Opinion

Our (not so) private Idahos

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Gentle reader, by now you've probably read more than you ever nightmared you'd want to know about the latest Republican gay-sex scandal. The revelation that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was caught allegedly trolling for sex in a Minnesota airport men's room in June comes on the heels of Florida state Rep. Robert Allen's July restroom arrest, making it reasonable to suspect that yet another GOP bathroom bust may burst forth by the time this Op-Ed article goes to press.

But barring further white-tiled tragedy, the all-too-obvious question remains, "What in the Sam Hill is going on here?" The answer rests on what can safely be described as bipartisan grounds.

To get there, let's climb into the Wayback Machine and return to Oct. 7, 1964. That's when Walter Jenkins, one of the most senior aides in President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration, was arrested for soliciting sex in the men's room of a Washington YMCA. Being that it was three weeks before the election, LBJ suspected some kind of Republican foul play, but the GOP chose not to exploit the incident.

The Jenkins affair put "homosexuality" on the nation's front pages in a way it hadn't been since Dr. Alfred Kinsey's famous report in 1948.

Like Craig, Jenkins could well have said he "wasn't gay." But who was in 1964? Then as now, if you were wealthy and well-connected, you could enjoy what's contemporarily referred to as a "gay lifestyle" with some ease -- and a soupçon of caution. For those less well-off, danger lurked. Sodomy laws were on the books. Bars and clubs catering to the same-sex-oriented were "speakeasy" affairs often run by Mafiosi who bribed the police to stay open. When the money didn't arrive on time or in insufficient quantity, such clubs were raided.

On June 28, 1969, when New York's far-from-fashionable Stonewall Inn was raided, the patrons responded by fighting the cops. Although gays and lesbians had resisted before (often right here in Los Angeles), this Manhattan uprising served to jump-start the modern phase of the gay rights movement.

That movement, with its defiant insistence on being free to be as gay as all-get-out, quickly left the likes of Walter Jenkins and, if the cops were right, Larry Craig in the dust. They're part of a subculture within a subculture that was memorably identified by the daring sociologist Laud Humphreys in a landmark sociological study titled "Tearoom Trade."

Taking his cue from Kinsey, Humphreys was fascinated with married-with-children men who didn't self-identify as gay or bisexual, yet still sought clandestine sex with other men on the side. Humphreys, when he began his research, was one of these I'm-not-gay(s) himself, though he eventually came out.

Published in 1970, "Tearoom Trade" is full of useful information about foot tapping, shoe touching, hand signaling and all the other rituals those so inclined use to make contact with one another in such places. Clearly no media outlet should be without a copy -- especially Slate.com, whose editors revealed their cluelessness on the subject this week in a "real time conversation" rife with unintentional hilarity: "I can't believe it's a crime to tap your foot." "Can someone explain the mechanics of how two people are supposed to commit a sex act in a stall where legs are visible from the knee down?"

As for the less blinkered among us, in the age of Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, "Brokeback Mountain" and the smooching gay teens on "As the World Turns," bathroom cruisers seem almost antique. Today's gays want to get married, and an airport men's room is no place to propose.

Moreover, if what you're "proposing" falls well short of marriage, there's always the Internet. Larry Craig, meet Craigslist. In short, never has the admonition "Get a room!" seemed more apropos. It's up to the I'm-not-gay(s) to discover the real freedoms fought for and won by the people they so fiercely claim they're not.

David Ehrenstein is the author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998."

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