Showing posts with label Gay Cruising. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gay Cruising. Show all posts

November 14, 2015

Still, Gay Men Cruise hidden by the dark in Dante’s Inferno


 
                                                                    
                                                                    
 The PiersWVillage on the Hudson, NYC 1977
 Cruising—the gay male pastime of looking for sex with strangers, sometimes in semi-public places—usually keeps a low profile. But it’s having a moment in the art world: At the end of October, two photography books focused on cruising spots in New York City hit the shelves, inviting readers to become voyeurs. Alvin Baltrop’s The Piers documents the fabled heyday of cruising on Manhattan’s Hudson River piers in the 1970s and ’80s. Moving to the present, Thomas Roma’s In the Vale of Cashmere explores a faded cruising spot frequented primarily by men of color in Prospect Park. At a moment when gay bars, hook-up apps, and the bright light of straight tolerance are said to have eliminated the need for furtive trysts in hidden public spaces, these new monographs raise a question: Why do some gay men still search for each other in the shadows?
In The Piers, Alvin Baltrop captures New York’s semi-abandoned West Side waterfront in the decades just after Stonewall, where empty warehouses offered an alluring—albeit often dangerous—escape for men seeking sex with men. As Glenn O’Brien writes in his introduction, Baltrop’s blunt photographs capture the thrills and perils of a time when much of gay life was still “by necessity secret.” Many of the men portrayed in the series have come to the piers because they are “leading double lives.” Afraid to get caught bringing a man home, and unwilling to patronize gay bars, they turn to the rotting and crime-ravaged piers in part as a necessary evil—it’s either sex there, or sex nowhere.  
bal09.022_crop

Untitled.
Alvin Baltrop. Courtesy of TF Editores.
But Baltrop doesn’t focus solely on the piers’ dark, desperate side. He also points to their strange beauty, depicting them as a sort of post-apocalyptic gay paradise. Sure, he documents a brutal murder scene—such violence was not uncommon. But he also illustrates how the piers served as a “poor man’s Fire Island,” referencing the famed gay Long Island enclave, “a place to sunbathe, socialize and cruise.” He offers portraits of beefy men, many of them likely quite out of the closet, chatting happily, sprawled out naked on beach towels, or gathering casually for group play.
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Untitled.
Alvin Baltrop. Courtesy ofTF Editores.
Baltrop’s piers seem to offer something beyond a permissive space for gay sex. Looking at his intertwined subjects, I recall writer Hilton Als’ remarks regarding his own encounter with the piers. As a young man, Als recalls in “Notes on My Mother,” they helped him lay claim to a sense of romance that he had previously associated only with his mother, who left her home in Barbados in part to pursue a love affair: “I avoided explaining [to my mother] the impetus that propelled me to leave her home in Brooklyn for the piers on the West Side Highway. I avoided explaining that I had been motivated by the same desire and romantic greed that had propelled her to move from Barbados to New York. I avoided explaining that when I sat in parked cars with one man and then another, I felt closer to her experience of the world than I ever did in her actual presence.” In the hidden world of the piers, men like Als could find a sense of romantic adventure, immediacy—the thrill of exploring the unknown.
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Untilted.
Alvin Baltrop. Courtesy ofTF Editores.
Perhaps the romantic allure of the unknown is what has allowed cruising spots to survive, at least to some extent, the sea changes that gay culture has undergone since the ’70s. That’s what Thomas Roma seems to suggest in his book In the Vale of CashmereCashmere comprises straightforward portraits of the men who still visit a cruising spot in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, introducing them alongside elliptical shots of the landscape they wander. Unlike Baltrop, Roma doesn’t capture sexual play, but he still manages to capture the desires of his portrait subjects. In their steady gazes, he finds their restlessness, their sensuality, their hunger for exploration. 
After seeing some of the images from Cashmere, a friend of mine sent a link to a cruising website, a sort of Yelp.com for gay cruising spots around the world. In the comments thread about Prospect Park, one reviewer complained that it had become dull. The age of Craigslist had made the place obsolete, he explained; he gave the spot a low rating. And yet here, within Cashmere’s pages, we find evidence that the embers of Prospect Park’s cruising scene still burn—that though the park may be quieter, it remains magnetic for solitary men in search of adventure. As G. Winston James writes in his introduction, Roma’s contemporary images evoke the “the uncontrollable trembling I sometimes felt as I entered the park awash in a mixture of anticipation and angst. The thudding of my heart that I experienced at moments, knowing that I was by myself under the night sky, but not at all alone.” Roma’s images hint that these thrills are still available for those willing to look.
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Untitled (from the series “In the Vale of Cashmere”), 2011
Thomas Roma. Courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery.
In marking two points on the trajectory of New York’s cruising culture—the apogee that preceded the AIDS crisis, and the current low plateau—Piers and Cashmere open a conversation about an aspect of gay culture that gays have trouble discussing openly, even among ourselves. Listen in on a conversation about cruising spots, and you’ll hear the speakers split up into two teams. Half of the boys say they’ve never been cruising because it’s dangerous, disgusting, and passé. The other half say they’ve been to so many cruising spots all over the world that they hit the parks as casually as they bar-hop. But once everyone has declared whether they think cruising is yucky or sexy, no one asks: What is cruising really about? What needs, beyond orgasm, does it satisfy? And why do openly gay men do it when there are so many other options?
After all, there are many reasons to stop having sex on the sly in public places. First, all that sneakiness suggests that there’s something wrong with gay sex, that it should be hidden. And then there’s something uncomfortable about out and proud men who make a fetishistic game of risky, secretive sex, while so many others engage in it only because they are closeted, afraid for their reputation or their lives. In his text Screwball Asses, Guy Hocquenghem puts it beautifully: “I know how many queers only have toilets in which to touch each other. It depresses me that those who have decided to come out of hiding continue to project their excitement in the miserable places that the system condescends to allow them.” It seems odd to choose illicit public sex when you have other options. And it feels somehow exploitive to be out and free, but take little tours to fuck the closeted in the only spaces where they can express themselves sexually.
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Untitled (from the series “In the Vale of Cashmere”),2010
Thomas Roma. Courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery.
There’s a more straightforward reason to abandon cruising spots, too: In my experience, they’re miserable places.
Every, summer, I find myself inexorably drawn to Upper Manhattan’s parks at night. Sometimes I’m just tagging along with a friend or a partner—but for the most part, I go alone, without letting anyone know where I’ve gone. When I leave the street and descend into a park, I feel my heart pound in anticipation, just as James describes in Cashmere. Like Als, I feel that I am laying claim to my own darkly romantic story. But then the electricity begins to dissipate. I pace the same paths for hours, slowly lowering my expectations in order to hook up with whatever’s available. I realize I’m bored. And the men, even when they are beautiful and plentiful, seem just as ambivalent about the situation as I do. Despite the heady stories one hears about the ’70s and ’80s, a night of cruising these days always ends feeling hollow, even pathetic. For most of us modern cruisers, sex has become banal—it has lost its capacity to surprise and delight. And so we move not like revelers, but like lost souls in some forgotten ring of Dante’s Inferno, condemned to go through the motions of desire without feeling its pleasures. 
And yet we still hit the parks. In a country where gay sex is legal, some of us still insist on grasping for it while hidden among the trees after dark. In a time when gay men gather publicly in droves, we gather secretly in furtive little groups. When I try to explain my participation in the phenomenon to friends or even myself, I blame the unremitting heartbreak following a four-year relationship; or the anxiety around intimacy that cripples both my sister and me; or an inexplicable desire for self-destruction.
But maybe that’s overly dramatic. Two summers ago, I ran into a gorgeous cruiser on my way to the park. He was singing a mournful gospel tune under his breath. Someone like him could have had any boy he wanted at a Chelsea bar, but there he was, trudging doggedly toward a well-known spot. Baffled, I asked what someone like him was doing here. 
He shrugged. “I have to work early tomorrow. This is easy.” “Thomas Roma: In the Vale of Cashmere” is on view at Steven Kasher Gallery, New York City, through Dec. 19, 2015.
by   Miz Cracker 
in    Slate
Miz Cracker is a writer and drag queen living and werking in Harlem, New York. A current listing of her shows and appearances can be found at mizcracker.com.

February 7, 2015

Gay Cruising in India



                                                                      


NEW DELHI — Observing gay cruising in India felt like high-stakes bird watching — the fluttering of something delicate and intense. On a Sunday night in mid-December, I visited Nehru Park with a gay rights activist; he agreed to accompany me but asked to remain nameless, in part because homosexuality is illegal in India.

The 85-acre park, in a wealthy area of the capital that hosts most of the capital’s embassies, was poorly lit, rambling, and quiet. The travel website Cruising Gays called the park, which is named after India’s first prime minister, the “grand dame” of New Delhi’s cruising places. “On Sunday evenings, the gardens are rocking with over a hundred men hanging around, waiting, looking and just checking out the scene,” claimed an undated post on the site. “If you are a novice and looking to meet other men, this is the place you should start with.” The technique, the activist told me, was simple. Stroll, keeping your head up, and make eye contact with men who walk by. If someone catches your eye and smiles, walk up and say hello.

The park was nearly empty. The activist pointed out one man and we walked behind him stealthily, but he disappeared into the darkness. We spotted another, ambling through a path about 40 feet away from us. Twenty-five million people live in the Indian capital — it’s the world’s second largest city — but all I could hear were our footsteps, illuminated by the light on my iPhone, and my overactive breath. As we neared, preparing to say hello, I noticed the man was wearing a jaunty cap, and a uniform. Stepping closer, I saw a gun on his belt. “That’s a policeman,” the activist said quietly. If he knew what we were doing there, he chose to ignore it. We quickly walked away.

In December 2013, India’s Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality, overturning a 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court that had legalized same-sex relations. “Carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal,” can now once again be punished with up to 10 years in prison, according to the law — Section 377 of the Indian penal code. Accurate statistics on the size of India’s LGBT community are hard to come by, but some 7-10 percent of India’s population could be affected by the law, estimates Arvind Narrain, one of the founders of the Indian research organization Alternative Law Forum.

The ruling, however, appears to have barely affected cruising. There’s no good measure on the extent of cruising in New Delhi, or in India as a whole, but mobile apps like Grindr and Scruff — and the meet-up site Planet Romeo — are gaining popularity. Grindr, probably the best-known gay hook-up app, has 69,823 average active monthly users in India, according to a company spokesperson. While that’s relatively low (roughly equal to the number of active users the app has in Boston) it’s growing healthily, the spokesperson said.

In the United States, cruising has been mostly supplanted by the Internet and apps that facilitate meet ups and hook ups. With the Internet “came online cruising and a way for gay men to connect with one another besides the newspapers and clubs,” Johnny Skandros, the founder of Scruff, said in an email. “In the United States, it changed chronologically. Technology overhauled bars and cruising spots,” Parmesh Shahani, a gay activist and author of the book Gay Bombay, told me. “But in India, these parallel cultures [are] existing simultaneously.”

The Nehru Park activist tells me that he now meets men mostly online. That night, we ate at a restaurant called Soda Bottle Opener Wala in Khan Market, a touristy area popular with foreigners. He pulled up Grindr, and his screen was filled with nearby men, and a healthy backlog of unread messages. “So many!” he said.He pulled up Grindr, and his screen was filled with nearby men, and a healthy backlog of unread messages. “So many!” he said. Especially for those in the middle and upper class, “there’s definitely been a huge transition from the physical space to the Internet space,” he added.

India is still more than two-thirds rural and overwhelmingly poor, however; the country’s average per capita income on a purchasing power parity basis was just $5,412 in 2013. And while cellphones are common, less than 10 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people have smartphones. “Everyone talks about India as a land of IT, where there’s lots of nerds around, but it’s still just a very thin veneer of the middle class” that lives in that world, says the journalist Ashok Row Kavi. Especially among the working class and the lower middle class, who make up the majority of India’s gay population, “the cruising culture is still very strong,” he told me.

                                                                                                    
* * *
In an industrial area of New Delhi, full of gaping, half-finished buildings and shops selling cricket equipment, I visited one of India’s only gay spas. I had read about it online — but at the requests of activists I spoke with, I won’t reveal identifying details about the place. For a roughly $20 dollars entry and massage fee — a price that put it out of reach for the majority of New Delhi’s gay population — the attendee manning the front desk led me to a small room where roughly eight male prostitutes sat and watched television. They were diverse, to account for customer’s tastes: muscular, skinny, short, tall — with skin colors ranging from olive to dark brown. One of the massage rooms featured a single bleary red light hanging from the ceiling, and little else.

Like many of the people I spoke to, Row Kavi had been to the spa — but he didn’t like it. “It was very tacky,” he told me. “There isn’t much talk, socializing, or chatting. No reasonable discourse. It’s a wham-bam-thank-you-man kind of place.”

Row Kavi has been to Nehru Park too, but it’s not his scene either. “You see upper middle class queens cruising the bylanes, quick checks and off you go,” he told me. “That’s fine, but it doesn’t end up with any sort of social interaction.” He prefers the park above the Palika Bazaar in Connaught Place, a busy shopping area. “I used to go there once a month,” he said. “It’s like a fraternity of sisters gossiping away.”

The activist from Nehru Park told me that he also used to like the Palika Bazaar area. “It was extremely thrilling,” he said over dinner. “The thrill is that you’re doing it knowing that it was slightly dangerous, and it’s kind of a chase…. It’s quite addictive.”“The thrill is that you’re doing it knowing that it was slightly dangerous, and it’s kind of a chase…. It’s quite addictive.”

But I found the space incredibly depressing. The first time I went was on a Monday afternoon. I didn’t see anyone cruising; the only people I came across were slack-mouthed hucksters, with the physical tightness that in the United States might mark a flyweight boxer; in India, it screams malnutrition.

* * *
India’s Congress Party, long the dominant political force in the country and home to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, has been relatively liberal on the issue of gay rights. When the Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality in 2013, Congress spoke out in favor for the rights of India’s LGBT community. Other minor parties, including the Communist Party of India, have also voiced support for gay rights.

But in May 2014, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, won a resounding election victory. Many gay rights activists I spoke to said they didn’t vote for Modi’s party because of its social conservatism, but that they were in a wait-and-see mode: wary of the aftereffects of December 2013 ruling, but unwilling to speak out against the BJP because they didn’t want to force Modi to comment on homosexuality. Believed to be celibate, though previously married at a young age, Modi has been quiet on the issue. Homosexuality “is a matter for the courts, not the government,” M.J. Akbar, a spokesman for the BJP told me. “I don’t have any sense of what’s Modi’s view on homosexuality.

Still, the status quo is dangerous. Indian government data shows 587 people arrested under Section 377 from Jan.-Oct. 2014. But as some Indian states lack complete reports, the total is almost certainly higher. The problem, however, is persecution — not prosecution. Narrain describes it as a pyramid, with the hundreds of cases actually recorded at the top, and at the bottom, an uncountable number of cases where the law is used to blackmail, harass, and extort.

The activist whom I walked Nehru Park with became much less enthusiastic about cruising after cops caught him in a park several years ago. The inspector “was a nice guy and let me go,” he told me. He had been lucky. Friends of his had been beaten up, abused, and blackmailed. But the experience scared him. “It’s not quite pleasant,” the activist said. “I decided it wasn’t worth it.”

In December 2013, Rajnath Singh, then BJP president and now minister of home affairs, told reporters “Gay sex is not natural and we cannot support something which is unnatural.” Since then, some gay rights advocates have made the Hindu case for queerness. Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular Indian author, recently published a book called Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, which he describes as an “appreciation” of queerness in Indian mythology. Pattanaik sees references to queerness throughout Hindu mythology being ignored — from the male god Krishna braiding his hair as a woman to stories “of men who become women, and women who become men, of men who create children without women … and creatures who are neither this, nor that, but a little bit of both.” Hijra, India’s third gender — which encompasses transgender, eunuchs, and intersex — is legally recognized, although they are “ignored by the mainstream, often rejected by her own family, reduced to a joke in popular entertainment,” notes Pattanaik.

The book opens with an admonition appropriate for India, both today and in the colonial era: “Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex.”“Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex.” Celibacy runs through Indian political culture, and the country’s independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, is also its most famous celibate. He found intercourse problematic, and would reportedly occasionally sleep naked next to attractive young women, to demonstrate his mastery over desire. But India’s Section 377 is a legacy of the British Raj. (Homosexuality in the United Kingdom was effectively criminalized until 1967.) In one of the earliest known usages of the law, in 1884, “the somewhat aptly named J. Straight was called upon to adjudicate whether a person who habitually wore women’s clothes and exhibited physical signs of having committed the offence had indeed committed the offence,” Narrain wrote in an essay. Police arresting men for “acting” gay still happens today, he told me. “If you perceive them to be L, G, B, or T, then you got them under this law,” he said.

And Bollywood, India’s hugely influential film industry, isn’t helping. “Making jokes at the expense of alternate sexual preferences is the norm in Bollywood,” said film critic Komal Nahta. There are a few openly gay Bollywood directors, but “no gay icons, no major Bollywood stars who have come out, no influential CEOs who have made their sexual orientation public,” the novelist Manil Suri wrote in a June 2013 essay in the literary magazine Granta.

For some, there is a joy in proclaiming one’s sexual identity. In The Man Who Would Be Queen, a collection of “autobiographical fictions” by the Indian author Hoshang Merchant, the narrator proclaims, “‘As everyone knows by now, I’m homosexual.’ To write this sentence to speak it publicly, which is a great liberation, is why I write.” But like many of the people associated with the Indian gay rights movement, Merchant has spent substantial time away from India. Suri’s essay is entitled “How to be Gay and Indian”; he lives in Maryland.

Back in India, gay culture remains mostly in the shadows. Later in my trip to New Delhi, I returned to the park above the Palika Bazaar, recommended by the activist from Nehru Park. It was the time of evening haze, and unlike the silence in Nehru Park, this well-kept lawn pulsated with the cacophony of car horns and tires screeching and loud and soft and angry and happy voices. There I saw a short man, with a clean, oversized gray hooded sweatshirt and a bit of a paunch. He walked around the space like it was his own, and then returned to the fence he had been leaning against, as dozens of men milled about the park, ignoring him. He smiled warmly, and then raised his eyebrows — as if trying to lead them to an overwhelming question.


INDRANIL MUKHERJEE 

September 14, 2013

Sex in the Soviet Closet } History of Gay Cruising in MoScOw



© Yegveniy Fiks

Sex in the Soviet closet: a history of gay cruising in Moscow

One day in 1955, a railway stoker named Klimov entered the GUM department store, looking for a bite to eat. While inside, Klimov, 27, stopped by the bathroom.
"In the toilet a young lad came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Let's get acquainted,'" Klimov later recalled. The man's name was Volodya. He invited Klimov to the Lenin Museum.
"He bought the tickets with his money, and we went straight to the men's toilet."
An intimate encounter began, but they were interrupted by a pair of strangers.
Several weeks later, the men happened to meet in the GUM toilet again. This time, they opted for the secluded woods of Sokolniki Park.
From 1933 to 1993, homosexuality was officially outlawed in Russia under Article 121 of the Soviet Criminal Code. But all the while, the Communist capital's most famous landmarks served as pick-up spots for gay men.
In a new photo book, titled "Moscow" and published by Ugly Duckling Presse, Russian-American photographer Yevgeniy Fiks captures the city's Soviet cruising grounds as they look today. They are familiar to any resident of the city: the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater, Alexandrovsky Sad, Okhotny Ryad metro station.
Most of the spots are usually crowded. But in Fiks' photos, they stand empty.
"This book is a type of kaddish [mourning prayer] for the lost and repressed generations of Soviet-era gays," Fiks said.
Invisible to most Muscovites, cruising grounds composed a silent topography that existed parallel to Soviet life - offering the possibility of same-sex love in a society that did not acknowledge its existence.
***
A 1955 encounter began in the Lenin Museum
© Yegveniy Fiks
A 1955 encounter began in the Lenin Museum
In Europe, the practice of cruising dates from at least the 17th century. Cruising "comes from city life. People could gather anonymously in cities and meet a partner," said Dan Healey, a professor at the University of Reading.
"There's nothing physically that sets apart a person who's heterosexual, so if you're in the homosexual minority, you're dependent on other factors," said Healey, who has written extensively on the history of Russian gay life. "One of those is location."
The basic features of cruising took shape in Paris and other cosmopolitan capitals. Men looking for sex with other men frequented a certain public place - a park, a statue, a train station, a toilet. Contact usually started with a glance that lingered a second too long. One man struck up a conversation, often asking for a cigarette or the time. If both parties were interested, an encounter either occurred on the spot, or the pair moved to a more private location.
From the beginning, Healey said, cruising was generally a male pursuit. Thanks to their mobility, work outside the home and drinking culture, men could roam freely in a way that was generally denied to women.
Cruising came to Moscow during the country's rapid urbanization process in the late 19th century. As the city became a manufacturing center, it developed extensive transportation networks, and its population boomed. In 1861, there were 350,000 people living in the city; by 1917, there were 1.4 million.
Though some sexual contact between men had long been tolerated in Russian culture - particularly under the influence of alcohol - the Western ideas introduced by Peter the Great gradually led to homosexuality's stigmatization. In 1835, sodomy was declared a crime.
But as Moscow industrialized, public space offered new possibilities for homosexual contact. Beer halls catered to men seeking the company of other men, fostering a new gay subculture.
Cruising first emerged on the Boulevard Ring. Dotted with benches, kiosks and public toilets, the boulevards provided equal amounts of openness and seclusion. They were conveniently located near transportation links, but also shielded by trees.
In 1912, a 17-year-old peasant named Pavel had his first homosexual experience on the Boulevard Ring while walking home from a night class. After his first few encounters, he began cruising Prechistensky and Nikitsky Bulvar every night: "It was boring to stay at home."
Pavel described his experiences in 1927 to a Soviet psychiatrist, who wrote about them in a medical journal. While the article framed Pavel's story as a case study of a psychopathic prostitute, it provided a wealth of information about Russia's flourishing gay male subculture before the Revolution, which Pavel recalled as "a marvelous time."
After becoming the lover of Prince Felix Yusupov, who hired him as a manservant, Pavel began receiving invitations to balls of "woman-haters" where the men dressed in drag.
But cruising was proscribed by class boundaries. Aristocratic gay men such as Yusupov or composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky sought out partners through servants and lower-class contacts, preferring to avoid the risk of public recognition that cruising entailed, as Healey notes in a chapter on Moscow in "Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600."
***
The two men were later arrested in Sokolniki Park by police officers walking their dog
© Yegveniy Fiks
The two men were later arrested in Sokolniki Park by police officers walking their dog
After decriminalizing homosexuality in 1917, the Bolsheviks were split on the gay question. Some ideologues proclaimed that homosexuals, like women, were an oppressed group in need of liberation. Others, however, thought that same-sex relations were a bourgeois excess that would be cured by socialist medicine.
When sodomy was recriminalized in 1933, cruising grounds didn't disappear; in fact, their numbers exploded.
Many aspects of Soviet life contributed to the cruising boom. Crowded dormitories and communal apartments led people (both gay and straight) to seek out alternative spaces for sex. Social institutions such as banyas and bars were turned over to the state, effectively ending the possibility for private gatherings.
Meanwhile, improved transportation networks made urban space more accessible. Thanks to the new metro system, which opened in 1935, anyone could get to the center in a matter of minutes.
The Bolshoi, Trubnaya Ploshchad and Alexandrovsky Sad became popular, as did farther-flung spots such as the embankment by Moscow State University. Public toilets took on new significance, particularly at Alexandrovsky Sad. Peak cruising time came at the end of the work day.
By the 1960s, a kind of gay circuit had developed near the Kremlin. It was almost identical to the favorite strolling route of most Muscovites, beginning at the Bolshoi, winding past GUM and Lubyanka, and ending at Kitai-Gorod. Moscow's gay world mirrored its straight world - only the former was hidden.
A gay lexicon emerged to describe cruising. The word "pleshka" - which means a bald spot or, literally, an open area - became slang for a pick-up spot. The stony Karl Marx statue across from the Bolshoi was dubbed "director of the pleshka"; in almost every Russian city, Lenin statues became "Tyotenka Lena," or "Auntie Lena." Using such code enabled men to discreetly arrange encounters (as in, "Meet me at Auntie Lena's").
Most city-dwellers remained unaware of the terminology, much less the gay subculture. Of several older Muscovites questioned, none were familiar with the term "pleshka." "I don't even know what you're talking about," said Valentina, 75, who declined to give her last name.
Roman Kalinin, 47, began going to Moscow's pleshkas in 1985. "Finding a place to go was a huge problem," he said. "We couldn't go back to our apartments - gays usually lived with spouses, with parents."
In summer, Kalinin would stand in front of the Bolshoi; in winter, the action moved to Okhotny Ryad metro. After meeting, pairs often decamped to Tsentralniye Bani, near the Bolshoi.
When asked who cruised, he said, "Everyone."
"You have to understand, there was simply nowhere else to go."
Cruising carried serious risks, especially after World War II, when enforcement of the anti-sodomy statute increased. There were informants among the men who frequented pleshki, and KGB entrapment was common.
In 1944, Vadim Kozin, a hugely popular Soviet singer, was arrested and sent to the gulag at Magadan. While Kozin didn't cruise, his sexual orientation was an open secret. The message was clear: Homosexuality would not be tolerated.
Most stories of homosexual encounters in Soviet Moscow come from the court cases of people who were arrested. Klimov and Volodya, the couple who met in the GUM bathroom and proceeded to Sokolniki, were caught in the act by policemen walking their dog. Both were sentenced to three years in prison. Other court cases described men caught in bathrooms, or lying by train tracks.
Nevertheless, cruising may still have been safer in the Soviet Union than in the West. In the 1940s and 1950s, more people were arrested every year for homosexual activity in New York and London than in Moscow, according to Healey. (Accurate figures for the Soviet Union are difficult to obtain, as parts of the FSB archives remain closed.)
Despite the risks, gay people continued finding one another in public places until 1993, when the anti-sodomy law was repealed. By this time, spots had arisen where lesbians gathered as well - most famously, the Yesenin monument on Tverskoi Bulvar.
By the early '90s, Kalinin said, the main fear was not police exposure, but thugs that began hanging around spots such as the Bolshoi. He recalled how a friend once came to a cruising spot, only to encounter a group of men with semi-automatics.
"After that, he was never seen at a pleshka again," he said.
***
On a blustery autumn day, dozens of tourists, commuters and homeless people were wandering by the Monument to the Heroes of Plevna, the Russo-Turkish War monument at the crest of Kitai-Gorod that was once a public toilet. Some simply strolled past; others lingered, their faces lighting up as friends arrived.
A few, however, remained alone, their eyes scanning the crowd.
"We just call it ‘going to China,'" said Dima, 28, who was sitting by the monument.
Thanks to the availability of gay clubs and Internet sites, cruising has died off in cities around the world. Now, gay men don't need to hang around toilets; they can simply switch on their mobiles.
A popular smartphone app, Grindr, alerts users to nearby gay men looking for intimacy, complete with name, photo and exact proximity. While it doesn't show as many results as in, say, New York, Grindr's Moscow version still produces a bounty of options. On a recent afternoon in an apartment outside the center, the closest potential partner was only 400 meters away.
Today, the people who cruise at Kitai-Gorod generally can't afford a computer or smartphone. Many of them are looking for cash. "It's like going to a brothel," Dima said.
Russian Orthodox activists have occasionally picketed the area, but it seems to have had little effect. Sitting at the base of the statue, Dima indicated the men he thought were on the prowl: a 20-something Central Asian man in a sweatsuit, a grey-haired Russian in a green shirt and suit jacket. Both eventually strolled off, alone.
There are places in Moscow where old-fashioned cruising still occurs, even among people with Internet access: train station toilets, the beach at Serebryanny Bor. Certain saunas also cater to gay men.
Despite their soured reputation, historic spots such as Kitai-Gorod still hold some allure for young people - particularly those in the closet, for whom the idea of picking up a stranger seems an impossible thrill. "When I was 13 or maybe 15, I read about this place," Dima said. "I wanted to come here, but I was afraid."
Dima says he has successfully cruised at Kitai-Gorod twice in the past year, and has been approached many more times.
"One time I came here to stroll around for no reason in particular," he said. "I heard footsteps behind me, and I could feel that someone was undressing me with his eyes. I turned around and saw a middle-aged man in a feminine sort of suit.
"He asked me, ‘Young man, would you like to drink a coffee?' And I said, ‘Thanks, I already drank one.' He said, ‘Okay, sorry.'
"I said, ‘Happy hunting.'"

‘An idiot and a degenerate'

Yevgeniy Fiks' "Moscow" ends with an excerpt from a 1934 letter to Josef Stalin by gay British Communist Harry Whyte, then the 27-year-old head of The Moscow News' editorial staff.
Born in Edinburgh, Whyte worked for Communist newspapers in Britain before joining The Moscow News in 1932. He was singled out as the paper's "best shock worker," and promoted the next year.
The letter, titled "Can a Homosexual Be a Member of the Communist Party?" was a rousing condemnation of the 1933 Soviet law recriminalizing homosexuality. Whyte cited his own promotion at The Moscow News as evidence for why homosexuals should be accepted in Soviet society.
"Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked," he wrote.
Whyte originally addressed the letter to The Moscow News' editor-in-chief, Mikhail Borodin. After Borodin declined to send it, Whyte addressed it to Stalin himself.
Now located in the state archives, the letter's first page bore the instruction: "Archive. An idiot and a degenerate. J. Stalin." There is only one article containing Whyte's byline in The Moscow News archive ("Koltzov - the journalistic artist," April 3, 1933). His fate remains unknown.

‘Different from the Others'

In the 1920s, the first Soviet People's Commissar for Public Health, Nikolai Semashko, proclaimed that homosexuals were fully-fledged members of Soviet society. The speech, however, was made in Berlin.
While Bolshevik ideologists remained divided on the gay question, there was one country that had a true gay rights movement in the 1920s: Germany. German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Community, a gay rights group, and campaigned for the repeal of Article 175, the German law that criminalized homosexuality. He won prominent supporters including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann before the rise of the Third Reich put an end to the movement.
In the '20s, Hirschfeld was respected in the Soviet Union as the world's leading sexologist. The first Soviet People's Commissar for Public Health, Nikolai Semashko, was in contact with Hirschfield, and met him on an official visit to Berlin. Semashko attended a screening of Hirschfeld's 1919 film "Different from the Others," which featured one of the first gay characters on film. The movie starred Conrad Veidt as a blackmailed gay man whose career-ruining decision to come out drives him to suicide.
Semashko's speech after the film praised the repeal of Russia's tsarist anti-homosexuality law and gay people's status in the collective. But such language was never repeated at home, and by 1933, it was entirely verboten.

Gay Soviet singer Vadim Kozin, arrested and sent to Magadan in 1944, singing his 1938 hit "Druzhba":


Did you hear the one about gays at the Bolshoi?

A day after our story "Sex in the Soviet closet" went to print, city magazine Bolshoi Gorod published an article on unofficial sexual culture in the Soviet Union that also discussed Soviet attitudes toward homosexuality.
"People talked about gays calmly. They didn't shock anyone," writes author Anya Aivazyan.
She recalls an old Soviet joke about cruising. A person comes to the square in front of the Bolshoi Theater and sits down on a bench, where someone strokes his knee. He moves to another bench, and someone throws an arm around his shoulder. On the third bench, someone tries to kiss him. He approaches a police officer and says, ‘Comrade Sergeant, the faggots are hitting on me!" The police officer says sweetly, "So why did you come to our garden?"
Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #35"
 

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