Laud Humphreys

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Laud Humphreys (October 16, 1930–August 23, 1988), born in Oklahoma as Robert Allan Humphreys, wrote one of my favorite books, The Tearoom Trade, for his dissertation at Washington University. He is a pioneer in gay studies.

In his early twenties, Humphreys learned that his recently-deceased father Ira (d. 1953) had frequently traveled to New Orleans to have sex with men. A political and social reactionary and member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Ira Humphreys laid the perfect groundwork for his son’s later interest in the sexual escapades in public restrooms he examined in his dissertation.

After graduating Colorado College in 1952 and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1955, Humphreys took the name “Laud” when he was ordained as an Episcopalian priest in 1955. He worked in several Oklahoma parishes and in Wichita, Kansas, riling powerful members of each of the congregations with "radical" attacks on privilege, including racial privilege.[1]

In 1965, after being dismissed from his Wichita post, he began graduate work in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, where he researched and composed The Tearoom Trade, a study of male-on-male sex in public restrooms throughout St. Louis. Humphreys, who did not come out until the seventies, was not only fascinated by this part of life, but probably frequented these haunts himself himself, and wanted to release this behavior from its shadowed status as an illicit, illegal and dark secret, and allow readers to gain a better understanding of who the people meeting in the restrooms were and what it was that motivated them to go there.

“Humphreys stationed himself in "tearooms" and offered to serve as a "watchqueen". The "watchqueen" would be the person who would keep an eye out for law enforcement or would cough if a stranger were approaching the area. He observed hundreds of acts and gained the confidence of some of the men he observed. He disclosed his role as a scientist and persuaded them to tell him about their personal lives and motives. To avoid bias, Humphreys secretly followed some men and recorded the license numbers on their vehicles. A year later, Humphreys showed up at their private homes and claimed to be a health service interviewer. He asked them questions about their marital status, race, job, and other personal questions. Humphreys' findings destroyed many stereotypes. He found that 54% of the men were married, and 38% were neither bisexual nor homosexual. Most of the men were successful, well educated, economically stable, and highly praised in the community. Only 14% of the men he observed were homosexual and part of the gay community (http://web.missouri.edu).”[2] With his research, he was able to see that these men were from all kinds of backgrounds, had various motives for seeking these "tearooms" out, and were variously self-perceived as "straight," "bisexual," or "gay."[3]

Not surprisingly, this research outraged many people in the University. Some faculty petitioned the president to revoke his degree, an opinion with with the chancellor agreed wholeheartedly. “The uproar caused fist fights among faculty and the exodus of department members to other Universities” [4] Nevertheless he managed to publish his book in 1970, over the outrage and claims that his sometimes surreptitious research had been conducted unethically. His work now is alternately cited as one of the prime examples of unethical research and at the same time a groundbreaking study of homosexual behavior, part of the great canon of gay research.

His detailed findings and explanations of the codes and signals used by men in the bathrooms perfectly delineate the secret workings of the tearooms. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, sardonically entitled "America's Toe-Tapping Menace" shows just how well Humphreys understood and clarified the behaviors in the tearooms, and how his explanation of the signals passed between participants show the fallaciousness of Larry Craig's attempt at wiggling out of his little ordeal with the police in Minnesota.

Humphreys had married Nancy Wallace in 1960, but as his work showed so clearly showed, he was definitely not straight. In addition to the Tearoom Trade, he had also published Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation in 1972. "At a session on "labeling" during the 1974 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Montreal, within a wider critique of 'essentializing the homosexual,' Edward Sagarin (who earlier had published homophile advocacy under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory) criticized sociologists for 'hiding behind' the safety of wives and children while advocating that lesbians and gay men 'come out of the closet.'"[5] Sagarin/Cory was most likely including Humphreys in his complaint, and in response, Humphreys came out publicly and definitively. However he remained married to Wallace until 1980.

Sitting on the board who formed the Sociologists' Gay Caucus, Humphreys helped bring gay studies to legitimacy and acceptance within the American Sociology Association. His work and attitudes have been instrumental in bringing the perception of homosexuality further away from notions of deviance and perversion. Tearoom Trade showed, just as Kinsey had earlier, that gay experiences are not limited to professed "homosexuals," and that simple percentages show that homosexual behavior is far from being the variant or aberrant activity it is so often catalogued as.

After leaving his wife in 1980, he moved in with his protégé Brian Miller and obtained certification as a pyschologist in California. Largely abandoning his research, he spent his remaining years running a small private practice and serving as an expert witness and consultant to police forces. He died in 1988 from complications of lung cancer.

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