Desire in the stalls: Queer Bathroom Stories flushes taboos
There is a rich and exciting history of gay male sex in bathrooms and cottages," says Sheila Cavanagh, the playwright who created Queer Bathroom Stories. "The advantage of gendering bathrooms is it allowed gay men, and men who have sex with men, a place to have sex. Sex in bathrooms is powerful and controversial." Cavanagh notes that, as well as hot and/or furtive sex, "It's the scene of underage sex and police entrapment. A lot of hate crimes happen in bathrooms." There is no shortage of dramatic material in Queer Bathroom Stories.
Cavanagh, who is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Sexuality Studies Co-ordinator at York University, found that, "most social spaces have been studied but not bathrooms. I was trying to get students to read Freud, particularly the three essays on sexuality, but all they wanted to talk about was bathrooms. It was their way of talking about sexuality, gender and excretion."
Cavanagh decided this was a fascinating area to explore so, with the assistance of five research assistants, 100 LGBTs were interviewed in depth. The resulting book, Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygenic Imagination, was published to great success and scandal in 2010, but Cavanagh was left with, "a two-and-a-half foot high pile of transcripts. The environmentalist in me just couldn't let the stories go." She decided to write a play and, when performed at the Fringe, it won the Patron's Pick Award.
Flush with the Fringe success, Queer Bathroom Stories is being remounted for a longer run in a larger venue. "I love Buddies," says Cavanagh. "It's not only a fantastic theatre but I love their bathrooms. The stalls are designed for people to have sex, to have experimental sex, in. They're de-gendered, there are no rules about who goes where. A large segment of the audience is straight so that creates lots of conversations about discomfort. Bathrooms cause us to often reflect on our shame and fear around our bodies - the shape, size, appearance, gender identity."
Gender identity is only one of Cavanagh's concerns, "In the west bathrooms are the last formally segregated gender spaces - dictated by biology. Think of the racially segregated bathrooms in the south, or custodians who can't use the bathrooms they clean. When I was doing publicity for the Fringe production, handing out flyers, people responded with intrigue. They were puzzled but intrigued." Some accused Cavanagh of being a paedophile, an assumption that has also been used as a weapon against gay men. Cavanagh is unfazed and cites one interviewee who talked about intergenerational sex, "He said, 'Some children were hurt by the sex they were forced to have. I was hurt by the sex I wasn't allowed to have.' We need to talk about consent. About letting people decide for themselves, about giving kids a voice."
The simple act of urination or defecation is suddenly burdened with a mass of socio-political questions. For someone who is trans this is an everyday occurrence. "How do gender signs give people a license to interrogate gender identity?" asks Cavanagh. "What's unfortunate about cruising culture is the lack of cruising culture spaces for women and trans."
Cavanagh places the first instance of gendered bathrooms in 1739 at a Parisian ball, and the first Canadian version at Eaton's where a "Ladies Gallery and Waiting Room," a powder room, was created. "It's the bladder as a leash," says Cavanagh. "But though they built these rooms for customers, they later became infamous for gay male sex. The taboo has been sexualized."
Public restrooms "exist on the cusp of public and private" explains Cavanagh and, as always, gay sex is colourfully condemned. "There is a direct parallel drawn between gayness and shit. Phrases like 'treat them like shit' and 'fudgepacker' demonstrate our anxieties about shit. There is so much shame around scat play though I've found from a lot of doms that scat play is more likely to be requested by straight men." Cavanagh laughs. "It's a little outside of the purview of research I'm interested in," but she also notes that much of the graffiti, the dialogue, that happens on bathroom walls is written using shit. And the writing on stall walls leads to Cavanagh's favourite story that emerged from the research.
"A gay male who is not feeling included in the the white gay male cruising scene writes stories on bathroom walls about how he waits for sex that never happens. Someone begins commenting and a dialogue results. It creates a new intimacy, they become pen pals. They share stories of longing to be part of the cruising scene. Then they meet accidentally and the racialized man finds that his correspondent is actually a trans man. They have sex in the bathroom but the correspondence stops and they never see each other again. What does it mean to have sex in a bathroom when you feel you don't belong? We need to push assumptions of what is sexy, make more spaces for sex to happen."
Fittingly, for a theatrical company dubbed "Libido Productions," this production of Queer Bathroom Stories will venture far beyond the sensual pleasures of Charmin, Ikea or a Porta Potty. The lavish and clever design, a Buddies trademark, features "suspended see-through bathroom doors," the better to view the intimate adventures and revelations. The original, and very sexy, cast composed of Tyson James, Chy Ryan Spain and Hallie Burt is back and none of the three have any qualms about exposing body and soul. Cavanagh hopes that the voyeuristic thrills will lead to exhibitionist ones, "Whenever we're able to talk openly and honestly, our experiences are validated. We can engage our taboos and fears and anxieties by sharing stories.”
Of course engaging taboos always creates a backlash and Cavanagh is delighted to learn that Real Women of Canada has called Queer Bathroom Stories "an obnoxious, deranged and hateful attack on heterosexuals."
Cavanagh laughs, "They hate anything feminist, gay positive or queer. I'm proud to be advancing what they call the left wing, feminist, homosexual agenda. It's important to talk about human rights and what counts as natural or normal, and what is hetero-centric."
It can only be healthy - "natural" and "normal" - to explore taboos on stage: Queer Bathroom Stories is following in a grand Buddies tradition. And, afterwards, or at intermission, there are comfortable stalls downstairs designed for another grand Buddies tradition: creating material for Queer Bathroom Stories part II.
Queer Bathroom Stories runs Sat, May 31 to Sun, June 15 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com