U police address ‘tea room’ issue

by Jessica Steeno

Some men use University bathrooms for the toilets and sinks.
Other men use those same rooms for the stalls and the privacy they provide.
The bathroom stalls on the second and fourth floors of Blegen Hall are one place where men meet to have anonymous sex, according to University Police reports.
“It’s pretty disturbing because the students want to use the bathrooms and this sort of thing is going on in there,” said University Police officer Erik Swanson. “I’ve talked with a lot of male students who don’t even use those bathrooms at all.”
Swanson said men use the bathrooms on the West Bank because they are open long hours and people can walk to all the buildings in the area through the tunnel system. The tunnels are accessible during the same hours as Wilson Library, which is open until midnight on weekdays.
Men meeting in designated places for sex is a practice that has been around for many years.
The term “tea room,” which refers to the places men meet to engage in sexual activity, comes from 19th century England because same-sex relationships were illegal and gays had to hide their behavior. A man would invite another man to his study to have “tea.” Eventually, English police caught on and arrested many of the men who had these notorious rooms.
The term “tea room” has since been used to describe a place where men engaged in secret sex.
“I think tea rooms are very symptomatic of a homophobic society,” said Nikki Kubista, treasurer of the University’s Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgender Student Organizations and Their Friends. “These people can’t find any healthy ways to express their sexuality, so they do things that seem unhealthy to me.”
Many of the men who use bathrooms for this purpose aren’t students, Swanson said.
“Some of these men are married, some have children, yet they have this want to express themselves,” Swanson said.
University Police are working with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Team to find sensitive ways to deal with the problem. The team is composed of gay and lesbian police officers who train and inform other police departments about gay and lesbian issues.
“It’s important that officers use special care when dealing with gay men who may be closeted,” said Minneapolis Police Sgt. Robert Allen, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Team. “It can be an extremely emotional thing. They think they may be outed and may panic or commit suicide.”
Instead of making arrests in the tea room incidents — which could lead to family and friends learning of the event — University Police issue trespass warnings. These warnings, which forbid a person from entering University buildings for one year, do not indicate the name of the offender or what the warning is for.
“I applaud the U for not making arrests,” Kubista said. “It’s really good PR for them not to arrest people.”
Sgt. Allen said University Police have handled the situation in a textbook manner by consulting the University community and the gay and lesbian community to find solutions.
“Arrests are not necessarily the way to stop the behavior,” Allen said. “Trespass warnings are a good alternative.”
Although the West Bank has been the site of recent tea room incidents, there have been problems on the East Bank in the past. A former janitor at Coffman Union complained about unsanitary messes in tea rooms.
“It was kind of above and beyond the call of duty to clean up back there,” said Bob Black, a former janitor at Coffman Union.
But some members of the gay community are angry about tea rooms being referred to as a “gay problem.”
“I think it is a problem that’s pinned on the gay community as another form of discrimination,” said Quaid Long, an American Studies senior.
Kubista pointed out that some of the men who engage in these activities are not members of the gay community and publicly lead heterosexual lives.
“There’s this really big distinction with gays and tea room activities, but heterosexuals are involved, too,” she said.