Senator Larry Craig in the Toilet

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.

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 24 hours. As an historian of sexuality, I tend to approach these issues in 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 he 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 a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on August 30th, 2007 at 6:58am #

    “But also sort of sad.”

    No, absolutely tragic!

    Craig grew up in Supernation, knew enough gamesmanship and scumbagging to achieve the Senate, presented himself passionately and successfully as a champion of conservatism (values, values, values), and now (as he must) has hired lawyers and peeyar people to re-frame…

  2. Thomas Hagedorn said on August 30th, 2007 at 12:19pm #

    I’m both a libertarian and an evangelical, so I’m a bit conflicted on these issues to start with. In the personal sphere as a Christian, what he did was wrong, on several levels. First, it is what we call a “sin”. That is when you violate God’s law. We find the definition of what is a “sin” in an ancient document, called the Bible, that is supported by massive amounts of manuscript evidence and confirmed by archeological and other evidence. “Sin” usually almost always also harms yourself or another. He hurt himself, his wife, his children, his grandchildren,and the people he represents.

    In the public sphere as a libertarian, I have no problem if he had done this in a private place or, say, a bar where others are looking for the same thing. After all, that’s what many hetersexuals do. But the anonymous sex in a public bathroom is not a good idea in this era of HIV and almost epidemic levels of sexually-transmitted diseases. Should the “state” be concerned about that? I think they should, just as they should have sanctions against heterosexual prostitution or anonymous sex. It is a public health risk.

  3. Daniel said on August 31st, 2007 at 12:13am #

    I don’t know all the ‘ins and outs’ of these cases but find the gross hypocrisy unforgivable.

    As an atheist, the talk of sin and other such theo-babble I find is unhelpful. This is 2007 and there is not a shred of evidence to support any of the claims of religion.

    What does alarm me is the infinite duplicity of humans, their depravity, their savagery.

    We have made precious little progress towards nobility!

  4. Vic said on September 1st, 2007 at 4:31pm #

    Daniel, your take on religion is intriguing.
    Can you point to some well-thought out research that you did, where you arrived at the knowledge that God doesn’t exist, based on some scientific examination of the empirical evidence? If I was going to claim to be an atheist, this is what I would need to feel confident in my assertion that there is no God. Please don’t respond by challenging me to prove that there is a God, for it is you who who has stated his assertion that there is no God. This assertion of yours needs independant validation, no?

  5. bruce said on September 2nd, 2007 at 2:41pm #

    Wow, Vic, you really beat Daniel down with your unanswerable logic. Of course there is a God, and he is the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I have unrefutable visual proof right here: