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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Laud Humphreys?
Laud Humphreys' 1970 book, _Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places_, presented a landmark ethnographic study of men who cruise for anonymous sex in public bathrooms - a topic that remains relevant to this day.

Robert Allan Humphreys was born October 16, 1930, in Chickasha, Okla., the son of a conservative member of the state House of Representatives. After graduating from college in Colorado Springs, Humphreys earned a Master of Divinity degree in 1955 and was ordained an Episcopal priest (at which time he adopted the name "Laud"). He married his wife Nancy at age 30, and the couple had two children.

Humphreys' involvement in black civil rights and antiwar activism in the 1960s garnered attention from the FBI and angered prominent members of his various congregations. After he was dismissed from a parish post in Wichita, Kan., he enrolled in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis to study sociology and criminology.

Possibly motivated both by the discovery that his deceased father led a secret homosexual life and by struggles with his own sexuality, Humphreys decided to study men who seek sex in public toilets, or "tearooms." Though Humphreys claimed he was a "watch queen," or a voyeur who acted as a lookout, many suspect he was a more direct participant. Humphreys recorded the license plate numbers of more than 100 men he observed having sex - mainly fellatio - in the bathrooms of a city park, used these to track down their addresses, and later visited their homes in disguise, posing as a public health interviewer. The subjects never knew they were part of a study, much less gave their consent.

Humphreys' Ph.D. dissertation, published as _Tearoom Trade_ in 1970, detailed the steps involved in the homosexual public sex ritual - positioning, signaling, maneuvering, contracting, foreplay, and the payoff - as well as the intricate back-and-forth as men gauged one another's interest. As such, he concluded, it was highly unlikely that an unwitting straight man would be molested or pestered for sex. Though the men went to great lengths to avoid both arrest and violence from uninterested heterosexuals, police used the cruising code for entrapment. "When a homosexual takes a seat in the adjacent commode and starts tapping his foot, the decoy will tap back," Humphreys wrote.

Humphreys found that just over half the men he studied were married, 38 percent did not consider themselves either homosexual or bisexual, and only 14 percent were openly gay. They came from diverse races and socioeconomic classes and were generally similar to "normal" heterosexual men, except that the cruisers tended to be politically and socially conservative pillars of their community. "In donning the breastplate of righteousness," Humphreys wrote, "the covert deviant assumes a protective shield of superpropriety."

Humphreys' dissertation caused an immediate furor. The university chancellor sought to have his degree revoked for abetting felonies, sociology colleagues criticized his dishonest research methods, and some gay activists regarded the study as an embarrassment - though it shored up the argument that since homosexual cruisers bothered no one else, bathroom busts were a waste of resources. Nevertheless, _Tearoom Trade_ won the prestigious C. Wright Mills award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

In 1972, Humphreys was hired as a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. - a contract he negotiated from a jail cell where he was serving time for invading a draft board office and smashing a portrait of Richard Nixon. He came out publicly at the 1974 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association as part of a panel discussion in which he also outed Edward Sagarin (who had written the groundbreaking _The Homosexual in America_ under the name Donald Webster Cory in 1951, but had since grown critical of the gay movement). Humphreys went on to co-found the Sociologists' Gay (now LGBT) Caucus.

By the mid-1970s, Humphreys' scholarly productivity had declined, and he began to shirk his academic responsibilities. In 1980, he left his wife, moved in with a male protege, started a private counseling practice, and became increasingly involved with the Los Angeles gay community. In his later years, he returned to the ministry, serving people with AIDS. A heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer at the age of 58.

The ethics of Humphreys' study are still widely debated. Along with other questionable research in various fields, it helped usher in strong informed consent requirements and institutional review boards to protect research participants. But his work has undergone reconsideration in recent years. None of his subjects were actually harmed (Humphreys kept their information under lock and key), and some commentators have suggested that much of the initial furor was motivated more by distaste for the topic than true concern for the subjects. Further, information about public sex cultures proved invaluable in devising AIDS prevention strategies, and participant-observer research with an advocacy angle became more acceptable.

Almost four decades after its publication, _Tearoom Trade_ remains the definitive guide to homosexual toilet sex. Despite a much larger GLBT community, many more venues for meeting, and pervasive sex on the Internet, anonymous sex in public places shows no sign of dissipating among gay or non-gay-identified men.

_Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

For further reading:

Galliher, John, Wayne Brekhaus, and David Keys. 2004. _Laud Humphreys: Prophet of Homosexuality and Sociology_ (University of Wisconsin).

Horowitz, Irving. 2003. _Tributes: Personal Reflections on a Century of Social Research_ (Transaction Publishers).

Schacht, Steven. 2004. Moving Beyond the Controversy: Remembering the Many Contributions of Laud Humphreys to Sociology and the Study of Sexuality. _International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy_ (Vol. 24; special issue on Humphreys).

 


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