By KEVIN CLARKEVICE | 2017-12-20

How Queer People Found Freedom by Cruising Restrooms

“Mischief in public toilets left more traces in vice squad logbooks than in high literature,” photographer Marc Martin writes in the introduction to his new exhibition at Berlin’s Schwules Museum, Fenster Zum Klo: Public Toilets, Private Affairs. And while many modern queers would rather forget this chapter of their people's sordid past, public restrooms are undeniably places where community and connection were kindled among us against unlikely odds. “These public toilets, whose history is intertwined with the lives and adventures of many gays, trans people, escorts, libertines, are also unlikely bastions of freedom,” Martin writes.

Martin has spent years collecting tens of thousands of historic objects and photos and conducting dozens of interviews about restrooms to try to capture the essence of that freedom. His Schwules* exhibition, selections from which feature below, includes both photos Martin staged himself to reenact cruising scenarios and selections from his historical collection to bring visitors through the history of toilet cruising. Some of those photos were shot in decommissioned bathrooms in Berlin subways with the blessing of the city's public transport system, which, far from denying this aspect of their past, has embraced and officially sponsored the exhibition. Below, Martin spoke with VICE about restroom cruising’s historical and cultural impact, and how the history he’s surfaced has touched visitors in unexpected ways.

Kevin Clarke: Your exhibition is called “Public Toilets & Private Affairs” and chronicles the history of gay cruising and sex in Paris and Berlin. Why do you think that such a “sex history” belongs into a museum?

Marc Martin: The sex stories that took place in the pissoirs are not at the heart of my project. It is the human dimension, the freedom offered by these urban public places that matters to me. These so-called squalid, gloomy and stinking places were incredible places of social mixing. Homos and straights of all social strata, men of all ages, cultural and religious backgrounds – they all came together there. That's why – without ignoring their sexual dimension – I'm very proud of exhibiting 150 years of history around the public urinals at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. This is a world premiere, bringing color and life to these long-gone meeting places in the shadow; that was my challenge: to restore their disturbing share of sensuality.
The fact that an LGBT museum welcomes my project is all the more symbolic in so far this subculture has long been synonymous with shame, even within the homosexual community. And that it takes place precisely at this particular museum in Berlin honors me all the more: in 1985, the Schwules Museum (literally: ‘gay museum’) was indeed the first gay museum in the world to officially open its doors (then in the Kreuzberg district). Today, 32 years on, in its new Tiergarten location, it is the first museum that dares to put the pissoirs on a pedestal.

Kevin Clarke: Your focus is Berlin and Paris. Why these two cities – and what is special about these cities in terms of public toilets?

Marc Martin: Public toilets all around the world tell basically the same story. For generations of men who were looking for adventures with other men they were privileged places for meeting and recognition. One must not forget that homosexuality has long been banned in the eyes of the law, not only in France and Germany. In many countries, men often had no alternative whatsoever to live according to their impulses than to find themselves in public toilets, which seemed “neutral” in appearance. The little stories inside the urinals differ only slightly according to the era and the configuration of the buildings, but they all sheltered the same shivers; the same fears; the same clandestine passions; the same furtive or symbiotic enjoyments. Personally, I share my life between Paris and Berlin, and over the past ten years, I have photographed hundreds of different urinals. But in this domain, rather than separating the two capitals, I explore their similarities. The same exhibition in New York or Amsterdam, will speak to people in the same way. Its universality is one of the most fascinating aspects of this subject.

Kevin Clarke: The ‘golden era’ of sex-in-public-toilets coincides with the years of oppression and stigmatization of LGBT people. Going to toilets (or parks) was a necessity because homosexual people could not meet in ‘regular’ public places, or have sex at home where their families might live with them. So is “toilet sex” a story of sadness and a situation we should be happy is over, or are there positive aspects too?

Marc Martin: Fortunately, the younger generation has all the means to meet differently nowadays – at least in Western societies. But what about those countries where homosexuality is still prohibited? I do not have a clue. The reason behind this exhibition is not mere nostalgia. I had wanted to restore the image of this form of get-together, primarily because, so far, no optimistic light had ever been shed on the importance these places had for the community. In every city or village, the public urinals served as a lighthouse or magnet.
Oppression played a fundamental role in “cottaging”, especially among the elder generation. However, we often blame these men who had sex in “tearooms” resp. “cottages” of being cowardly. Then again, have they not dared to face those bans? Did they not have the courage to acknowledge their impulses? Public toilets have often been associated with murky perverts prowling around. Against that stereotype I chose to show, in my photos, smiling faces, blooming, horny guys in an exciting setting. If Marcel Proust, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were inspired by the pissoir, it is because these dirty places also harbored mystery. The prose of these great authors dedicated to the controversial edifice is now lining the walls of the Museum. In the catalog, this little poetic universe mixes well with graffiti, interviews and photos which are more or less suggestive.

Kevin Clarke: What are the reactions from younger people that have never heard of toilet cruising, people that grew up with Grindr & Scruff to meet others?

Marc Martin: The young queer movement today seeks to promote sexual encounters far away from the backrooms and stereotypes of old-fashioned cruising. But this young generation dating on digital applications and so practicing “sex à la carte” – has it not lost a little spontaneity in the approach of each other? In public toilets, the unexpected and the unknown were major ingredients to sexual arousal. It was indispensable to make a move towards the other, to seek his contact directly. It was not about displaying one’s own fantasies but about sharing and exchange. Hooking-up with others was what counted in urinals. There was certainly prudence and modesty in exhibiting one’s genitalia. Today’s youth unpacks everything, in their online profiles, long before they even start playing with each other. I find that hardly exciting, to be honest. In my work as a photographer, even on the most explicit photos, I leave a hint of mystery and doubt. I want to recreate this tension, thus, I organize photo shootings in defunct urinals with amateur models who did not know each other before. They met on site for the first time and improvised everything from there on. One of them was even 100% heterosexual. I was interested in a game of stealthy looks. The come-on at urinals included a long series of preliminaries coded between the insiders to detect if one’s neighbor in the adjacent stall, his sex in his hand, was there only to piss or if he was going to be more demonstrative. In this regard, Belgian artist-cum-anthropologist Rudi Bleys (born 1960), in the interview he granted me, describes extensively the body language at the urinals: it was unnecessary, even unwelcomed, to initiate a conversation in order to get in touch with other. For the shy teenager he was, this kind of encounter helped him overcome his inhibitions. This was a positive, unexpected aspect of this kind of sexual encounter, now belonging to the past.

Kevin Clarke: Part of your exhibition are video interviews with people talking about their toilet stories. Who did you interview and what are the most shocking or surprising stories you heard?

Marc Martin: I wanted this project to be alive and collaborative, and to give the floor to those who had never had the opportunity to speak out on this subject. I interviewed people anonymously – the oldest of them, Marcel, a Parisian who celebrated his 98th birthday. And I also interviewed celebrities and artists. Bruce LaBruce told me about his experience in the United States, for instance. I even interviewed a homosexual former policeman (born in 1937) who, in his small town in post-war Germany, had no choice but to flirt in the urinals to meet boys like him, despite the risk of being denounced or unmasked. I took inspiration from their anecdotes to build my images and to orchestrate the book as well as the exhibition. Once again, it's not so much their plane sex stories that I gathered but the reasons that drove those men to go to these places, day and night, summer and winter, despite the risks and the oppression. Their desire was stronger. For some, cottaging was built into their daily schedule and they traveled miles about town from one place to another.
What surprised me the most was to see how much the relationship to the other has changed over such a short period of time, including a broad acceptance of homosexuality, the "sanitarisation" of cities, then the appearance of the internet which different dating patterns – they all have placed a role in diminishing all kinds of spaces of intra-community conviviality, especially public toilets.
Nothing stunned me more than the fact that our dear ancestors never have spoken out loud on the subject before. They had kept these stories to themselves. Ever since I started researching, my project has shaken up a lot of memories, which makes me proud. I have received a lot of testimonies, even from Australia.

Kevin Clarke: One specialty of the exhibition in Berlin is that it’s a collaboration with the Berlin Public Transport Service (BVG). How/why did they get involved? And how is it possible that this institution wants to be officially associated with something like this – with two big poster campaigns all over Berlin in January?

Marc Martin: Of course it's a great opportunity to have posters on Berlin’s public subway system with such a poignant subject. But WALL and BVG are not only partners for the publicity. They also opened their photographic archives and thanks to that, we recreated the topography of Berlin tearooms resp. cottages. And they even granted me access to defunct toilets to carry out my photo sessions in absolute freedom; toilets built at the beginning of the last century at the same time as the subway stations themselves. Most of them had been closed to the public for more than 25 years but had not been destroyed. Recreating old-fashioned cottaging scenes in authentic relics of old was a godsend for my work. The graffiti on the century-old tiling or on the cubicle doors still bear witness to people's lives; so many traces of our past. I was very moved to discover doors filled with sexual graffiti dating back from the 80s and 90s. Some will only see an obscene, animalistic character of homosexuality or plane vandalism in the public space. On the contrary, I do see there impulses of desire, and calls to fellow men. Nowadays, toilet walls are invaded by racist, xenophobic and political slogans. It's sad. In the past, we were in the quest for the other, not in hatred. It was altogether a completely different universe: a time when the internet did not exist, a time when AIDS was going to decimate our community. And yet these places, said to be sordid, sheltered all the desires in the world, thereby revealing poetry, somehow. To the scenographer of my exhibition, Ewald Kentgens, I expressed my attachment to these original doors and my desire to integrate them into the show. The BVG immediately agreed to dislodge them for display at the museum. They are in their right place there. We have recreated booths with these authentic toilet doors; cubicles pierced with glory-holes and decorated with my photos in explicit relation to the activities that took place inside. They represent sort of small cabinets of curiosity.
The artist Piotr Nathan (born in 1956) had already had the idea to save doors filled with sex graffiti to turn them into works of art. He lent me two for the exhibition, used as Berlin public benches around a replica of a typical Parisian bottle-green street pissoir, a “vespasienne”. They blend in beautifully.

Kevin Clarke: Most of the exhibition deals with men using/having sex in public toilets. What about women: were there public toilets for them too in the 19th and early 20th century? Do women use these public places for sex too? Are you dealing with this aspect in your exhibition too?

Marc Martin: Sex in the toilets has always been a guy thing; that much is true. However, on the occasion of this exhibition, the Schwules Museum had the brilliant idea to organize a meeting between Agnès Giard, a well-renowned journalist and researcher in France and Japan for her work on different sexualities, and Manuela Kay, a Berlin-based lesbian activist, journalist and porn director (“Airport”, 1994). The debate focused on the feminine perspectives of promiscuity in public places. And their point of view surprised me: They said women use toilets for sex for different reasons: to get away from men, to have a safe space, to close the door behind them. They would go there with someone they had met beforehand and knew, not with a total stranger. Plus, Manuela mentioned that you cannot stand at a urinal next to someone in a women’s toilet. If you sat in a cubicle waiting for some hot woman to walk in, you might be sitting there for years. In the discussion it became clear that lesbians have a very different history with public toilets, one that is not so central, but one that is important and worth further exploration. I only briefly touch upon it in my exhibition, with a section dedicated to the history of public toilets for women. When women were historically denied the opportunity to use public bathrooms—because of claims of indecency—they were basically kept at home. Because how could they leave the house for many hours without anywhere to pee? It’s not-so-subtle patriarchal politics.

Kevin Clarke: The exhibition is a major success. You were on the cover of Berlin’s main LGBT city magazine “Siegessäule” with your model Pierre Emö, you were in many LGBT online news channels from Mexico to Italy, you were in various French and German mainstream newspapers like “Liberation” and “Tagesspiegel”. Why do you think there’s such an overwhelming reaction? And where will the exhibition go to next, after Berlin?

Marc Martin: I would like to take the exhibition to Paris. But unlike Berlin, Amsterdam, New York or San Francisco, Paris has still no equivalent LGBT institution. A project is in progress, though. For more than ten years, I have been exploring the stories of street urinals on the Parisian pavement. I found hundreds of documents in the archives of the Parisian vice squad, collected hundreds of old photos, paintings, drawings, and unusual objects. I even found an immense enameled plate saying “Hommes” (‘men’), dating from 1902, and coming from the former urinals of the Parisian subway station Bastille, to be exact. But awaking this subculture of underground Paris of yesteryear is not necessarily compatible with our times. We have entered a conservative period. If I had restricted myself to working on the architecture of the pissoirs, the exhibition would have taken place in Paris a long time ago. Integrating the human, that is to say sexual, even intra-sexual dimension of these kiosks, makes the arrangement even more complex. I still hope to find a compromise to succeed in realizing it. At the Schwules Museum, I had a carte blanche from the very beginning. It has been a real treat. And that may be the key to that success today.

Kevin Clarke: You are at the museum regularly. What surprised you most about the comments you received from visitors (male or female)? Did you learn something from this experience at the museum too?

Marc Martin: The reaction of women is captivating. It is a world that has always been forbidden to them. They are fascinated to discover all that. A chapter is dedicated to them. In the cinema, the audience likes to be told stories. At the museum, visitors like to be taken back in history – they are looking for the story of an artist or the story of men. In “Fenster zum Klo”, they get both. My decision to pay tribute to all those men who met in secretive public places was to build a bridge between my artistic vision and a real historical representation. I wanted to break with the gloomy and unhealthy aspect that is attributed to this homosexual subculture. In these places, also relationships were formed. This subject is still taboo because it is still very close to us ... On the opening weekend, an elderly man cried discreetly in the exhibition hall with the catalogue open against his heart. The book was open on a page with photos of Berlin “cottages” (taken by Thomas Lautenschlag around 1990), which have been demolished since. Sixty years ago, this man had met a stranger there – a stranger who would become his partner, now dead. I had coffee with this guy at the museum bar. This is where he told me about that very special encounter; a beautiful story but rather banal in itself. What deeply upset me was that he had never before dared to confess to anyone the truth about his meeting the man of his life, precisely because it had taken place in a urinal! He then took the book back, returned to the page, and handed it to me for writing a dedication precisely there. I then asked him for his name and he answered with tears in his eyes: “Please, write: for Heinz and Jürgen”...

Condensed and edited interview published on VICE.COM, 2017 December 20th.
Marc Martin's french answers translated into english by Heiko Pollmeier.