It started with a phone call in early July. A distressed man in his mid-forties, his voice tight with anxiety, telephoned BuzzFeed News to say the police had just apprehended him for cottaging.
Speaking quickly, he said they had stopped him in London’s Liverpool Street station toilets, paraded him through the station, taken his name and address, questioned him, and warned him that if he was found there again he would be arrested and could have to sign the sex offender register. We will call him Tim.
Clandestine sexual encounters between men in public conveniences sound like a black-and-white scene from the 1950s, not a practice still prevalent 50 years after decriminalisation. But Tim is far from alone and, it transpires, his experiences with the police are far from uncommon.
What the phone call led to was unexpected: the uncovering of multiple issues that in 2017 many presume are no longer relevant – let alone unresolved – and multiple questions that have never been answered.
Why, in an age of Grindr and internet dating and supposed liberation, are men still meeting for sex in toilets? How can this be policed without damaging the relationship with the LGBT community? Are the laws in this area still fit for purpose – and how can they be applied to serve the public as a whole?
The questions also expose the difficulties of allocating police resources (in the case of Liverpool Street, those of the British Transport police) when the 21st-century horrors of terrorism demand so much. And whether police can observe members of the public going to the toilet without invading the privacy of the innocent.
Over the next few weeks, BuzzFeed News began interviewing individuals who go cottaging, including one public figure. (In the USA, toilets where men meet for sex are sometimes called “tearooms” rather than cottages – and in Australia, they are called “beats”.)
What emerged was a parallel world much deeper, more secretive and more complex than first appears – one of both the liberated and the closeted; of politicians and celebrities mixing with the most private of people; where self-discovery and escapism intermingle with addiction, abuse, and sexual violence.
Some started going to toilets for sex when they were still children.
As such, the picture formed by the cottagers has several faces: For some, it is a shadow of what lies outside. For others, a burst of oxygen in otherwise airless lives. And for the rest, a joyous, even defiant paroxysm of lust, unencumbered by the prim restraints of heterosexual life.
What began, then, as an investigation into the confines of sex in public toilets, came to expose wide and unexpected areas: how little the inner lives of many gay and bisexual men have changed, how a homophobic culture fuels child sexual abuse, and how much the response to cottaging affects everyone.
Judgment and shame, meanwhile, encircle the practice, and from parts of all communities. Why, it is asked, do they have to do that? It’s disgusting. It’s dirty.
As each man’s story begins to unfold, the responses to these jabs swirl together, sometimes echoing each other, often in the most surprising and devastating ways imaginable.
None of this is simple.
Tim had walked down the steps to the toilet at the Liverpool Street station when, he says, he saw about eight men standing at the urinal masturbating, looking straight ahead at the wall. Only he and one other turned to face each other. They did not touch. And they did not see the police entering.
“Just as I was coming the cops appeared,” he says. There were three officers.
Tim is muscular and tattooed, with deep laughter lines and an unusually expressive way of speaking, as if trying to conjure the feeling of each word with his tone. We speak twice.
“They said, ‘Can you follow me?’ They took us upstairs and said, ‘Do you know that what you were doing is illegal? They then walked us through the station.”
While doing this, says Tim, one of the policemen stopped to speak to a fourth officer. “He whispered in his ear and I remember the guy saying, ‘Oh, well done.’”
The officers sat Tim and the other man down near the station’s taxi rank. “They read us the riot act. It all became about kids: ‘What if a kid had walked in? Are you aware you could go on the sex offenders list for doing what you’ve done?’ He was trying to scare us.”
One of the policemen took their names and addresses and asked about previous convictions before leaving them with another officer to check their details. On his return, the policeman, says Tim, “told us they were going to let us off with a warning and they would take a photograph of us so that there’s a record in case we ever did it again.”
Tim was left confused by this: unsure why they took his photo, wondering if it was simply a scare tactic. He also says they were not told where their details would be stored, what the record was, or for how long the details would be kept. Then they were free to go.
The experience shook him up. “It was embarrassing, shaming,” he says, and without any public statements by police in recent times about their response to cottaging he has no idea whether it was a one-off incident in response to a complaint from a member of the public or whether it was part of a wider operation. Given the more pressing concerns of counterterrorism, he says, prioritising cottaging would be wrong.
A few months before Tim was caught, another man found himself in the grasps of the British Transport police. We’ll call him Andrew.
He says he had been standing at the urinals next to another man. Both had their penises in their own hands. Andrew looked over at the other man’s, at which point he heard a voice call out.
“The police were where the sinks are. They said, ‘You! I see you! You two come with us, if you try to run we’ll arrest you.’ They were looking down the urinals.”
He says two uniformed officers led them upstairs and asked him why he thought they had brought him up there. It was then that Andrew noticed they were wearing cameras: small devices attached to the uniforms, which the British Transport police call “body-worn video” (aka BWV) cameras.
Afterwards, when they were let go after an almost identical process to the one Tim had described, Andrew was left anxiously wondering if the cameras were turned on, and whether they had filmed him in the toilets. The police had not mentioned them to him, he said.
He says the police told him they would not press charges if he admitted what he had been doing. “He said I was lucky he wasn’t charging me because otherwise I would be on the sex offenders register.” The officer, he says, also asked, “What if a kid had seen that?”
All the men BuzzFeed News spoke to, in response to this question, said that cottagers stop the moment a child enters and were horrified at the idea of anyone underage witnessing such activity.
“I was very scared,” says Andrew about the experience overall. “I disagreed with what they were doing so I would have liked to have argued, but I [felt] I was going to get arrested if I did.”
The history and context to such police interventions sits uneasily with many officers today and many members of the LGBT community, making straightforward decisions about how to manage such activity in 2017 a fiendishly difficult balance.
The fear expressed by Tim and Andrew, and the wider anxiety among many, especially older gay and bisexual men, is informed by extraordinary behaviour by some officers throughout decades of targeted crackdowns and entrapment of men in public lavatories, drawing accusations of brutality and homophobia. Not least during times when all gay sex was illegal and almost all men had to remain in the closet, many trapped in sham marriages, from which sex in toilets offered the only outlet.
When George Michael, therefore, was caught in a Los Angeles toilet in 1998, the fury he later expressed through his satirical song and video "Outside", mocking the officer who he says had entrapped him, was not merely personal. The policing of cottaging had become, like stop-and-search policies, incendiary, politicised. For some, this remains the case.
Michael, a smiley, salt-and-pepper-haired businessman, has for nearly 40 years gone cottaging and cruising across the country. Now in his fifties, he begins to talk about what happened to him in the 1980s and 1990s.
On one occasion at Liverpool Street station, he says, “The police came along with a mirror on the end of a long pole. This officer was going along with this mirror, along the tops of the cubicles, and banging on doors. But that of course included looking at people on their own having a poo. I was outraged.” Michael says he also witnessed this technique at Manchester Victoria railway station.
He made an appointment with the British Transport police. “I said, ‘This is just wrong. What you need is the support of a community in order to police a community. You want those same people you’re pissing off to ring you up and say we saw a suspicious car outside.’ I said, ‘Your response [to cottaging] is kneejerk, and what happens is you send out officers and it becomes a vessel for their homophobia.’”
Michael says he has experienced this himself, that in a cottage in Hackney, east London, he was the victim of a police sting. Although such things are now seemingly not practised, for decades the police sent young, attractive plainclothes officers (dubbed “pretty policemen”) into toilets, to pose as fellow cottagers.
That is what the LA police did with George Michael and what the Metropolitan police did with the celebrated actor Sir John Gielgud in the 1950s, leading in both cases to their arrest and public shaming. (Former prime minister Edward Heath, by contrast, was also allegedly warned about cottaging in the 1950s, but this was concealed until after his death.) That day in Hackney, Michael unknowingly approached an officer.
“This guy stood next to me and started getting his dick out and getting it hard and wanking and waving it.” This might sound extreme, not least because by doing so the officer himself committed an offence, but such practices were not uncommon for undercover officers.
As soon as Michael responded, he says the officer “roughed me up a bit – pushed me around. They wanted some ID and I got my wallet out and I remember them taking my credit cards and throwing them on the ground. They just wanted to humiliate me.” They did not arrest him. (When approached by BuzzFeed News, the Metropolitan police declined to respond to historical allegations and instead a spokesperson said that “current policies and procedures have been formed working with key LGBT partners” and that they “do not proactively patrol” public toilets.)
Michael remembers something else about the policing of toilets. “In Liverpool Street I used to see endless girls pissed out their brains and disappearing into cubicles with men. In the gents. And nothing was done about them. They don’t get prosecuted.”
On several occasions over the years, Michael says he has spoken to officers policing cottages and asks them to imagine a scenario that tends to shift their attitudes. “I will say, ‘Think for a moment. You’re driving home from work and you could stop at any one of six places and you could go in and get a quick blow job off a woman, no one would ever know about it. Do you think you wouldn’t be tempted?’”
For Michael, the policing of cottages today cannot replicate the past. Making apprehending men in toilets any kind of priority “creates a witch hunt”, he says. “It creates an anti-LGBT feeling when actually these things are a matter of taste.”
The only problem is, these things are in fact a matter of law. According to Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sex in a public toilet is illegal. But this is the only place specifically mentioned in law where sex is forbidden – a place notoriously and historically known for where gay and bisexual men have sex.
Places such as so-called lovers’ lanes, laybys or car parks where heterosexuals meet for sex – “dogging” – are not mentioned in law.
By contrast, Section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act, which beefed up previous laws to prohibit any form of sexual activity in toilets, was a deliberate attempt to quash cottaging.
And although other general laws relate to sex in public, there has been no particular attempt by lawmakers to stop it in spaces favoured by heterosexuals.
The application of these laws, therefore, has to be proportionate and equal in order to avoid appearing or being discriminatory. A further complication arises from the fact that police intervention in public sex is often in response to complaints from the public. With a significant minority of the British public still disapproving of homosexuality, this therefore poses the question: Are complaints more likely if it is two men having sex rather than a man and a woman?
Superintendent Jenny Gilmer of the British Transport police insists to BuzzFeed News that it is the crime rather than who is committing it that concerns the public, and rejects any suggestion that gay or bisexual men are being targeted by the force.
According to British Transport police figures, however, 92% of people “formally dealt with as suspects” by their officers for sex in public toilets between 2012 and 2017 were men (making up 91 individuals). They were unable to provide figures of the total number of people who were stopped by officers and given “informal words of guidance”.
Gilmer was concerned by some of the experiences with police of the men who spoke to BuzzFeed News. In particular, the lack of information given regarding the record on which details of those apprehended would be kept.
“The officer should have been very clear about the information they were taken and what would be done with it," says Gilmer. "If they weren’t then that has potentially been a shortcoming on their part.” Such details would be kept, she says, on an intelligence database for police use that could be there “indefinitely”.
Body-worn cameras, meanwhile, are “increasingly prevalent,” she says. “In the normal course of events if the officers were activating the body-worn camera then they would tell the person they were speaking to that they were activating it.” According to Andrew, this did not happen.
The use of mirrors on poles is unacceptable, says Gilmer. “If I was advised that any of my officers had been using a tactic such as that I would [consider] a gross invasion of privacy.” And while stating that to the best of her knowledge “pretty policemen” are not used by the British Transport police, Gilmer adds, “But we have come a long way over the past 10, 20 years.”
Overall, she rejects any suggestion that apprehending men in toilets prevents the British Transport police from pursuing counterterrorism policing, which remains their “number one priority”, but refers to the four officers deployed to apprehend Tim as “excessive”.
Beyond policing, there are myriad alternative measures used to curb cottaging: the use of toilet attendants and cleaning staff, CCTV, partitions between urinals, and sturdier walls between cubicles with no gaps underneath.
But why do men go to toilets for sex, and how does it work?
Not all conveniences are used for cottaging and so men interested in sex will often first look for particular signs: homoerotic graffiti or drawings. Beyond that, according to the men who spoke to BuzzFeed News, behaviour is everything. They describe a series of codes that communicate intention.
Tim explains that the first thing cottagers do to ascertain if men are looking for sex is to notice “how long they take – if someone goes in for a bit longer, you know that the chances are that they are looking. There’s also the ‘one shake too many’ and all the nuances, the subtle glances.”
In cubicles, men communicate through the partitions. “There’s the cough,” says Tim, “the foot moving slowly closer [under the partition], or tapping to see if you tap.” All of which is also made easier, he says, if there is a hole made in the wall between the stalls – called a glory hole. Through this, messages scribbled on toilet paper can be passed, or it can be looked through before action commences.
All of which leads to how men come to discover sex in toilets, and why it becomes a habit.
Most of the men who spoke to BuzzFeed News found cottaging at a young age when they were either in the closet or bereft of other means of contact with LGBT people. Many were underage.
Michael, the previously mentioned businessman, was 18, growing up in suburban east London in the early 1980s, when he saw graffiti on the walls of Newbury Park station toilets. Jewish, closeted, and with a girlfriend, he was trying to adhere to his religion strictly. But the graffiti beckoned him.
“People used to draw these little tables which used to say age, size, and likes. So you’d have 23, 7.5 inches, sucking and wanking. You had this palpable sense of excitement that this is a place where [gay] people come.”
One day while sitting in a cubicle, he saw a hole in the partition. “I remember leaning towards the hole and to my utter shock there was an eye on the other side, blinking. And then he was showing me his cock and the penny dropped. He came out the cubicle, knocked on mine, and I let him in.”
Understanding how it worked enabled Michael to return. “I became transfixed by this place,” he says. But he wasn’t simply looking for quick, anonymous sex. “I wanted to meet someone that I could express all this physical passion with and direct it to someone I love.”
He describes the allure of cottaging as “escapism, it suspends anxiety. Being in a cubicle, it’s a place where you can feel safe and completely yourself. It’s a leveller. We don’t have to put any social or professional masks on, there’s no pressure.”
Outside the toilet, he had no avenues for such expression. When he told his father he was attracted to men, he was sent to a psychiatrist. He later married his girlfriend and continued to go cottaging.
As with many of the men who spoke to BuzzFeed News, the time spent in toilets was for Michael a parallel existence, a break from everyday life. But afterwards, reality would swiftly return.
“I would come home and say a prayer,” he says, looking down. “It was really sad. There was no platform on which I could be a gay man and feel proud of who I was and normalise my relationship and make them equal to someone else at that point. So it gave me something, but it was tainted with darkness and shame.”
If homosexuality were as widely accepted and valued as heterosexuality, so that even today there were not people struggling in the closet, then cottaging would dwindle, he says. “It’s a by-product of society’s oppression. Society is quick to condemn it, but society has to understand that in large parts it’s created this.”
Nearly 40 years later, now out about his sexuality and in a relationship with a man, Michael still indulges. “I don’t think it’s realistic to change it; it’s too deeply wired into who you are. And I’m alright with it, I just need to make sure I don’t do too much of it.”
For all the darkness, however, there have also been endless wonderful experiences for Michael. “I’ve met people I just fell in love with intensely on the spot. There’s been people [to whom] afterwards I’ve said, ‘Shall we get a coffee?’ When you go somewhere and meet someone stunning and it’s intense and intimate, you would come out of there and just feel very good about being a human being: that feeling that you’re alive.”
Steve, who grew up in Ireland before moving to London, is now in his late fifties, with a breezy, sex-positive, almost pugnacious attitude towards cottaging and cruising in parks.
He began aged 40, while still married. He noticed something in Charing Cross station toilets one night that would change his life.
“I was having a pee and about three urinals down there was a young, attractive black guy nonchalantly stroking this big hard-on, and I thought, That’s quite visible. Curiosity got the better of me and a couple of days later at rush hour I went down there and there was somebody at each urinal, all wanking like fury.”
From that day, he returned and returned, “Like the valve on a steam pressure cooker.” He knew as a teenager who he was but he was terrified. That fear he can trace to one sentence.
“A family friend molested me,” he says. Steve was 7. Aged 11 or 12, he told one of his brothers. “He said, ‘You can’t mention that to anyone because if that’s true that makes you a homosexual and our father has said that if he had a gay son he’d throw them out the house.'”
Steve talks about the men he has met, the passionate, glorious experiences he has had, as well as the encounters with police and queer-bashers, and prefers to explain his penchant in functional terms, resisting psychological interpretations.
“Men are terrible slags,” he says, sunnily. “The attraction of toilets and cruising grounds is ready availability. I think you have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘I just like sucking random cock.’”
Tim and Andrew, both caught by police in Liverpool Street station, and both in their forties, also discovered cottaging as teenagers, when there were few other options.
For Tim, now a successful man in early middle age, looking back is not easy. He was 7 when he first saw a glory hole in a British Home Stores toilet. It would be 10 years before he acted on what he saw, at a toilet near the family home.
“I can remember sitting there and thinking, Wow, everybody’s going in there. It blew me away that it wasn’t camp gay guys or really obvious gay guys. It was straight builders and married businessmen and old men and…” He begins to talk about what cottaging gave him when he was young: “Excitement, relief, feeling attractive, feeling desired."
But he came to rely on this. “It would numb,” he says, describing the psychological grip that cottaging held him in as a kind of hypnotic loop.
“Whatever was happening in your head – anxiety, depression – by stepping into [a cottage], it would immediately move you out of that." Conversely, it can also exacerbate such distress, he says. "Because you have taken the day off work for it, because you have been doing it 15 times, because the person you chose was not very nice. Or you took a risk.”
Through his twenties, exploration morphed into addiction; a “trap, a prison”.
“It became the answer and the fallback of everything. If I was feeling good, bad, bored, excited, it became a nonstop shop for every feeling or lack of feeling. It almost felt self-harming at times. I knew that it was going to hurt, but I wouldn’t be able to stop it.”
Since then, his relationship to cottaging has eased as his mental health has significantly improved, but complexities remain. It can both bolster and batter self-esteem, he says, but remains preferable to dating apps as there is less judgment about one’s physical appearance: a relief from the heightened discernment and casual cruelty often found on Grindr and Scruff.
“You don’t have to put yourself out there, or write a profile, you don’t have to say what you like and what you don’t like, you don’t have to put your picture up.” And, in any case, he says, the question of why men still go cottaging in 2017 deserves only one response: Why not?
“It feels like the dominant culture says, ‘Oh well, if you’ve got this [apps], then you shouldn’t want this [cottages].’ Well, who says?”
Andrew, 40, grew up in the countryside and first discovered graffiti in a local toilet when he was 12 or 13 – he cannot remember exactly. “I didn’t know anyone that had those feelings, that there were other gay men,” he says. His voice is husky, wispy, with a faraway detached quality, as if he does not want to relive those times.
He would go after school, while also in denial about being gay, and meet men there. “It wasn’t hugely pleasurable because the guys weren’t hot, but I kept going back.” He tries to explain, that he kept hoping there would be someone attractive, but looking back now he sees what was underlying this.
“I was looking for some kind of acknowledgement of my existence.”
While the law is clear that what was happening when he was underage was abuse, complexity swirls around how Andrew perceives it. He says he once felt anger towards the men he met in toilets then but now feels sympathy for them; that life was so different and difficult for gay men that standard rules are less easy to apply.
Also, he says, “No one dragged me to the cottages – I knew what I was getting into.” The law is also clear that this makes no difference: You cannot consent if underage.
But within this, he also acknowledges harm he uncovered while later seeking help.
“In therapy I explored the idea of owning my own sexuality and I wish I’d had the confidence to be able to say no. I think if I was growing up now I would be able to negotiate that with more confidence.”
His experiences lead to that of Luke’s, whose story conjures the darkest elements of this world. Now in his early thirties, he is stubbly, handsome, and works in the arts.
Luke grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, in a “very” working-class household, with, he says, few resources.
He first noticed graffiti in a park toilet near his house when he was 10.
“It was a dirty, stinky toilet,” he says, his Stoke accent resonating through a rich voice that vibrates widely. “People were writing things like ‘get sucked off here’ and ‘I’m here between 5pm and 7pm every day’ with some pornographic drawings. I remember it being incredibly terrifying and incredibly exciting at the same time. I was like, Oh, there’s another world. That’s the first time I knew there were other gay people.”
It was around this age that Luke had begun to sense that he was different. But in common with many LGBT people growing up, he had nothing to affirm or reassure him.
“As soon as a heterosexual child begins to have an awakening into its sexual and social identity, there are resources available that it can identity with and go, Oh I get that, I know what that is. That is not available [to gay people].”
What he saw in that toilet captivated him. He started going back. “It was the only place that there was any kind of window into that [gay] world. There was no dialogue, no people to talk to – we didn’t live in a time and culture where I could go, Oh, I think I might have these feelings.”
It was innocence and curiosity that led him back to that toilet, he says, but it was there that he was abused for the first time. His earliest memory of anything happening was a “very old man reaching underneath the toilet cubicle. He was down on his knees trying to grab on to me. That was terrifying. Truly terrifying.”
The man did not manage to grab him, but Luke told no one. Isolated and frightened, unsure of his feelings, he returned and returned to that toilet. “It was this traumatic experience that became magnetising,” he says. “This shameful secret place that I could go to.”
He was being bullied at school, and because he was effeminate and arty, he says, his tormentors called him “gay” before he or they even knew what it meant.
At around 11 years old, he was standing at the urinal when another man molested him. “I felt pinned to the wall,” he says – not because a lot of force was used, but because he was frozen with terror. “I was voiceless,” he says. “I just could not move my limbs. I could not have moved if you’d given me all the money in the world.”
Luke stayed away for a while before eventually returning. From the ages of 12 to 16, the toilet became a break from the bullying.
His mother was very loving, he says, but because she did not know he was gay, the love never penetrated far enough – she was hugging the closet around him. And because this was the late 1990s, Section 28, the legislation that effectively forbade teachers from discussing homosexuality, was still in force, offering nothing in schools for gay children but silence.
The toilet offered something else: hope of connection. “There became this fantasy,” he says, “that I would find a boy that was like me.”
And so Luke set about trying to find this boy: an imaginary figure that formed a magical reality on the horizon, a totem of understanding that would save him. It became a hunt that led him to seek out two other local cottages.
“I remember the hours – hours – of being lost in this world, just sitting near a cottage waiting to see whether boys my age would come.”
But he mostly found old men, some drunk or on drugs. Alienated and isolated from children his age and fearing that it would be unsafe to tell anyone he was gay, Luke kept quiet, the closet forming around him, preventing any safe, early explorations of romance and attachment. There was, as for most gay pupils, no holding hands in the playground.
Instead, for Luke, the anxiety brewed by bullying found as its only release visits to the toilet. “The mood alteration and the chemical shift going on in my body every time I went into this pursuit was a kind of medication for a lot of the pain,” he says. It became compulsive. “Like having access to a morphine drip.”
But the relief did not last long. After an encounter in a cubicle, there would be “very intense emotional and physical crashes,” he says. “Feeling, This is very bad, very dirty, very wrong.”
Young Luke, in a state of numbing compulsion, became “ghostlike, zombielike, because I was lost in this world".
He did once, aged 16, find another boy his own age in one of the toilets. “We kissed,” he says softly, “He was the first boy I’d ever kissed.”
But for years he remained silent about what he was doing. “I thought, If people were to ever know this stuff I would not be acceptable as a human being. It was that big.”
This was compounded by further experiences in his late teens when he would find himself back in the toilets or further afield in cruising areas at night. “I was raped once,” he says. “And someone else tried to rape me.”
Aside from the abuse, he describes the early isolation as a profound trauma. “I think that it informs everything that I do. I do a lot of work with my emotional response to things and I can trace most of them back to that period of time.”
It was only in his mid-twenties, after coming out as gay aged 19, that he began to seek professional help. The devastation and shame incubating for 15 years was so enormous that he could not see who was responsible.
There came a turning point one day. Luke’s tone changes as he casts his mind back, slowing his words down. “I remember someone saying to me, 'YOU. WERE. A. CHILD.'”
Until then, Luke had blamed himself for what happened. “They said, ‘Tell me the 10-year-olds you know now and tell me you would ever have a sexual encounter with them.’ It was such a horrifying thought, a 10-year-old is so…purely a child, and so I had to acknowledge it as abuse and them as abusers in order to be able to recover.’”
It has been two years, he says, since he last felt aroused in a toilet. After significant psychotherapeutic treatment he made a life-changing discovery, one he desperately wants other gay and bisexual men to hear – if it is news to them.
“I have found that I’ve had the best sex I’ve ever had when I have talked about this, the pain it has caused and the way it makes me feel when I’m developing sexual relationships. I thought I would find sexual fulfilment through that kind of behaviour [cottaging], and actually I find it most when I am able to connect and voice that I have had this experience. Emotional liberation led to a much more pleasurable sexual liberation.”
But it is the policing of cottaging and the culture of homophobia that must change, he says. “It is privileged to scorn gay men for still behaving in that way when we have yet to address the massive societal problems that perpetuate the need for their behaviour to be subjugated and underground.”
Most heterosexual people, says Luke, are nowhere near understanding the exent to which heterosexuality dominates and homophobia damages the inner worlds of gay people. “They don’t get it yet,” he says, “We have not made much progress. We’ve still been fighting for the fucking boxes to be the same on application forms. That’s the very tip of the iceberg.”
Garth Greenwell, the acclaimed American author whose novel What Belongs To You lyrically depicts cottaging in Bulgaria, shares this frustration. He tells BuzzFeed News that growing up in Kentucky, in a white, rigid, straight world, with no access to other LGBT people, led him to the discovery aged 12 of a cottage with graffiti on the walls. “It opened up a whole world to me,” he says, although he did not yet participate.
By 14, he was regularly cruising for men in a local park. Sex was only part of the appeal – or the need.
“I discovered there a queer community,” he says, “the first source of community I had as a gay person that was entirely indifferent to straight people, that was not seeking straight approval, that was self-affirming. The first time that queerness was a source of pleasure and joy.”
There was, he says, “something powerful and meaningful about a community that is based around pleasure and a kind of intimacy whose value is not calculated in duration, that is valuable even though it’s not going to last 20 years.” By 16, he was there every day.
In a delicate, insistent voice he speaks romantically about such experiences, for which he says he is “not terribly apologetic".
“The establishment of affective and erotic intimacy in a space in which we are all strangers to another is a profound affirmative of human life. I don’t accept any narrative of queer life that wants to deny the value of those relationships, those moments of relation.”
Greenwell also made deep friendships in that time, he says. And while he does not share Luke’s sense that the men he met abused him, because of what he sees as his agency within those encounters, he is horrified now at the thought of others that age cruising in a park.
Above all of the testimonies of those who go cottaging, above the disagreements about whether it would happen in a world without homophobia and how police should respond, there is agreement: LGBT children would not be drawn to dangerous places if the people and institutions around them nurtured them, enabling them to say who they are and find connection, understanding.
For Luke, that difference in experience would transform the inner worlds of gay and bisexual men throughout their lives. He stops for a moment, contemplating the abuse he suffered, the hostility he sought to escape, and the years it took to find salvation elsewhere. “There is,” he says, with quiet insistence, “a really wonderful place that we have to get to.”
Some names have been changed