When I moved to Berlin I saw queer women everywhere. Women with crewcuts and sturdy knuckles and their collars turned up; women with long dark hair and clean faces who crooked their mouths at me on the subway; women swimming naked in Brandenburg’s lakes, circling one another. They passed me on the street at night, they leant up against the same railing at U-Bahn stations.
Recognition slipped sideways from a friendly you’re not alone into the swampy, heady world of queer desire. Germans tend to stare, but translated into the underground of the German lesbian world this meant that complete strangers would catch my gaze and hold it for an entire train journey. Once I stumbled out, almost breathless, dizzy from the way a woman had been watching me, while my straight friend chattered on beside me, oblivious to the entire exchange.
It’s odd to be a lesbian in public and feel the frisson of heat rather than danger. There was something about the way we were all looking at each other that couldn’t be easily explained. It wasn’t until I was idly rereading an old Alan Hollinghurst novel that I realised the difference.
We weren’t just noticing each other. We were out there to be looked at. We were cruising.
Cruising—the act of going out in public to look for sexual partners, usually for brief or anonymous encounters—has a long history and runs as a bright, dangerous thread through gay literature. Its purposes are manifold, seeking not only sex but partnership, community, and identity. In Gay New York, George Chauncey, writing about the early gay scene in the city from 1890 to 1940, explains that well-known cruising areas offered the chance to find sexual partners and socialise with other gay men. In contending with “the threat of vigilante anti-gay violence as well as with the police… gay men devised a variety of tactics that allowed them to move freely about the city, to appropriate for themselves spaces that were not marked as gay, and to construct a gay city in the midst of, yet invisible to, the dominant city.” Cruising is both community-building and world-building.
In an interview with The Guardian, author Garth Greenwell argued that modern cruising still offers vital connections and support: “Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up.” And Greenwell, writing for BuzzFeed, scoffed at the idea that the age of Grindr has made cruising obsolete. If so, he says, “it’s difficult to explain the persistence of analog cruising, or the fact that often enough offline and digital cruising happen side by side”.
Cruising and literature are inherently linked: cruising is, after all, a form of reading, with its own codes and languages. Unsurprising, then, that so much of gay literature is interested in the politics and romances of cruising. Greenwell’s debut novel opens in a public bathroom defined by its cruising potential by the narrator; there is, he tells us, “only one reason for men to be standing there.” Cruising in What Belongs To You is a tender act, where love and loneliness couple in the “hidden gay world” contained within Sofia’s streets.
This hidden gay world is so all-consuming in Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel The Swimming Pool Library that it becomes hard to remember there is another heterosexual world existing around it—let alone a world containing women, who appear only briefly, usually presented off-screen with faint disgust. (“It was not nice,” one male character remarks, “to think of female fingernails doodling over his smooth man’s body.”) The novel’s narrator, William Beckwith, spends the novel seeking and having sex in public, with almost no effort: “[M]y pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look.” For Will, it is “strangers who by their very strangeness quickened my pulse and made me feel I was alive.” The novel revels in public sex, in cruising, in the erotic possibilities offered by this simple insistence of Will’s demanding gaze.
Berlin, of course, has long been home to cruising both real and fictional. Christopher Isherwood, poet laureate of gay Berlin, reports frankly that “Berlin meant boys.” Writing forty years later in Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney begins his tale of American expatriate Jed in 1980s West Berlin with an explicit Isherwood callback: “Fifty years after [Isherwood’s] adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” Jed is not particularly interested in cruising, but he is still alive to the possibilities it offers, whether “cruising in the Tiergarten. Show me the way to the next pretty boy” or dryly recognising the potential that passes him by; “the boys not giving me a second look,” his inability to “get any of the loitering Turkish boys to respond.”
When I first noticed the way in which women were looking at me in Berlin I went back to these books and thrilled again, with Greenwell, at the potential for “the park’s other life, secret and ludic”—where park could read city, train, walk home. But clearly, these books were lacking the very thing that had driven me to them: there were no women.
The world of queer women’s literature is vast and varied, and this year I embarked on a brief, desperate catalogue of lesbian fiction in search of women cruising. I read a limited but comprehensive sample: classics of the genre, more recent releases, some of the pulp fiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I came up with a bare collection of disparate threads, not enough to fill even one Hollinghurst chapter.
Audre Lorde refers to cruising throughout her memoir Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but she means picking women up in gay bars, not quite the same as a public search, let alone public sex. Rita Mae Brown, in the groundbreaking Rubyfruit Jungle, never mentions it; neither does Eileen Myles. The characters in Torrey Peters’s self-published trilogy may run into each other in a dystopian future, but the dangers for trans women on the streets are, of course, even more pronounced, and they don’t cruise.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando offers a form of non-explicit cruising when the title character, at that point a woman crossdressing as a man, meets another young woman while walking at night. Orlando sweeps “her hat off to her in the manner of a gallant paying his addresses to a lady of fashion in a public place”; the two meet eyes; and the other woman “rose; she accepted his arm.” The woman, it’s revealed, is a prostitute called Nell, and in Nell’s bedroom Orlando reveals her own womanhood, whereupon Nell bursts into laughter. There is still an implicit sense of eroticism, but it is deliberately hidden "for it cannot be denied that when women get together—but hist—they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is—but hist again—is that not a man’s step on the stair?"
Woolf keeps her doors firmly closed. And though behind the door it is probable that Nell and Orlando are having sex, the scene doesn’t quite work as one of lesbian cruising triumph, not least because there is no moment of mutual queer recognition on the street; Orlando does not reveal her gender until they are safely behind closed doors.
In Sarah Waters’s Victorian romp Tipping The Velvet, protagonist Nan comes to cruising by accident. When wandering on London’s streets she is “stared at and called after—and twice or thrice seized and stroked and pinched—by men… I was a solitary girl... in a city where girls walked only to be gazed at.” The solution, Nan discovers in an echo of Orlando, is to dress like a boy—but in another twist, crossdressing Nan is still “gazed at,” now by gay men. Despite being gay herself, Nan engages in sex work with men while disguised as a boy, drawn by a sense of power rather than any sexual fulfillment. But she is still not truly seen, in that crucial visual realm where cruising operates best: “My one regret was that, though I was daily giving such marvelous performances, they had no audience.” Nan finds her audience in a carriage that follows her home, manned by a woman who requests her services. Nan protests, aware that her boy-guise will fall apart when working with a woman, then confesses:
I took a breath, and leaned into the dark interior of the coach.
"Madam," I hissed, "I ain’t a boy at all. I’m—" I hesitated. The end of the cigarette disappeared: she had thrown it out of the window. I heard her give one impatient sigh—and all at once I understood.
"You little fool," she said. "Get in."
The moment of desire is electric. Though the strange woman is dangerous and the relationship will quickly turn abusive, the act of being seen, recognised, and solicited as yourself is an overwhelming one for Nan: a moment of lesbian cruising, against all Victorian London’s odds.
Berlin is a good city for queer women; it is a good city for most queer people. Before the rise of Nazism, the Weimar Republic was shockingly welcoming to gay men and women, particularly in the thriving neighbourhood of Schöneberg—where Christopher Isherwood lived, but also where singers and actresses like Claire Waldoff, Marlene Dietrich, and other queer women performed and prowled. The lesbian community in Berlin grew up alongside the gay community; there was even, in 1928, a guide to lesbian bars called Berlins lesbische Frauen. After World War II, Berlin began to slowly recover from the fascist persecution of gay people. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1969; the world’s first Gay Museum was opened in 1985. Berlin began to be known once more as a safe(r) space for queer people.
And Berlin has a rare determination to preserve queer women and lesbian culture, rather than allowing it to be subsumed under the larger umbrella of gay male culture. There are bars in Berlin that are still exclusively meant for queer women; there are hundreds of private-public spaces designed for us, from parties to community organisations to sex clubs. Sometimes it feels like a city built for dykes, and through my first months here I watched us watching each other, whether topless on the lake shores in August or bundled under coats in the deep cold of January. But still, nobody seemed to lead anyone aside, and no queer women I asked had any experience of cruising, either.
My friend N told me about Stadtbad Neukölln, a sauna which, they said, on a Monday night was full of gay women checking each other out, Berlin’s best lesbian cruising ground. A sauna was indoors but undeniably public, and Stadtbad Neukölln was not a designated gay setting; my heart leapt.
Then N blinked and added, “But as far as I know, no one actually does anything. Me and my mates have been going for years, but no one ever has sex there or nearby. Maybe you get a number, if you’re lucky.”
Another friend of ours said that lesbians don’t cruise because they want more of an emotional and thoughtful connection with someone before they have sex, but I found this dangerous territory in its implications and, at any rate, unlikely.
“Yeah,” N agreed, laughing. “You’ve clearly never been to a darkroom.”
“There’s got to be some reason,” I said. I wanted a revelation or discovery: I wanted something new. “It can’t be just that dykes don’t go out and cruise properly because…”
“Because we’ll be raped and murdered,” N said, matter-of-fact.
“Yeah,” I said.
It is this threat of violence that makes the ugly, obvious truth plain. Queer women probably don’t cruise because it is simply too unsafe for us to do so. It’s why Woolf is so careful to close her doors; it’s why Lorde sticks to lesbian bars, spaces created for and by queer women. Queer women’s sexuality is such a threat to patriarchal, heterosexual control that for many centuries its existence was completely denied, or deliberately hidden. The oppression levered against queer women is one of violent control: keeping us trapped, denying our existence, struggling to remake us. And even now, to be a woman in public is to be harassed—catcalled or followed home, leered at or abused. The threat of violence is inseparable from the idea of lesbian cruising.
Of course, gay men too, and particularly men of colour, face public violence and control. Cruising is never safe. The books that explore gay cruising dwell, as men do in real life, on the dangers inherent in the act. Hollinghurst’s novels are fraught with violence both within (the HIV risk plays a major role in The Line of Beauty) and without (the “exhilaration” of sex with strangers, Will tells us, “is sharpened by the courted risk of rejection, misunderstanding, abuse”). Greenwell’s narrator is strung with tension, as is his love affair, the prospect of homophobic violence never far-off; Pinckney’s novel, too, is saturated with danger, dwelling on the racist surveillance and threat Jed faces as a black man in public spaces. Out of the theoretical space of literature, cruising is even more fraught, and homophobic violence is an everyday reality.
But cities were never built for women, let alone queer women, much as I want to claim Berlin. The streets of our cities have always been men’s domain: often segregated, always controlled, but still made for and by men. Men, then, have more of an ability to forge out the invisible, private gay spaces that, while always at threat, can nevertheless exist. But women moving even as freely on streets as we do now is relatively new by the long standards of history—we haven’t picked up the habit of it yet. Women’s bodies are too immediately at risk to think about trying to create those safe, hidden public spaces. We’re busy hurrying home.
In 1993, academic James Creech published Closet Writing/Gay Reading, which explores what Creech calls “textual cruising,” or “the wink”: signals for a reader that there is gay subtext to be found. He uses a minor character, Lieutenant Weincheck from Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, as an example. The Lieutenant lives alone in a bachelor apartment with twelve potted plants, an Angora cat, and plays the violin—“a sound,” McCullers tells us, “that made the young officers passing along the corridor scratch their heads and wink at each other.”
“The wink of the other officers as they pass Weincheck’s door,” Creech explains, “is the same wink that the text directs at its readers.” In this way, authors writing in historical periods during which being accused of gay content was highly dangerous, career-destroying if not life-destroying, authors like Herman Melville and Henry James, could still communicate with their gay readers without worrying about heterosexual disapproval. Straight readers would not even notice the wink that the text offers. “It is much like cruising,” Creech writes. “If the object of interest does not recognize that he is an object of interest, then he is, in fact, uninteresting. He is not the object which the sign is hailing.”
Women in public are never completely safe; queer women are doubly unsafe; queer women having sex in public run great and terrible risks.
But there is still something vicious and triumphant in what we can wrest out of the streets when we try. Something about Berlin makes us bolder, and our real lives are translated back into text, where the gay wink has to function, like Woolf’s closed door, as a signal for what could be and for the truth of lesbian desire that exists, hidden by necessity or by force. A look that burns like a touch. Hist again for the man’s step on the stair, and don’t break your gaze.