one night, Mr. Gordo put his arm around my shoulders on a dark country road and, illuminated by headlights, a passing truck yelled out the familiar epithets. If such mild mannered demonstrations of affection can trigger heterosexual panic and the ever-present potential for violent enforcement (The Fear: Would the assholes in the truck come back with leaded pipes?), then it is no surprise that public sex, the overt and raucous visible demonstration of gay sexuality, is such an incredible threat, even as we live in a society increasingly dominated by pornographic and proto-pornographic images of heterosexuality.

To not see and attempt to understand how the policing and pathologizing of public sex is connected to larger discourses of heterodomination is an anti-historical failure of imagination in LGBT America, which tends to be so busy attempting to establish the very basis of our shared humanity through charitable acts worthy of Mother Teresa that it has little time to engage in the more complicated debates and conversations occurring within our communities over things like gay marriage, public sex, child rearing, as well as a host of other topics. A point of controversy in my summer course was our final discussion on transgender sexuality, where at the end of class one of my lesbian activist students approached me and mildly upbraided me for discussing some aspects of trans culture “in front of straight people” (the straight students in the class).

Such sentiments, reflective of discourses present in LGBT civil rights organisations and invested in rather simplistic concepts of positive representation, strike me as strategic yet shortsighted. Being nice rarely guarantees you anything, ultimately. And shopping and exquisite taste will not prevent you from being charged with disorderly conduct, even if you aren’t actively cruising, but rather just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The cases of men arrested for “looking gay” in a cruising location (and therefore presumptive of guilt: to be gay is to criminal) are numerous. It's called entrapment for a reason. Ultimately, there is no singular answer to the phenomenon of public sex and its place in gay sex culture. But marginalising the issue as not pertinent to LGBT socio-sexual identity and legal discourse is far too easy of an out.

As for the lecherous Senator Craig, no legislative friend of LGBT people, well, that pious hypocrite is on his own.


Sisyphus said...

A brilliant article --- I was going to ask if there was some way it could be posted in a larger venue, but oddly this is both more public and less public than a local newspaper. Plus there's the whole question of a named byline. In any case, this makes me reconsider things.

Vila H. said...

Damn straight! (Well, so to speak...) What' so wrong with public sex anyway? Good grief, it's practically a national pasttime in the UK.

Nels said...

I wish I could tell you about a friend of mine who fought the police on a charge like this and not only won but changed the way police can handle such arrests in that state because the judge dismissed the case with some very specific reasons that now count as precedent, but I do want to protect his privacy (what's left of it). It was a joy to be his friend and read the case and see what happened when someone was able to stand up to the system as so many can't.

Paris said...

Ah, finally a more articulate version of my response to the embattled senator, which was something along the lines of: but but but hypocrisy is not the key issue here!

This story struck a chord with me as someone for whom public toilets raise a doubly-whammy of pissing politics. My work day currently hinges around a coffee shop that has a single occupant loo so that at least once a day I don't have to fucking think about it.

adjunct whore said...

a brilliant response. what you highlight that has been buried is that the senator *did* nothing. it seems he expressed desire to do something but how is this any different than bar culture, or gym culture, or sitting on a certain bench in a certain park reading a jane austen novel? when and how does the mere expression of desire not only get pathologised but criminalized?

the senator is repugnant, as you point out, because of his hypocrisy. when oh when will there be adequate analysis of the numbers of neo-conservative "family values" fucks who lead double-lives?

i rant. thank you for this eloquent treatment--entrapment is terrifying for everyone. and public sex will not go away. too true.

Vikram Johri said...

I am not sure I agree with the beneficial effects of public sex on the gay psyche, but your argument is neatly developed. Bravo!