Before the internet and dating apps, and particularly prior to the existence of gay pubs and clubs, some gay men sought sex in public toilets. A particularly notorious location in Bristol was this Victorian cast iron urinal on Horfield Common. It had no door and so could be frequented any time of day or night. These meeting places were referred to as ‘cottages’ in gay parlance.
Sexual activity in public toilets was of course illegal. Sometimes local police would carry out surveillance of known locations, hiding in adjacent toilet cubicles and even spying through holes in the ceiling. Another tactic was to use ‘pretty policeman’, young male officers who would stand at urinals and invite sexual behaviour by looking or smiling at other men. Any response would often result in arrest and conviction for gross indecency or under public order laws.
There are records of thousands of such prosecutions before magistrates courts, from the 19th century when many public toilets were built up to the early 21st century. Usually fines were imposed but sometimes prison sentences. The most serious consequence for many was arrests being revealed to family or employers by the police or being named in court reports in a local newspaper.
Despite the risk of arrest, the use of toilets for sexual contacts was surprisingly common. The practice gradually faded; local authorities closed down many toilets as a cost-saving measure but above all the development of a visible gay ‘scene’ and easy contact via the internet made covert assignations in toilets unappealing to most.
Photo source: Bristol ‘Know Your Place’ website. https://maps.bristol.gov.uk/kyp/
Victorian cast-iron urinal produced at the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, circa 1886.