Throughout history and for a variety of reasons, gay and bisexual men have looked to public bathrooms as places to get laid. Some men enjoy cruising public restrooms because they’re turned on by the exhibitionism and the possibility of getting caught, while others see it as a place to anonymously and discretely have a same-sex encounter in times when being outed as gay carries severe social, political and legal consequences.
Cruising public restrooms has become an ingrained part of gay history, with mixed feelings surrounding it. On one hand, it’s considered so seedy, sexy and transgressive that “toilet tramp” hookup scenes have become a common scenario in gay porn (and even inspired drawings of gay erotic illustrator Tom of Finland).
On the other hand, it’s also considered by some gay men to be a dark side of gay sexuality and gay history that has been used to shame gay men for their otherwise harmless sexual proclivities (often in the name of protecting children or public decency).
Noting both sides, gay video game designer Robert Yang made a bathroom cruising video game in 2017 entitled The Tearoom as a way to highlight a real-life historic 1962 police sting on a public bathroom in Mansfield, Ohio, as a way to highlight ongoing police violence and public shaming of gay men seeking consensual adult encounters in public.
So below we briefly recount the stories of four men arrested for bathroom cruising as a way to examine the phenomenon throughout history and the social consequences it has incurred throughout time.
Here are four famous men who have been arrested for cruising public restrooms:
1. Simeon Solomon (1873)
Solomon was a celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter during England’s Victorian age whose literary-themed paintings had abundant detail, intense color, complex compositions and often contained homoerotic elements, especially in his works Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytelene and Love Among the School Boys.
According to The GLBTQ Archive, Solomon was arrested on Feb. 11, 1873, for cruising public restrooms and having sex with a 60-year-old stableman named George Roberts. Both men were charged with indecent exposure and an attempt to commit “buggery.” Both were found guilty, fined 100 pounds and sentenced to 18 months of hard labor.
Thanks to a wealthy cousin, Solomon had his sentence reduced to police supervision (though Roberts wasn’t so lucky). Solomon fled to France to escape his public shaming but was arrested there on March 4, 1874, for once again cruising public restrooms. The Archive states, “The French court fined him 16 francs and sentenced him to three months in prison. The 19-year-old man he was with received a lesser sentence.”
Afterwards, Solomon’s artistic friends, patrons and galleries all shunned him. He became an alcoholic, was reduced to begging on the streets and then died in relative obscurity until his work was “rediscovered” in the 20th century.
2. Walter Jenkins (1964)
Walter Jenkins served as a longtime aide to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1939 into his presidency. He was known for his pleasant temperament and was so close to President Johnson and the first lady that the couple celebrated her 51st birthday at Jenkins’ house in 1963.
A month before the 1964 presidential election, Jenkins and another man were arrested by police in a local YMCA restroom in Washington, D.C. Jenkins had just attended a cocktail party with his wife right before the arrest. In a pay-toilet stall in the YMCA basement, he had sex with Andy Choka, a 60-year-old Hungarian immigrant 14 years his senior.
Police reportedly viewed their copulation through a secret peephole. The men were charged with disorderly conduct.
At first, newspapers refused to run the story, but then they discovered Jenkins had been arrested for cruising public restrooms at the exact same YMCA in 1959. Jenkins was then married to a woman and had six children with her.
When Jenkins first received a call from a newspaper reporter asking about the arrest, Jenkins asked his lawyer friend, Abe Fortas, to come over. When Fortas arrived, he found Jenkins raving about “destroying President Johnson” and threatening to kill himself. Fortas called a doctor and had Jenkins placed on 24-hour suicide watch at the George Washington University hospital.
Though the case against Walter Jenkins was subsequently dismissed, his arrest came at a time when homosexuals were considered a security risk by the U.S. government, so Jenkins was forced to resign, effectively ending his career. President Johnson’s Republican opponent Barry Goldwater chose not to make the improper vetting of Jenkins or his arrest a campaign issue, but all the same, his campaign still released bumper stickers that read, “All the way with LBJ, but don’t go near the YMCA.”
Jenkins never returned to the White House. In a letter to the editor published soon after his arrest went public, the first lady blamed Jenkins’ actions on exhaustion and urged compassion for his “dedicated service to his country.” International news soon drowned out news of Jenkins’ sexual scandal with the Soviet removal of influential political leader Nikita Khrushchev and China’s successful testing of a nuclear weapon soon after his arrest.
He and his wife separated in 1972 but never divorced. Jenkins died in 1985. His daughter assumes he was gay, though Jenkins never publicly came out.
3. Leigh Bowery (1991)
This famed Australian performance artist, club promoter and fashion designer lived a great part of his professional life in London, England, serving as a model and muse for gay painter Lucian Freud. While Bowery was known for wearing head-to-toe club kid costumes and for his long-running party-turned-club Taboo, he also had a little-known public sex arrest, according to his best friend and biographer Sue Tilley.
In her tell-all biography, Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon, Tilley says Bowery was arrested in 1991 for being “caught in a compromising position with another man at the toilets at Liverpool Street Station” — cruising public restrooms.
Bowery and his sexual partner had reportedly been discovered by a bathroom attendant who’d been monitoring the toilets using a small mirror attached to a stick slid under the stall doors. The attendant had allegedly caught Bowery cruising public restrooms there before, and so he called the police.
Bowery worried that he might get deported, so Freud helped out by paying for Bowery’s legal defense (though Tilley says he might’ve done so only because Bowery was a model for several of his portraits still in progress).
Because Bowery’s sexual partner was married to a woman, he denied all involvement and claimed that Bowery had pressured him into it. Thus, Bowery was charged with sexual assault. On the advice of his legal counsel, Bowery pled guilty and received a 400-pound fine.
Tilley says Bowery resumed having public sex the very next day but stayed away from Liverpool Street Station for a few weeks, returning only in a different wig so the bathroom attendant wouldn’t recognize him.
4. George Michael (1998)
When famous and beloved British pop singer George Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public restroom at Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills on April 7, 1998, he was not yet publicly out as a gay man.
But in a televised interview following the arrest, Michael came out as gay, admitting that he’d had previous relationships with women but had never had a same-sex relationship until the age of 27.
“I spent the first half of my career being accused of being gay when I hadn’t had anything like a gay relationship,” Michael said. ”So I spent my years growing up being told what my sexuality was really … which was kind of confusing.”
In an MTV interview about the arrest, Michael basically said he was the victim of entrapment. He said, “I got followed into the restroom and then this cop — I didn’t know it was a cop, obviously — he started playing this game which I think is called ‘I’ll show you mine, you show me yours, and then when you show me yours, I’m going to [arrest] you.”
Michael pleaded “no contest” to the charge, was fined $810 and was sentenced to 80 hours of community service.
Michael never apologized for his behavior in the toilet, adding, “I don’t feel any shame whatsoever.” He later said, “It’s a much nicer place to get some quick and honest sex than standing in a bar. The handful of times a year it’s bloody warm enough, I’ll do it.”
Not only did he never apologize for his 1998 arrest, but that same year George Michael released a music video for a song called “Outside” that featured couples getting it on in locker rooms, restrooms and rooftops. The video even had Michael dressed as a cop, leading a dance party in a public toilet, complete with disco balls and mirrored urinals.
The undercover police officer who arrested Michael later filed a $10 million dollar lawsuit against him, claiming the music video mocked him, portrayed him as gay and that Michael had slandered him in interviews. The suit was dismissed by a court that decided public officers couldn’t sue for emotional distress.
How much of the history of cruising public restrooms were you familiar with?
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