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Tempest In A Tearoom (plus Sex 2.0)

A review and preview of sorts

by j. brotherlove

A still from Tearoom

On Friday, I joined a standing-room-only crowd at Eyedrum to view Tearoom and participate in a discussion with Los Angeles filmmaker William E. Jones, who assembled what is essentially silent, 16mm footage of men seeking sex in a public restroom filmed by the Mansfield, Ohio police department in 1962.

The Sting

The police hid behind a two-way mirror with a hand-held camera and used an elaborate radio system to capture the “tearoom trade.” In three weeks, the police had enough evidence from their sting operation to convict more than 60 local men on charges of sodomy, which carried a mandatory sentence of one to 20 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Some were also sent for psychological evaluation for their “deviant” homosexuality.

The Footage

A still from Tearoom

Jones made very few changes to the surveillance footage. He does begin by showing some of the police documentation of the toilets; such as how many steps the men must take to enter the underground public bathroom (15, in case you’re curious). But overall, he allows the film to “speak” for itself.

Typical viewer responses during the silent 56 minutes include a mixture of sadness, outrage, boredom, unease, confusion and in some cases, laughter. The men cross all age, race and class lines; from prominent businessmen to laborers and known hustlers. There are a few shots where the reflection of the police camera man can be seen as he’s filming the hurried, dispassionate interactions, which casts Orwellian corollary.


In 1962, a small town like Mansfield, OH had few outlets for homosexuals to interact (sexually or otherwise). Today, with talk of same-sex marriage a common political topic, Tearoom offers a historical reference to the modern discoveries of “sexual immorality” of Senator Larry Craig, Ted Haggard and Mark Foley. It provides a platform to discuss how people act out their sexual desires when repressed by society or themselves (which is not to excuse child molesters or others with true, dangerous tendencies).

The screening was co-sponsored by Film Love, Outwrite Bookstore and The Office of LGBT Life, Emory University. Several people alerted me about the screening including Andy Ditzler, curator for Film Love and Frequent Small Meals. I’m not sure what that says about my personality that so many people thought I’d be interested in the subject. But I’m glad I got a chance to attend the screening.

Tearoom has a companion book published by 2nd Cannons Publications that details the origins of the footage, te case and men charged. The film has been selected as a featured work in the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

Let’s Talk About Sex (Some More)

I’ll be discussing a similar topic, along with Joseph G, about how online hook-up sites have changed the way gay men search for recreational sex on April 12, 2008 during Sex 2.0, a one-day conference on the intersection of social media, feminism, and sexuality. In addition, I will lead a session titled Truth In Advertising: But Wait, There’s More! which will explore how people “market” themselves and their sexuality on the web and in social media.

Sex 2.0 is the brainchild of Amber Rhea and will feature prominent speakers Audacia Ray, Elizabeth Wood, Kristi Kane, Melissa Gira, minx, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Regina Lynn, Ren, Tara Sawyer and Twanna A. Hines of Nerve. Please register soon for what will be an electric day of networking and discussion.

pub: 02/23/2008 | previous entry | next entry | feedback x 4 | subscribe

Interesting topic for a documentary, which could have happened just about anywhere in America at that time. Was there discussion about how arrests could completely destroy the lives of these individuals? Any “where are they now” stories?

William E. Jones did say that as he’s toured with the film (he will no let it be shown without being present) that he’s met a lot of men who have shared similar stories of bathroom sex on the 60s.

The Midwest appears to have been a particularly popular place for these “tearooms”. I’m guessing the overall lack of gay outlet and repression for those regions during that time has a lot to do with it.

The book has more details about how the story was sensationalized by the local media, as it would be today, especially in a small town.

So far, Jones has been unsuccessful at finding any of the men who appear in the footage (many of whom are presumably dead by now).

3. Jeff

j, I have to give you your props, you do cover some interesting topics! This must have been something to see, I was talking to a friend just the other day about just what type of men use toilets, and parks for sex, I guess the same ones that did in the 1960’s, and, sadly many do for the same reasons, so, I have to guess, just how far has this country come when it comes to homosexuality. But, then again, I also have to ponder the thought, some of these men just like doing this? Once again, very interesting post.

4. aaron

This is coming to Columbus this month! I am going to see it!

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