Public Places – Hail to the Watch Queen

Just when I think I can’t stumble on anything new in the queer world I discover an old name for a sub-genre of gay men I was not aware of. This occurred last week when I happened on the phenomenon of the “watch queen”. Richard Black posting in the Urban Dictionary back in 2005 offered three common definitions for the Watch Queen: 1st somebody who just gets off watching others have sex, which I assume could now apply to any Internet porn watcher, 2nd the lookout who watches for security or the vice squad while others are having sex in Public Spaces and 3rd the gay men too old (his words not mine) to engage in sex but still enjoy watching.

I am certainly familiar with the voyeuristic joys of watching other men have sex but I had never associated the descriptive phrase, “watch queen” as someone who is a lookout while others have at it. Watch Queen I think could be another archetypical gay male role that should be enshrined in out pantheon of identities – The Noble Protector has a nice ring to it.

As it turns out being a Watch Queen was something that Laud Humphries was accused of being when doing extensive research for his groundbreaking 1970 observational work on gay men having sex in public restrooms called The Tearoom Trade. His work is considered seminal in many ways about the sub-group of homosexually inclined men who cruise specifically public restrooms. This work has also been severely criticized as unethical since he never revealed his true purpose to those he was observing and subsequent publication of his findings was done without participant consent though no one’s identity was ever compromised near as I can tell. The role he would often take when in the field doing his research apparently was as the Watch Queen. Now he was a gay man himself, married and a former Episcopal clergyman who came out only after the publication of Tearoom Trade. Humphries died in 1988 in his late 50’s.

Though I do think public restroom cruising is no longer as widespread as it once was it is still alive and well. A form of almost totally non-verbal communication through a series of subtle and sometimes not so subtle gestures, postures and eye contact leading to sex, if not on the spot then onto a near by hookup in a car or bushes, so much for the necessity of the spoken word.

In one of the better pieces I found describing and providing an analysis of Humphries work was by Tristen Bridges titled Laud Humphries’ Discussion of Space in “Tearoom Trade”. Quoting from Tristen’s article: “He {Humphries} found that a large percentage of the men participating were married {to women}, many were religious (mostly Catholic), a large percentage were either in the military or veterans, and perhaps most interestingly of all – a large majority of the men who did not identify as gay were socially and politically conservative. In fact, Humphries found that only 14% of the men in this study could be said to be a “typical” gay man.”

An extremely sophomoric interpretation of Humphries’ work would be to conflate his findings with the current unbelievable flap around transgender bathroom access. Such use of his work for justifying this form of blatant discrimination misses the mark on so many levels it really does not deserve to be addressed at all. In no way is gay male use of public space for sex predatory. The vast majority of predation happens in secret, non-public space, offices of congressmen and churches come to mind.

If anything, taking Humphries work to heart it should be a clarion call for gay liberation. Let me say though that the fine art of the silent, public cruise for mutual sex can be engaged in by the truly liberated if that is their cup of tea so to speak. It could be viewed as preserving a uniquely queer and time-honored form of human interaction and communication.

 I would venture to say if you really want to protect kids in public restrooms we should hire a Watch Queen for every public restroom. These are gay men who truly know how to keep public spaces safe not only for mutual consenting hookups but for peeing and pooping unmolested.

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