Like much of designer Robert Yang’s work, The Tearoom is shot through with painful threads endemic to the history of gay men in America.
(NSFW content warning.)
Released on Thursday, the PC game asks the question, as Yang put it in an accompanying blog post, “when and where are gay people allowed to do our gay shit?!?” This particular vignette takes place in a truck stop toilet.
Here’s the setup: I’m kneeling before a man with a gun for a penis licking him up and down until I’m shot with his clumpy, white “man oil.” All the while, I’m frantically checking my shoulder to make sure a cop doesn’t sneak up behind me and arrest me for sucking a guy off.
Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the setting.
While some recent victories like marriage equality may have helped many simply forget about the long and arduous struggle for LGBTQ+ acceptance, much less actual rights, Yang wants to shine a spotlight on it. Set in a small roadside bathroom in Mansfield, Ohio, The Tearoom is a historical piece based on real events. It strives to recreate a sliver of the fear that many gay men felt at the time.
In 1960's America, public restrooms were one of the few places where there was an established set of rules, an etiquette for how to solicit sex or oral. This code was known as “The Tearoom.” It’s based on an ethnography about men who have sex with men in public bathrooms anonymously. In it, sociologist Laud Humphreys outlined the as yet unwritten rules of it all. And that’s important because these rules kept the men who sought this kind of pleasure from wrongfully propositioning someone. Men who didn’t know the code, didn’t make the right kind of eye contact at the right time wouldn’t reciprocate.
But that didn’t stop police and other officials in Mansfield from setting up a sting operation in one public restroom. In 1962, 38 men were arrested and charged with sodomy.
“The Mansfield police had to figure out how to jail people for having “public sex” that wasn’t actually in public view,” Yang writes. “To make this invisible subtext visible, the Mansfield police secretly recorded the public bathroom for 2 months and basically made one of the first full-colour gay porn films in history.”
Besides recreating a historical event, The Tearoom also deals with modern-day censorship. That’s where the gun-penises come from. Yang’s had several rather public feuds with Twitch, because the site refuses to allow streaming of explicit games, or at least games that show dicks explicitly. Instead, the “penises” are actually guns, representing the most omnipresent of gaming weapons.
Each one starts off looking fleshy and veiny, but as you please the men they’re attached to, they stiffen, begin to look more like guns. They also fill up with bullets to give you a sense of discrete progress, and if you keep at it, they will of course go off.
There’s an anxious undertone that runs throughout. Before you meet your first potential partner, you’re given a warning: If you see cops, leave the game. Yang does this kind of thing often. In Hurt me Plenty, a game about negotiating consent and boundaries in a BDSM context, violation of boundaries would result in a ban from the game for a real-world stretch of time ranging from hours to days.
But cops, as the men of Mansfield learned, could be anywhere and anyone. So The Tearoom has undercover cops, who have tells. They don’t follow the standard operating procedure—I won’t say how, as that’s something of a spoiler It makes for some tense moments; if you someone’s giving you signals and you keep making eye contact, you’ll automatically drop to your knees as the fellow next to you walks over. At that point you’re left with only two options — try to give oral, or walk away. If you miss the tells and aren’t paying attention, you’ll have no way of knowing which is the right move.
That uncertainty, that fear about whether or not your most basic identity will be respected or protected at all is fundamental to Tearoom, and it never really goes away. The risk of arrest is always there, and if you are careful with your gaze, with your attention in the bathroom, if you’re too eager to look at dudes, you’ll be figured out as well. Nothing in Tearoom is safe, and that’s precisely the point.
After seeing The Matrix at the age of nine, Daniel Starkey has been fascinated by the idea of mediated intimacy. They see people as floating through the void of existence, eager to bridge the gap by connecting with others. These days, they’re drawn to looking at the myriad ways people share themselves and what forms that takes.