Tiptoe through the Tearoom on Tabloid TV 

Public homosexual activity, for decades a fact of gay life, became major news in recent weeks, though in this case the media became the message. 

Over 20 television stations, from Miami to San Diego, observed the May sweeps period by broadcasting sleazy stories about male sex in public parks and bathrooms. The stories tried to make their point by using video footage of sexual activity, which they took with strategically-placed, hidden cameras. 

The stations justified this invasion of privacy by alleging that their purpose was to fight illegal activity, and to save children from sexual predators.

Public sex, especially sex in public toilets or "tearooms", has always been controversial, even within the gay community. Virtually without exception, bathroom sex is male masturbatory or male homosexual in character, a vestige perhaps of the male's greater sex drive. 

It is not my intention, in writing this article, to condone tearoom sex. In fact, due to its health, safety and legal hazards, I do not recommend it.

There are many reasons why a man would want to have sex in a public rest-room. To some gay men or boys, tearoom sex is a step in the coming out process; a relatively easy way for them to discover the joys of male love before moving on to gay social networks, commercial institutions, or even a lover. 

Before I was ready to come out of the closet, over 25 years ago, I was an avid participant in bathroom sex, mostly on the campus of the junior college that I was attending at that time. To me tearoom trade was a social as well as a sexual experience, and I met a few interesting people, including a fellow student and a construction worker from a nearby job site. 

My life as a tearoom queen was of short duration, and I stopped cruising public toilets when I discovered the bars, the baths, and an active gay community. But bathroom sex, with all its faults, allowed me to become comfortable with myself, and my man-lovin' ways.

Gay men and boys who use tearooms as a way to come to terms with their homosexuality do so for the short-run. For other men, tearoom trade is their main or only form of sexual expression. Many of these are classic "closet cases": men who can not or will not accept their homosexuality. 

For them, a quickie in a toilet satisfies their sex needs but does not require them to be publicly "branded" as queer, which would be the case if they went to a gay bar, sex club, community center, etc. Toilet sex is also popular with men who live in rural areas or small towns, where there are no gay communities; men who live with their parents, heterosexual spouses, or children who might not understand; or heterosexual men who are just plain horny. 

Lastly, and this is most controversial, bathroom sex is popular with many "out and proud" gay men who enjoy the adventure, the thrill, and even the dangers involved. These men, and not the closet cases, are the ones who write the articles, guide books and web sites that tell their brothers - and the cops and the press - which parks and tearooms are cruisy.

What makes a public bathroom "hot", sex-wise? This I never figured out, though there are some criteria, mostly location, that makes a toilet a favored place for sex. College campuses are ideal places for tearooms, if only because colleges are full of testosterone-charged, horny dudes who still question their sexuality.

 Public parks are also popular - ask George Michael - as well as libraries and department stores. Once a place gets a "reputation", there is no telling what might happen. A case in point is the Home Depot on Oakland Park Boulevard in Broward County, which only opened a year ago and is already notorious for its bathroom activity. 

How did the Home Depot become so cruisy? Certainly the store's butch atmosphere attracts a certain type of gay man. Perhaps two guys hit it off at the paint section, went to do their business in the men's room, and told their friends. And the rest is gay history.

Male homosexuality activity, especially in public places, threatens a lot of people. Tabloid television takes advantage of public panics, especially the fear, held by many straight fathers, that their sons might turn queer. 

That is why media "exposes" of sex "crimes" tend to deal with male homosexuality, to the exclusion of heterosexuality or even lesbianism, and its effects on the health and welfare of underage boys. Thus, when a TV station did a story about pedophiles who lure kids through the Internet, it concentrated on little boys, not mentioning the fact that little girls are also in danger. 

By the same token, tabloid stories about public sex never mention all the heterosexual activity that goes on in public parks, drive-in theaters, and the like. 

Tabloid television justifies its lurid reports by alleging that bathroom sex threatens the well-being of "innocent" bystanders, especially little boys. Leaving aside the question of whether or not witnessing sexual activity is more traumatic than watching automobile accidents or Miami City Commission meetings, the fact remains that an unsuspecting youth or man is more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightning (or win the lottery) than run into sexual activity in a public john (unless he's looking for it). 

As any vice cop could tell you, catching men having sex in restrooms is difficult, which is why they have to resort to entrapment or other extralegal subterfuges. The fact that reporters had to use hidden cameras to catch their men just proves my point.

Representatives from TV stations deny that they were conducting a witch-hunt against gay and bisexual men. But a witch-hunt it is, and many of our brothers are paying the price for it. Thirty years ago, television stations used hidden cameras to catch men gathering in gay bars. 

Today, tabloid TV uses the same tactics to catch men having sex in public parks and toilets. Though venues change, the effects are the same, and men's lives and careers are ruined by this form of media bashing. 

According to Howard Kurtz, writing for the Washington Post, "Charlotte's WSOC-TV turned over its tapes to the local vice squad, which made nearly a dozen arrests. Miami's WPLG-TV offered its tape to city authorities, but they weren't interested." Perhaps the Miami Police Department had more serious criminals to deal with - like City Commissioners.

While not condoning tearoom trade, gay activists were quick to condemn the media's trip to the toilet. To Richard Goldstein, writing in the Village Voice, TV's sleazy attacks on restroom sex is entrapment, pure and simple: "They did the thing that caused the behavior, and then they filmed it. ... They're presenting it as a clear and present danger to children. By doing that, they deflect attention away from the question of sensationalism and intruding on privacy and present it as having an overriding social purpose." 

Both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association (NLGJA), hardly bastions of sexual radicalism, condemned tabloid television's attacks on gay men. GLAAD called the exposes "gay-baiting and sleazy journalism" while the NLGJA folks "deplore this kind of voyeuristic broadcast journalism".

Whatever you might think of tearoom sex, the fact remains that tabloid TV is guilty of aiding and abetting the current sex panic against gay men, and of taking advantage of the public's fear of male homosexuality gone rampant. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist groups must stand as one and condemn such tactics.

Jesse Monteagudo welcomes your comments. You may reach him via e-mail at: