The Democratic Possibilities of CruisingRoundup
tags: urban history, Walt Whitman, LGBTQ history, public space, history of sexuality
Jack Parlett is author of The Poetics of Cruising: Queer Visual Culture from Whitman to Grindr and Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise.
"Another hundred people just got off of the train,” sings one of the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. This lyrical refrain captures not only the daily mass of people who flood into New York City, but the sheer amount of romantic possibility offered by this numbers game. The song, titled “Another Hundred People,” gestures toward the dating lives of the play’s central characters, and to the possibilities of finding intimacy in a “city of strangers.” But for clued-in listeners, the song’s focus on the anonymous crowd also contains a hidden message. The song’s mention of city dwellers who “find each other” in the “crowded streets and the guarded parks,” by the “rusty fountains” and the “dusty trees with the battered barks,” may not seem unusual at first blush—but these lyrics, written by a gay New Yorker for a musical nominally about heterosexual characters, are also clearly about cruising, the practice of searching for sexual connection among strangers in public places, notably streets, parks, and public bathrooms.
Cruising is often, though not exclusively, urban and gay. The term has existed since at least the early 1900s, when “cruiser” was used concurrently with “streetwalker” to describe the men selling sex on New York’s Bowery. The term’s nautical resonance aptly describes cruising’s particular temporality. Just as one is said to take a cruise in, rather than to, a location, the cruiser’s search for sex is less a predetermined journey from A to B than it is an act of floating within an experience.
Cruising, as an impromptu way of connecting with strangers, exemplifies what is best about both cities and queer life. In Sex in Public (1998), queer scholars Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner talk about this in terms of queer culture’s “mobile sites,” transient “counter-intimacies” composed of “lyric moments that interrupt the hostile cultural narrative.” As a form of spontaneous human connection, cruising borrows from and extends the potential of the city as a democratizing space, one that brings us into everyday contact with people we do not know, with people who seem unlike us until we realize our shared desires.
The recent monkeypox outbreak, and the related public health messaging about safe sexual practices among queer people, is just the latest example of the way cruising culture is contingent upon changing social and environmental conditions.
Cruising, like the cities in which it most often occurs, has changed over time; it makes little sense to speak about it in ahistorical terms. And any historical approach to cruising must begin with the fact that its early conflation with streetwalking acknowledged their shared criminality: as the remit of homosexual men, cruising was illegal for much of its history whether money changed hands or not. But as George Chauncey shows in his landmark 1994 history Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940, cruising, though heavily criminalized, flourished in the city in the early twentieth century. Often lacking private quarters where they could act upon their desires, men of different social classes would frequent an array of public spots where they knew they could meet other men for sex. As a network of signals mostly illegible to straight people, ranging from a simple look to increasingly sophisticated codes—most famously the hanky code—cruising was both an expediency and a lifeline, a way for gay men to find each other. As Frank O’Hara wrote in the poem “Homosexuality” (written in 1954, though unpublished until 1970), “It’s wonderful to admire oneself with / complete candor / tallying up the merits of the latrines.”
If cruising offered a mode of solidarity and survival in the decades before Stonewall and gay liberation, it then became, in turn, a visible expression of sexual liberation in the 1970s. But its valence soon changed again in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic politicized gay men’s negotiation of risk and anonymity when it came to choosing sexual partners. Cruising (and its criminalization, for that matter) hardly disappeared in the era of safe sex, though: the infamous public outing of singer George Michael in the late 1990s followed his arrest for engaging in “lewd acts” with an undercover cop in a park bathroom in Beverly Hills.