Laud Humphreys’ Discussion of Space in “Tearoom Trade”

Re-reading Laud HumphreysTearoom Trade (1970), I was reminded of his wonderful analysis of sexuality and space. For those unfamiliar with the study, Humphreys studied sex between men in public park restrooms. He was interested in how these interactions occurred and who was involved. His results were astounding. He found that a large percentage of the men participating were married, 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 that did not identify as gay were socially and politically conservative. In fact, Humphreys found that only 14% of the men in his study could be said to be a “typical” gay man. Most of them, in fact, were not gay (meaning they did not identify as gay). Rather, these were heterosexual men who sometimes (and for many of them often) had homosexual encounters in public restrooms.

Humphreys’ work is regrettably most commonly discussed as an example of unethical research (see here and here for notable exceptions). He went undercover studying this practice, serving as a lookout (or “watch queen”) for police or anyone else who might pose a threat to the men involved. During his research, he also recorded the license plate numbers of participants’ cars and used public records to obtain names and addresses. A year following his research, he interviewed about 50 of the men under the guise of a survey study on mental health. The ethics of the research have been a hot topic in research methods courses since the 70s. Focusing solely on whether or not Humphreys’ research was “ethical” or not, however, sidesteps a conversation about what he actually found and why his research was so important.

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