Friday , 23 August 2019

Dating Apps, WCs, PCs, and the Rise and Fall of Cruising

A West End Cottage
A West End Cottage

Recent studies have suggested that LGBT-dating ‘apps’ have a significant effect on the way in which people interact or seek sexual or romantic partners. With the launch of your ‘app’; be it Gaydar or Grindr (amongst many others) you are presented with profiles, locations and concise biographies which set the parameters of potential assignations. In Australia the availability of these social tools has led to a reduction in recorded incidences of men meeting in public spaces for sex. Dating apps have also been cited in relation to the recent closure of ‘gay’ bars and the so-called demise of queer culture. The use of ‘cottages’ (public toilets) and parks has been an important part of the historical sexual, romantic and political landscape of Scotland, providing queer space, and temporary refuge from prevailing social norms, as well as enabling men, primarily, to seek emotional and sexual release. Yet, the position that the ‘cottage’ fills in queer consciousness has shifted over the last 35 years or so, shaped by legal regulation and regulation from within queer culture.

In Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and many other towns and cities from the late 19th century to the 1970s queer urban spaces played a central role in LGBT social and sexual life. These spaces temporarily became places of sanctuary, but as the period progressed they were increasingly contested zones, subject to intrusion, firstly by the police, and latterly by ‘queer bashers’. Risk relating to arrest or violence became ever-present threats to the queer body. This was particularly prominent in Scotland, prior to decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1980, as consensual sex in private was rarely prosecuted. The full force of the law was focused on the nation’s public sexual transgressors and the vast majority of prosecutions for homosexual offences were the result of assignations in public spaces. Yet prosecutions for such activities continued well beyond 1980, which poses some questions: why did some change their behaviour whilst others did not?

The answer might be situated within a discussion about how changes to the law rarely have an immediate impact on popular belief. One former member of the Scottish Minorities Group – Scotland’s foremost homosexual law reform organisation – told me that he felt that Scotland was still a rabidly homophobic nation in 1980. There certainly plenty of evidence to support such an argument. Patrons of early ‘gay bars’ in 1970s Edinburgh and Glasgow spoke of intimidation when visiting premises, from passers-by, to the police. ‘Chris’ who worked in Glasgow’s Vintners Bar recalled how police officers would enter the bar before closing time; demand drinks and engage in homophobic slurs. If businesses catering for an LGBT clientele were subject to such hostile intrusions then popular ‘cruising’ spots were also layered with threat and danger.

Advert for Vintners
Advert for Vintners

In one case from Dundee in the 1970s, police officers undertook surveillance of a ‘notorious’ public toilet, which was positioned adjacent to an embankment. Rather than placing plain-clothed officers in the convenience, police took up a position at the crest of the embankment and by using a mirror on a long pole were able to spy on members of the public using cubicles. During the surveillance the officers were able to identify 3 men engaging in homosexual offences in one incident. These men were arrested. Such tactics were not unique to Dundee and the potential for the invasion of privacy exercised LGBT rights activists. In particular the duration of surveillance was criticised, and the Scottish Minorities Group took exception to police officers occupying cubicles while spying on neighbouring cubicles, surveillance, which the rights organisation claimed, lasted hours and could be perceived as a breach of privacy.

Men arrested during such operations claimed that the authorities were using agents provocateurs, generally ‘attractive’, and young male officers, placed there to ‘entice’. Complaints were also levelled that the police used cameras to record general activity around suspect places, and were recording the number plates of cars stopping in their vicinity. Other men arrested claimed that they were treated poorly by the police. Indeed one man, ‘Stephen’, claims that he was subjected to threats and intimidation when using Clyde Street toilets in Glasgow during the late 1950s. He told me that the two officers suggested he should jump from Glasgow Bridge and end his miserable queer life.

But how should we view cruising and cottaging? While such undertakings could be seen as a necessary tactic for queer men in the late 19th century through to the1960s, did the emergence of ‘gay’ and ‘gay friendly’ pubs and clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh provide a safer, more practical and more comfortable arena for interaction? For some a visit to such premises was still tinged with danger, even after the law on homosexual offences was relaxed in 1980. “Meeting someone I might know, as I left Vintners, would have been a real problem” one man recalled.” So, commercial venues came with their own dangers. But with the emergence of a commercial scene did cruising and cottaging shift from necessities, to preferences? This is what would become known as the good gay/bad gay binary. Attitudes to such shifts were evident in the cultures of bars in Scotland’s major cities. The bar became a community hub, offering a critical mass of people with whom to socialise, and offered potential romantic and sexual possibilities, free from ‘queer bashers’ and police involvement. Yet, many chose to seek assignations in public spaces; many were not ‘out’ and were thus reluctant to visit commercial venues, but others chose to ‘cottage’ and ‘cruise’, but as the period progressed some attitudes within the LGBT community hardened towards such activities. ‘Chris’ recalled that in bars ‘reputation’ began to form an important part of how we viewed each other: “there was a definite set of rules…you didn’t pick people up in toilets… and the way to have your reputation absolutely trashed was to go to St Vincent’s Street and pick people up”. Such activities were seen to be playing into homophobes’ stereotypes of gay men; that their lives were dominated by sex and the pursuit of sex.

But, some complain that we have gone full circle. The supposed demise of LGBT commercial venues has been laid squarely, by some, at the feet of the dating ‘app’. Fading away are the days of intimate connections over a pint or two of lager top; ‘getting to know you’ moments over a bottle of Cava; replaced by ‘disposable friendships and fleeting sex lives’. Or is this just an over-reaction? Has the appeal of exclusive LGBT venues simply been replaced by venues advertising themselves as ‘broad churches’? Have processes of gentrification slowly eroded the position of ‘queer’ communities? Or are we becoming more and more domesticated, now revelling in our opportunities to settle down, get married and raise families? One thing’s for sure, that in 10 or 15 years we will probably still be having the same conversation about shifts in ‘LGBT’ culture. Who knows what the future will bring?

About Jeff Meek

Jeff Meek
Jeff is a social scientist and social and cultural historian at Glasgow University. His research to date has examined the experiences of gay and bisexual men in post-war Scotland, as well as tracing the history of same-sex desire from the 17th century to the late 20th century in Scotland.

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