Monday, April 18, 2011

Famous cottagers

As a new play opens examining the shock conviction of actor Sir John Gielgud for cottaging in the 1950s, we remember other famous frequenters of the 'tea room'.

Early public toilets, normally in small outbuildings, resembled cottages and British gay men – whether out of necessity, pre-legalisation and scene, or due to basic fetish – have been cottaging ever since they first appeared in the Victorian era.
Britain's inaugural public convenience, in any meaningful modern sense, was opened on 14 August 1852, somewhat aptly opposite the Royal Courts of Justice in London’s Fleet Street - an especial 'convenience' for any randy judge, yet also a timely reminder that, in the words of gay commentator Johann Hari, "Apart from Oscar Wilde, the only gay people who come to attention in the history books are mass murderers, spies, child abusers - and men entrapped by the police in public toilets."
Although legalisation, a gay scene and the web now offer a host of other ways for men seeking sex with men to hook up, many closets - or those who simply enjoy the thrill - still meet for sex in WCs. Whole websites (for example exist highlighting cottage locations. Yet, despite UK police guidelines about “only responding to pubic complaints” and reform of the law in 2003 that said that outdoor sex is unlikely to lead to prosecution if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, horny men can still get arrested - or beaten or killed - whilst in a lav.
But, without further ado, who were those famous cottagers? Read on and find out!

Sir John Gielgud
actor (1904–2000, convicted for cottaging in 1953)
When recently knighted and acclaimed classical actor Sir John Gielgud was caught cottaging (“persistently importuning for immoral purposes”) in a public toilet in Chelsea in October 1953, he was fined £10 by a magistrate and advised to see a doctor. He feared his career was over. However, when he next appeared on stage, he was cheered to the rafters – perhaps indicating that public opinion was about to shift.

The incident is the subject of a new play, Plague Over England, by Evening Standard theatre reviewer Nicholas de Jongh, who argues that Gielgud's arrest played a small but distinct part in the battle to make homosexuality legal, helping turn the tide against the well-nigh hysterical anti-gay witch hunts and repressive attitudes of 1950s Britain. While Gielgud never hid his homosexuality, neither did he discuss it publicly – apart from acknowledging his long-time lover Martin Hensler, in 1988.

Sir Alec Guinness
actor (1914–2000, rumoured to have been charged with cottaging in the mid 1940s )
After his death in 2000, the story emerged that celebrated stage and screen actor Sir Alec Guinness may have been charged with committing a homosexual act in a public lavatory in Liverpool in the mid 1940s. He supposedly - the unconfirmed story goes - avoided publicity by stating his name as Herbert Pocket, the character he was about to play in his screen debut in David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1946).

However, whilst numerous other rumours about the sexuality of the married father and latterly-devout Catholic circulate - many from well-placed sources, including Sir Ian McKellen - there appears to be no trace of this particular case in public records.

Sir Edward HeathBritish Prime Minister (1916–2005, rumoured cottager)
Although long whispered to be gay, former baton wielding bachelor PM Sir Edward Heath’s private proclivities were fanned into flames by his own party recently when openly gay Tory London Assembly member Brian Coleman claimed, in an article for the New Statesman, that it was "common knowledge" amongst senior Conservatives that Ted was warned by party grandees, back in the 1950s, that his cottaging habits could harm his career. Heath went on to hold the country’s highest political office from 1970 to 1974.
However Derek Conway, Sir Edward’s successor as Tory MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup since 2001, has dismissed the claim whilst agreeing that Teddy was indeed “absolutely wedded to politics”. Retorts Coleman: “A huge percentage of Conservative councillors, professional staff and association officers [in London] are [and always were] gay” and “the average voter could not care less if their MP visits Hampstead Heath at midnight as long as they get the holes in the road mended."

Joe Orton
playwright (1933–1967, self confessed cottager)
There is absolutely no doubting controversial British playwright Joe Orton’s lavatorial proclivities as they were described in all their gaudy glory in his own hand throughout his now published diaries, which became the basis for the graphic posthumous 1987 biopic Prick Up Your Ears ('ears' being an anagram of 'arse'), scripted by Alan Bennett, directed by Stephen Frears and with a rampant Orton played by Gary Oldman. The gay dramatist admitted frequenting cottages throughout North London, from Hampstead to Holloway Road, from Finsbury Park to Islington and often engaged in large group orgies in these public facilities.

Famously, he was never arrested for such erotic exploits but rather for defacing library books for which he and his partner Kenneth Halliwell each received six month sentences. As Orton became famous, the older and less successful Halliwell – seemingly also aggravated by Joe’s blatant toilet habits - grew increasingly jealous and, on 9 August 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death in his sleep in their Islington flat in North London and subsequently swallowed a lethal dose of sleeping pills.

George Michael
singer (born 1963, convicted for cottaging in 1998)
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou - or George Michael to you and I - is a multi-Grammy Award winning megastar crooner who has sold over 85 million records worldwide and was once presumed by many, despite persistent rumours, to be straight. Yet, on 7 April 1998 he managed to dramatically out himself when arrested by an undercover cop for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public toilet in a park in Beverly Hills, LA, California. "Well, I was followed into the restroom, and then, this cop — well, I didn't know he was a cop at the time, obviously — he started playing this game. I think it's called 'I'll show you mine, you show me yours, and then when you show me yours, I'm gonna nick you'!" recalls Michael.

After pleading "no contest" to the charge, the super-star was fined $810 and sentenced to 80 hours community service and was, de facto, more open about his sexuality, even suggesting a part of him hoped he’d be caught cottaging to end speculation. Michael subsequently made a video for his single ‘Outside’ clearly based on the episode, prompting the seemingly sensitive cop which it depicted to sue him for damages, a case the courts dismissed. In 2006, the singer was photographed emerging from bushes on Hampstead Heath, London in the wake of a sexual encounter with a 58 year old, jobless van driver.

Senator Larry Craig
US politician (born 1945, pleaded guilty to cottaging in 2007)
On 11 June 2007, Republican Senator for Idaho, Larry Craig, was arrested in a public restroom at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport for allegedly soliciting sex. The undercover officer claims to have observed Craig lingering outside his stall and frequently peeking through the door crack before entering the neighbouring cubicle, tapping his feet, moving one of them so it touched his own and then waggling his hand under the divider.

The senator later pleaded guilty to “disorderly conduct” and announced his intention to resign from office – an intention he later retracted. Twist upon twist, Craig has since tried to bring the matter to trial to contest his initial guilty plea claiming, amongst other things, that he always adopts a “wide stance” when going to the bathroom, but thus far has had little success.