On the 19th anniversary of George Michael’s arrest for engaging in a “lewd” act with another man in a Beverly Hills public toilet, Queer Tours of London threw a massive party in the name of protest.
It's still punishable by law to have sex in public, according to Section 73 of the 2003 Sexual Offenses Act. Can you believe it? "Well just don't!" might be the easy-out for someone unwilling to engage in the reality of why people still have sex outside. But it's by no means as simple as that.
In 1998, the late, great George Michael was arrested for engaging in a "lewd" act with another man in a Beverly Hills public toilet. Although many have claimed that moment was one of definition for George — who, as a result, was forcibly outed as a homosexual, and became a hopeful symbol for many gay people the world over — nobody should be non-consensually pulled from the closet.
On Saturday, it was the 19th anniversary of the day Michael was arrested for said lewd act. In collaboration with Camden LGBT Forum, Queer Tours of London decided the best way to honor the memory of this event would be to do what queers do best: throw a massive party in the name of protest. It went down in Hampstead Heath, located right on the site that is most popularly used for cruising and outdoor sexual hookups, and a site that was also frequented by Mr. George Michael.
"We are celebrating George, and we are celebrating how he responded to that violence," organizer Dan Glass told i-D. "Now, don't get me wrong — it's totally valid that people hide away and don't come out about things like this because the oppression is so raw. But George was like, 'screw you, I'm really proud of our culture, I'm really proud of what I do to get off.' And he made an incredible video, 'Outside,' which went all around the world. And for me, the externalization of that violence is inspirational. He opened up space for us all to relish, acknowledge, and cherish our subculture and allowed us to celebrate the reasons we do what we do."
So why do we "do what we do"? Cruising and cottaging has been, and continues to be, an essential practice in the way the people whose sexualities are criminalized negotiate their sexual hookups. Essentially, until 50 years ago this year (when homosexual acts became partially decriminalized) engaging in gay sexual acts was illegal. Even after the lifting of the ban on same-sex sexual relations, you still had to do it behind a locked door, in a house where no other person was. So, practically, it was still nigh impossible to have gay sex without being in breach of the law.
Cruising and cottaging culture is born just as much out of need as it is out of want, then. It's fairly impossible to trace the history of sex acts in public, because everyone has done it. But cottaging as a term was popularized in the late 1800s, and became an exclusively gay thing between the 40s and 60s. This sexual practice of doing it outdoors, in parks and public toilets, is still very much going on today, too. With the dismantling and removal of so many queer spaces in London (about 30% of LGBTQIA+ spaces have shut permanently, and there's one gay women's bar in the whole capital) and across the UK, places to meet are disappearing.
Much like 50 years ago, a lack of safe spaces means you have to find other options if you want to get your rightful sexual kicks. If you're married, if you're living at home, if you're worried about revealing your sexuality, or if you have a judgemental housemate, it's safer to have fun in the bushes than it is to bring someone back to your bed. And all of this is because we live in a homophobic society, not because the sexual act itself is wrong.
It shouldn't be forgotten that from this necessity, cruising also became a much desired, enjoyable, super-hot sexual practice — and so from the need, also grew the want.
A much-erased history is also that of women's cruising. Nell Andrew, one of Queer Tours of London's active tour guides, put it this way: "It's difficult to find historical examples of queer women's sexualities, because of the usual erasure of women's sexualities. But what we do know, is that most women's first same-sex sexual experiences happened in a club or pub toilet. And I think it's particularly key now, when we're talking about the housing crisis, in that people don't have somewhere safe they can take a sexual partner. So we are seeing a real rise in queer women having sex in public places. There are 101 apps for gay men's cruising sites, but women's sites — there aren't any. But of course queer women absolutely do cruise and cottage. In the late noughties there was a women's cruising toilet block in Portsmouth, but it was closed because it was seen as opportuning. And the other place I found for women's cruising is Hampstead Heath pool, where you go, meet women, and then fuck. There was a dark room set up a few years ago in south London, and it was very popular… but it was shut down, too."
So while the LGBTQIA+ community is commended, and commends itself, for the leaps we have taken in legal progress since the 1967 Partial Decriminalisation of Homosexual Acts, in many spheres, we haven't really come that far. Take the flimsy 'pardon,' which came in this year: of the 320 people who applied for that, only 84 actually passed because so many of the acts people were punished for would still be considered illegal under Section 73. Our spaces are closing, and there has been a significant rise in homophobic hate crime since Brexit. It all feels pretty bleak.
And that's why we need a celebration more than ever. And that's why we need to go outside still. And that's why George Michael was being celebrated on Saturday. Because he showed us queers that we're not alone in our 'outlandish' or 'non-normative' sexual practices. He showed us that these sexual practices were okay.
We skipped through the woods, hung bunting, danced to George Michael songs. Stuart Feather, a founder of the brilliant Gay Liberation Front back in the 60s, danced alongside a bunch of topless young queers. Damien — dressed in an ass-less rubber playsuit — strung different colored handkerchiefs through his jockstrap, while his best friend gently wiped the rubber down, to make him shiny and beautiful and ready to be "fucked countless times" over 'the fucking log' later that night.
It's a beautiful, powerful, necessary, gentle, caring culture, and it's ours. The criminalization of it only serves to perpetuate myths of homosexuals — and those with a sexual appetite for something outside the four walls of a bedroom — as predatory, as soliciting, as dangerous, and not as people who want engage in a community activity that is as important to us as a Sunday Roast with all the family is to my wonderful Northern mom. In a society that wants to criminalize your every desire and upbraid any means of alternative pleasure, seeking and finding it is still a radical act. So, 'Let's Go Outside.'
Text Tom Rasmussen
Photography Thurstan Redding