Learning How to Cruise

Before Grindr, gays had to pass for straight while searching for sex in public. Have we forgotten how?

Two men look at each other in a locker room.
Have we forgotten how to cruise?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This piece is part of The Passing Issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I’m the product of my gay generation, and consequently one of the main ways for me to find sex involves tapping my way through multiple gay dating apps like Grindr or Scruff. Even before the apps, though, I used the Internet to find guys to hook-up with—in fact, the first person I ever really had sex with was the result of, when it used to be a place to meet other guys. Outside of being drunk at a gay bar, I find it very difficult to pick-up in real life. So when this good-looking guy at the gym started to follow me around a few weeks ago, I was clueless as to how to turn that into sex.

I wanted to talk to this guy, but I wasn’t confident he was interested in me and wondered whether it was just a coincidence, him following me and working out closeby. I worried that it was all in my head, and that he was straight and maybe even homophobic. And even if I did talk to him, what was I supposed to say? The customary, “Sup?” that many use online wouldn’t suffice, I’m sure.

It was frustrating, because I knew that there was a language out there that gay men have used for centuries to communicate in these very situations. It’s called cruising, and it’s a dialect that has been perfected in places like restrooms, city parks, and gym locker rooms. It relies on body language, eye contact, intuition, and knowing how to utilize public space. Before the Internet and dating apps, cruising was used as a mode of communication by our queer ancestors to suss each other out, since they had to pass as straight, to look and act normal to stay safe in lieu of LGBTQ acceptance and protections. Increasingly, cruising seems to have become a lost language, diminished not only by dating apps, but by gentrification (fewer places to hook up) and reactions to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s, which condemned sex and sex spaces in the name of public health. Even so, could I pick it up again? Could I learn to cruise?

One of the closest things I’ve had to a gay parent is my relationship with my friend, Chip, who taught me many life lessons in the years following my coming out. He’s 63 years old and has been out since the early ‘70s when he was 15. While he was exploring his sexuality in Toronto, there obviously weren’t hook-up apps. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in 1969 and there were gay bars in the city, but he was too intimidated to go into them because there were crowds of people who would stand by, watch who was going in and out, and would sometimes throw things at them. He was also worried that maybe the police were keeping tabs and collecting data about the patrons, so despite our sex no longer being criminalized there was still stigma associated with being gay. Instead of going in, he started to spend time in the area outside the gay clubs and the alleyway behind them. That’s where he taught himself to cruise.

“It was important for me to hone that skill set, or I never would’ve been with anybody,” he explains. “Cruising is all about wisdom. It’s all about trial and error, all about experience, where searching on the [Internet] to try to pick up somebody is nothing more than pressing buttons: There is no wisdom, there is no knowledge, necessarily.”

Perhaps the problem is that many of us who grew up with the internet have lost that wisdom he’s talking about, and with that, the ability to communicate with each other in the real world. As Chip points out, when you’re walking down the street trying to cruise, there are no filters, which makes picking up that much more challenging.

“Where if you get rid of the device and all that it does for you and the connection to the Internet, you’re much more on your own and now you have to use your own wits, you have to use your own brain power, you have to use your own experience to be able to sort your way through this,” Chip says. “And that skill, I’m quite sure, is disappearing because we’re not honing it.”

Grindr alone sees 3.6 million daily active users, with each user spending on average of 61 minutes per day on it. That’s a lot of queer men, spending a lot of time not using their brains to pick-up.

“Maybe particular forms of cruising are victims of a broader loss of knowledge of how to communicate with each other?” says Fiona Anderson, the author of the upcoming book, Monks of the Dead River: Cruising New York’s Ruined Waterfront in the late 1970s and a lecturer of art history at Newcastle University in the U.K.

“It’s interesting because I’ve noticed that with students recently, it’s kind of the first time where I’ve really had to explain what cruising is to them if I talk about a contemporary artist who looks at cruising in their work,” she explains. “I’ll give a brief description and they’ll say, ‘No, I don’t quite understand.’ Then they would ask me, ‘Where would this happen? When would this happen? Does this still go on?’ ”

I was finally able to start a conversation with the guy at the gym, deciding that it didn’t matter what we talked about so long as we talked. He was wearing a RUN DMC shirt one day, which was a throwback to my teenage years, so I complimented him on it. This led to a more conversations over time about Tupac Shakur, the N.W.A. documentary, Straight Outta Compton, and Method Man’s acting HBO’s The Deuce. Along the way, I introduced myself, got his name, and found out that he had a daughter who was old enough to go to Coachella.

The conversations were awkward at best, due in large part to my nervousness and unwavering fear that he was straight and was wondering why I was always talking about hip-hop and hip-hop references. He had a daughter, so it was possible, but no wedding ring so maybe he was now divorced and gay or bi. The thing was, unless I started the conversation, he wouldn’t talk to me or even acknowledge me for that matter, which I guess is a pretty obvious sign of disinterest. But then it seemed like he was continuing to quietly follow me around the gym, which was perplexing.

I shared my frustrations with Chip. “What was missing in your kind of detailed explanation of these guys who move from machine to machine behind you or in front of you was, that’s all well and good, but that can be coincidental,” Chip says. “So for me what’s really important is to be able to look someone in the eye, and be able to read what the language or conversation or feelings are that come back to you and if it’s blank and dead, or non-communicative, then I don’t pursue it.” Chip believes that when cruising at first, it’s nonverbal and has a lot to do with eye contact.

Todd Verow, the producer, co-writer and co-director of the documentary, The End of Cruising, claims that if eye contact persists for more than 3.5 seconds, then there’s a connection of some sort. And if this happens when walking down the street, he suggests following the person of interest to see if they notice and look back. If it’s the other way around, he suggests turning the corner, and going into an alley to notice whether they follow. “And then if they do,” Verow says, “then you know that definitely they’re looking for something and you’re looking for something and then you can just approach that person.”

“Or if you’re in the gym or something,” he adds, “it’s the same kind of thing, you know, you just follow them, maybe look at them in the locker room or when they leave you follow them down the street and see what happens.”

Chip says that once there’s enough communication going back and forth, he will only then start a conversation. He claims that until there’s verbal communication, everything else is an assumption, in essence. Verow believes otherwise: “I think not saying anything is probably the best bet because then it becomes a different thing,” he explains, warning that chit-chat may turn into a coffee date instead of NSA sex.

Fiona Anderson also points out that cruising was not necessarily about finding a mate, or even having one orgasm; it was more about “engaging with other people in an open-ended erotic way.” Given that, dialogue would seem redundant. However, I like the idea of using this language to find potential regular fuck buddies. Dialogue would come in handy in that case, I think.

Chip suggests that if someone wants to improve fluency, they should go out onto a street in a major city and practice by making eye contact with people who pass, even if there’s no interest, in order to start to understand the looks that are coming back. Either that, or pay attention to see who is looking at you, and if you have any interest whatsoever, pursue it.

For the most part, I gave up on my gym guy and instead took Chip’s advice. I went out into the world and started making eye contact with the strangers I passed. Most would keep their heads down and avoid eye contact at all cost, it seemed, which I understand. Even when I came across someone who I was interested in and who was looking back at me, I found it difficult to hold eye contact. Perhaps I just felt exposed and vulnerable. My challenge has been to get over that and expose myself. The more I’ve done it, the more the world has seemed to open. My senses are sharpening; I’m more aware of the men around me. I’m learning how to cruise.

Soon, maybe, I’ll even get laid.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.