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The Bathroom is Loaded AF For Queer People

The bathroom is both the birthright and torment of queer people everywhere.

September 23, 2019

July Westhale
someone's in here
Kayla E

t was a place that used to have unlimited mimosas and a very long bathroom line — in other words, both a terrible idea and an invitation for queer hookups. It was a place, maybe one of the last in Oakland, where a body could get an $8 brunch with shit-your-pants strong coffee, chilaquiles, thick bacon, and beignets. And because of that, the line went around the block. And maybe because of that, it doesn’t exist anymore.

But for a while, I went there regularly. I was working a $9/hour ESL teaching job, going through a Very Bad Breakup, and, in my goal-oriented manner, making a point of dating widely and wildly. Cheap brunch fit all of those lifestyle parameters.

The best day to go was Sunday, but you really had to commit to both the day drinking and the wait. These are things that I just can’t hack anymore in my thirties. Back then, however — I’d just get bored, find a babe, go to the bathroom, hoist my skirt up.

It was one of those bandage things, and only really an idea of fabric. Nicole had one hand on my hips, pushing me into the bathroom mirror, where I could see us reflected in a reduction of our relationship: all of the sex with none of the processing, which was my pre-therapy preferred dynamic. Her other hand, to my absolute delight, was covering my mouth so I wouldn’t cry out. We were tipsy, but champagne tipsy, and everything was idea-thin: the bubbles at the backs of our throats, the conversation we’d solemnly had the night before about not fucking at brunch, and the idea that our friends just straight up wouldn’t notice that we weren’t hanging out next to them, eating our marvelous assortments of low-ball gourmet breakfast foods.

Nicole is an Aries and terrible for me, but she knew exactly how to fuck me in a bathroom and that’s all I cared about. In fact, that’s what I cared about for most of my frantic late-twenties: emotional connection was all well and good, but that bathroom sex tho.

I suppose I should be grateful for the moment a ham-fisted butch got sick of waiting and busted through the door to the stall, stopping Nicole and I both immediately in the middle of what we were doing, which was at that moment, a complicated position involving my foot on the soap dispenser — grateful, because without the secret voyeurism of the bathroom, I wouldn’t have been sleeping with this person who was such a terrible idea.

The dispenser was slowly dripping bubblegum pink soap onto the counter like an ’80s B horror film.

“You dirty dogs!” The butch screamed gleefully, which attracted the attention of the owner and got us eighty-sixed so quickly we barely had time to pull our clothes back on. The sun had been bright, too bright, like an interrogation room. When Nicole asked me if I’d like to go back to her house, I’d shrugged, mumbled something about feeding my cat, and walked home by myself. Being outside of the claustrophobia-inducing space of the bathroom made me feel too vulnerable. Too much like I’d get caught doing something, though I wasn’t quite sure what.

I am well within my right to find comfort in bathroom sex; it’s a birthright of queer people everywhere. Not only is there something thrilling about the exhibitionism, the dirty punk feel of filthy grout and dicks drawn in Sharpie, and the not-even-bothering-to-hide-two- sets-of-shoes, there’s also an honest to god lineage of homos hooking up in toilet stalls.

Think about queer sex workers turning tricks in bus station bathrooms (think The Basketball Diaries), or baby gays ducking out of events to, you know, support one another with solidarity and sweaty makeouts under the guise of, say, powdering their noses.

Ann Cvetkovich considers, in her behemoth and ground-breaking book “An Archive of Feelings”, the importance of public:private space for queers — the absolute necessity of building culture and subculture on the tenuous and shape-shifting foundations of things such as popular culture, public sex, and makeshift intimacy.

“Cvetkovich reveals how activism, performance, and literature give rise to public cultures that work through trauma and transform the conditions producing it. By looking closely at connections between sexuality, trauma, and the creation of lesbian public cultures, Cvetkovich makes those experiences that have been pushed to the peripheries of trauma culture the defining principles of a new construction of sexual trauma — one in which trauma catalyzes the creation of cultural archives and political communities.” — (Duke University Press).

This is applicable to the bathroom, among other makeshift spaces. The bathroom is the real epistemological space here — the closet serves no purpose except to keep us organized and hung up.

The bathroom is forbidden, it’s gross, it’s sexy, and it embodies a kind of public:private space that queer people learn to become accustomed to in order to survive.

The bathroom is an unauthorized copy — as Elizabeth Marston says of femme identity — of intimacy. From a young age, queer folks are taught that not only is their desire filthy, but it’s also secret. Like anything else you’d do in the bathroom.

The bathroom has been a loaded landscape for queer people forever, but because of the way it straddles the sticky, icky line of public:private it hasn’t made its way into mainstream media in a robust way, with the exception of aforementioned portrayals of sex workers (which may very well be true, but is reductionist in its portrayal, sweeping a complex history of survival sex work with queerness without actually doing the work to talk about both identities as separate entities worthy of nuanced discourse). Or it gets the purely-sanctioned queer media treatment, like The L Word.

Not, I repeat, not that there’s anything wrong with The L Word. Bette Porter in her Bette Porter pants still remains one of my top Google image searches.

Still, it’s exciting and difficult and daring and beautiful when queer bathroom sex comes to light in all of its complex ways; by ‘complex’ and ‘difficult’, I mean that the history is not without its trauma. While I don’t have actual stats, I’m willing to bet that straight folks don’t have as much sex in public bathrooms as queer people do, and that’s because context is important.

Without the ability to have intimacy normalized (in media, in legislation, in healthcare, in culture/socialization), then non-normative spaces have to exist, to be reclaimed — to be, definitively, queered. Consider the transformation of Times Square from a hub of porn theaters where queer folks would go to find one another into a Disney hellscape, as in Samuel Delaney’s book Times Square Red Times Square Blue:

“I wandered away. But ten minutes later, when I walked by again, I looked down over the rail to see him once more industriously at work. Some of the guys around him had gone. Some new ones had sat down to observe.

My own adventures kept me in the orchestra, so that an hour and a half later when, thinking of leaving, I wandered into the lobby, as I looked away from the ticket taker arguing on his stool with his two friends, up the stairway to the balcony along the lobby’s wall by the movie posters, in his orange T-shirt and khaki slacks, the same young man ambled lackadaisically down. When he was a third of the way, however, I saw — with some shock — his fly was open. His uncut penis, along with both testicles, hung free.

The sight of genitals when you don’t expect them — in a public space, say — astonishes. The heart pounds. The stomach clutches. This is what makes exposure a violation. But it is not the greatest astonishment in the world. And acclimation mitigates it.”

Furthermore, the areas for cruising are every bit as important to the concept of a public: private foundation: the use of public parks/river walks as cruising zones, the way very old gay bars look, from the outside, like garages (such as The White Horse, in North Oakland) and not like bars at all. Which is all to say, of course, that public bathrooms clearly do not hold monarchy over reclaimed spaces for queer intimacy, but rather any old slightly seedy, repellent-to-most locale will do.

However, the bathroom also has a history of being a solid gold cruising spot for queers. A few years ago, in 2017, there was an exhibition at Berlin’s Schwules Museum about gay toilet cruising featuring photography by Marc Martin, who says:

“And while many modern queers would rather forget this chapter of their people’s sordid past, public restrooms are undeniably places where community and connection were kindled among us against unlikely odds. These public toilets, whose history is intertwined with the lives and adventures of many gays, trans people, escorts, libertines, are also unlikely bastions of freedom.”

The bathroom holds the additional power and problem of being a gendered space, hence the complicated nature of its place as a part of lineage; for trans and genderqueer folks, butches, high-femmes, or any other person who falls outside the perceived binary, the bathroom is already a loaded — and even dangerous — space. Which makes the necessity for reclamation of the bathroom even more necessary. Thank goodness for art, and queer bathroom stories.

I didn’t really ever go out with Nicole again after being busted in on mid bathroom revelry. I kept her in a brutal limbo for a cruel amount of time while I figured out if I was still heartbroken over my last girlfriend or not (I was), and then I got attacked by her cat once while house sitting, and that seemed as good a reason as any to end things. Something to point to. Not I’m figuring things out/I’m sorry, I’m messy right now but rather your cat sunk his teeth into my arm and I’ll have the scar for years which is terrible because I love cats.

Everyone knows that talking about cats is code-speak for queers, anyway, but that’s a whole separate article.

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