Off the Streets, Into the Toilets!

August 15, 2017
Marc Siegel
15 Aug 2017
German writer Martin Arz recently initiated a project to memorialize Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Freddie Mercury with a decorated pissoir on Holzplatz in the Glockenbachviertel of Munich, a queer area of town. This is a historic pissoir that Fassbinder and Mercury apparently used – maybe even at the same time.[1] The idea of commemorating Fassbinder with a urinal of his own is not such a misguided or isolated gesture.

In 2008 the Swedish techno DJ and producer, Jesper Dahlbäck collaborated with Canadian DJ/producer, The Dove (aka Tiga Sontag) on the music project called Rainer Werner Bassfinder. Stills from Fassbinder’s Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975) adorned the record covers. In an interview in 2007, actor and Fassbinder’s former wife, Ingrid Caven was asked to recount the time when the two of them decided to get married. “Oh, it was really moving. He always went to the tearoom and afterwards we walked around the neighborhood. Then one evening we slept together.” [2]

Klappensex, tearoom sex or cottaging – call it what you will – was obviously a part of Fassbinder’s life and, as I will suggest here, a continuous presence in his films as well. And why shouldn’t it have been? Men have been having sex in public comfort stations since the first pissoirs were installed in Paris in the mid-19th century. But the indisputable fact of men seeking sex with other men in public toilets has long been a thorn in the side of a gay political movement and gay and lesbian organizations seeking social acceptance and political rights. Aside from its questionable legality, the promiscuous pursuit of sexual pleasure with a variety of nameless men in the seedy spaces of public toilets hasn’t seemed to jell with the ideals of a movement that privileges a proud assertion of sexual identity and the restriction of sexual acts to the privatized – preferably state certified – form of the couple. The operative strategy of the lesbian and gay liberation movements, in Germany as elsewhere, was coming out , a belief in the positive psychological, social and political effects of assuming and proudly asserting a public, visible identity as gay or lesbian. Facilitating this act of coming out was a narrative of leaving behind the spaces and practices thought to be associated with shame and compulsion, the spaces, which collected together, form the so-called closet. If we take Rosa von Praunheim’s seminal film Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, 1971) as a reference, it would appear that the key physical space associated with the metaphorical closet was the public toilet.

Read the rest at Lux.

Marc Siegel is currently Professor of Film Studies at the Freie Universität in Berlin and a Senior Researcher in the Research Training Program “Configurations of Film” at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. He is the author of numerous articles in the areas of queer studies and experimental film. His book A Gossip of Images is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

Image: Cover of Rainer Werner Bassfinder LP (2008); Image from Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975).