- Laud Humphreys: Prophet of Homosexuality and Sociology
Laud Humphreys was a sociologist, an Episcopal clergyman, and an early gay activist. He is best known for his doctoral dissertation, published as Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places in 1970, and is now scarcely remembered for one of the deﬁning works of gay liberation, his 1972 book, Out of the Closets: The Sociology of Homosexual Liberation. Humphreys was a bundle of contradictions, a ﬁghter caught up in the New Left struggles of his era, an outgoing and engaging personality, and an alcoholic who died relatively young at the age of ﬁfty-eight. [End Page 499]
The book, written by three sociologists, is especially concerned with Humphreys' place in the history of the discipline but does not sufﬁciently apply the tools of sociological analysis to appreciate fully the tumultuous times that so profoundly marked the changes in his life. Humphreys came from the same generation as such fellow intellectuals as Paul Goodman, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, and Martin Duberman. He turned forty the year that Tearoom Trade ﬁrst appeared, older than the young radicals that were to become the Stonewall generation. Like many members of a generation that grew up in the early postwar era characterized by McCarthyism, the cold war, and the idealization of suburbia, they found their homosexual feelings governed by the closet. In the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the cultural presumptions of American society faced challenges by an array of civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and gay liberation movements, many women and men fundamentally reassessed their lives and aspirations. Humphreys, who was born in Oklahoma, married, and became a priest, later left the clergy for academe, came out, and moved to Los Angeles. In all this he embodies his times. This treatment of his life, surprisingly, gives us little sense of the social forces buffeting his personal development, missing how his striking individuality was always very much a part of the social change going on around him.
Humphreys made his name with Tearoom Trade, a book that can still be read as the deﬁnitive document on how men's restroom sex happens. It is a study that shocked the university that eventually granted him his degree, upset sociologists, and even disturbed gay activists of the day for exposing an "underside" of sex among men. Over time the book has been codiﬁed in methodology textbooks as an iconic problem in research ethics for having observed and reported on the "secret" goings-on of a stratum of men without having provided "informed consent" for participation in the research. Indeed, in the decades that have elapsed since Tearoom Trade one wonders if research of this type could be done again, as institutional review boards have grown into bureaucracies imposing a vision of "ethics" that all but precludes documentation of the male sexual underground. The authors of this book carefully scrutinize Humphreys' record in carrying out the study, asking whether it was authentic (concluding that it was and providing a photocopy of his research notes in an appendix) and whether Humphreys was the dispassionate observer he portrays himself as being. On this point they conclude: "While Humphreys certainly had to present himself to the discipline as a neutral observer, his involvement may have been more than he was able to report" (29). Certainly, in terms of Humphreys' biography it is not hard to see that restroom sex was very likely his entrée into sex with men at a time when he was still married and a clergyman. The authors also found that as early as 1968 "the father of a male student sent a letter to the administration [of the university where Humphreys taught] complaining that Laud was attempting to seduce his son" (66). [End Page 500]
Even before Tearoom Trade Humphreys was a man with a mission, willing to take risks for his beliefs. In the 1960s he was a ﬁrebrand preacher for the poor and...