IT was after his routine swim in one of Melbourne’s gym pools that Anthony Gurrisi felt the charged glance of strangers on him in the change room.
There were men who had been working out and preparing for the commute home, but the furtive looks of a few suggested something else entirely.
[showads ad=MREC] During a previous night out at The Laird someone had told him about “cruising”, but it wasn’t until he was being non-verbally invited to have sex in the shower that it became a reality.
“It was my very first encounter,” he recalled.
“I didn’t know the person but we were running off of pure energy and taking physical cues, almost like an animal in the wild.”
Men who have sex with men have been cruising for anonymous pleasure in public spaces for a long time. In Melbourne alone, some of the earliest stories of cruising date back to the 1800s.
Yet while cruising has always been a pivotal and colourful part of gay subculture, it is cloaked in taboo and often left out of the conversation around the sex lives of gay men.
Men cruise for these encounters in various public spaces — otherwise known as “beats” — such as a park, a public toilet or the change room in a gym with Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam playing over the speakers.
Historian Graham Willett said he first discovered beats by accident. It was during the early 80s, and he had only recently come out.
“I was wandering home from the city to where I lived in Fitzroy and I went into a public toilet where there was someone loitering,” recalled Willet, who is also president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
“I was astute enough to know what was going on…. We’d had warnings from parents and newspapers I suppose, but I don’t think I ever really believed they were true.
“All that stuff about names, phone numbers, and meeting times on cubicle walls.
“But as soon as you make that breakthrough you think, ‘it’s all happening, it’s just what they warned us against’,” he laughed.
Men who engage in cruising do so for a number of reasons. Some may seek the excitement and risks associated with anonymous sexual encounters while others may cruise as a means for instant sexual gratification.
In the seminal book on men who have sex with men in public places, Tearoom Trade, sociologist Laud Humphreys suggested some men may pursue commitment-free sex as a way to rebel against heteronormative expectations of monogamy and family.
Beats have also historically acted as spaces for closeted men to explore their sexuality.
“People would hang around beats and sort of work themselves out,” Willett said.
“They have always been full of men who identify as homosexual and men who identify as heterosexual or happily married.
“They were often places where you would strike up a conversation. Even if you weren’t interested in someone sexually you would chat while you waited for someone better to come along.
“The beats themselves were given names, which reflects a real subculture because those names had to circulate.”
Despite this, the culture around beats and cruising is far less prevalent today than it was in decades past.
Local councils have been closing down a lot of public toilets, and social apps such as Grindr have over 1.1 million online users on a daily basis, many of whom use it as a vehicle for sex.
With the increased acceptance and visibility of the gay community and rise in technology that allows men to find other men for sex with ease, the future of beat culture and cruising remains less certain.
Anthony Gurrisi led a walking tour of historic Melbourne beats for the city’s annual Midsumma Festival in 2013 and 2014.
As someone who has engaged in cruising for a number of years, he believes it will always be part of gay subculture on some level.
“I think it’s a completely different experience. If technology was going to kill cruising culture, it would have already done it,” he said.
“There’s a beauty in cruising… You have to pick up on physical cues, it’s sort of like an international code that you start to recognise.
“There aren’t many situations in life where you experience that so the intrigue for me is that excitement.
“It’s sad, but I’ve always found that there is a bit of shame around cruising in parks or in the toilet, even for people who have the acceptance and freedoms of the modern day.”
Willett similarly believes that while it’s easier to be openly gay now, cruising culture will always have a place among gay men.
“It’s convenient… if you want to have sex and you’re at uni or at a park you know is a beat, it’s even quicker than Grindr,” he said.
“In the 70s there was a debate about beats between gay liberationists around whether they were an expression of sexual freedom or oppression.
“I think it was, and probably still is, both. For lots of people it’s the only way they can imagine having sex with another man while for others it might be the thrill, the risk, or just the convenience.
“People will always be looking to pick each other up, and it’s hard to think why there wouldn’t be places for it in the future. You can still do it in the streets with eye contact and so on.”
There are also still a handful of dedicated sex on premises (SoP) venues around Australia and “dark rooms” in some clubs that allow men to emulate the experience of cruising at a beat. Some prefer this to public cruising.
Melbourne resident Liam Clark has visited these venues and uses Grindr as a means to meet other men, but has no interest in cruising at public beats.
“Aside from the fact that I don’t like the idea of doing it in a toilet, I also don’t like the idea of imposing my sexuality and my sexual behaviour in that space and potentially putting somebody who’s just coming to use the restroom in that uncomfortable position,” he said.
“I imagine that part of it for some people is the thrill of doing it in a public space and doing it somewhere you shouldn’t be.
“But as the need for those spaces has gone, the convenience of Grindr and SoP venues will eradicate the majority of beats and will make them redundant for all of those just using them to get their rocks off.”
There has also always been the element of risk and danger involved in the practice, made evident in the 1972 murder of 41-year-old Adelaide law lecturer Dr George Duncan, whose body was found near a well-known gay beat. His murder went on to spark public outrage and a trigger for law reform that led to South Australia becoming the first Australian state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975.
Despite this risk, there are online forums and social websites such as Squirt that provide the opportunity to share important information about known beats.
While beats and cruising are often left out of the dialogue around gay sex, it’s something that still exists around the world today.
Gurrisi said this was part of its beauty: “It’s something that’s happening under people’s noses, and if you’re playing the game you know the cues, while there are people in the same world who are completely oblivious to it.”
And despite beats being closed down and many men opting for hook-up apps, he believes those who cruise will always find a way.
“Beats are transitory, they’re not meant to last forever,” Gurrisi said.
“I think it helps to romanticise them.”
**This article was first published in the February edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
Read the February edition — the Midsumma issue — of the Star Observer in digital format: