Alex Espinoza Discusses the Politics of ‘Cruising’

Good morning Alex, thank you so much for sitting down with allgo today. 

I wanted to start off by asking a little about where you come from and who you are.

I was born into a working class neighborhood and was first in the family to go to college. When I was in high school I was reading a lot of white British lit and didn’t see myself in literature or writing till I went to community college and got to see my own experiences [in literature], which is what launched me into my writing career unbeknownst to me. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time but looking back on it, that’s what was happening. Writing for me has always been a political act, because I explore voices that are often undocumented and unrecognized. I wrote this book [Cruising] and it was a little bit of an accident. I was working on a novel about a character that finds himself in dire straits because of his finances and he’s in college and needs to pay for his tuition so he turns to soliciting men for money. I was already playing in that area when the opportunity came up to develop this book focusing on the act of cruising. I spent a lot of my time looking back at my own experiences and realizing how cruising had given me my confidence. 

I grew up with a disability and had alopecia and always felt very insecure about my body. I never fit in until I fell into this culture of cruising and I realized it didn’t matter to people what I looked like. What mattered was the services I could perform [for them]. I felt more sure of myself in those spaces. It made me realize that someone with a disability can be sexual and can be sexualized. The more writing and research I did on the subject, the more I realized that the gay community has been very resilient. This act [of cruising] is an act of rebellion and resistance and at the same time it’s an act that signals a human desire for people to connect, to reach out, to be intimate with someone else. I ask people, when I talk about the book, to recognize that there is, of course, a lot of sex in it, but to know that this work examines a connection that goes beyond sex, beyond the physical. It’s an act that also speaks to a larger need that we have as humans to be with someone else, to feel less alone. It taught me a lot about myself and gave me the opportunity to be frank and honest in a way that I haven’t been before and I hope that’s what people respond to. I’ve been very happy from some of the responses I’ve gotten from people.

How is cruising powerful?

A little after high school, I had some friends who were also gay and in the closet and all of us were Latinos. We would go to West Hollywood, to the clubs and the bars and I would never really feel sexual in those spaces because of my physical disability, because of the way I looked. I felt very awkward and unattractive. My friends were always getting picked up and this West Hollywood crowd was very white. I saw how as Latinos, as queer men of color, we were fetishized. We were looked at a certain way and were desired for our brown skin and our bodies. 

What happened for me with cruising was that this act provided me an opportunity to destabilize those hierarchies. While cruising, I could be the one who would present something and have those men want it and pursue it and really bow down to it. I’m talking about my penis. That was something that made me feel powerful, because I could use that as my tool and my weapon and exert control over some of these men who would otherwise exoticize me. That was the power of cruising. I couldn’t pull my pants down at the club but I could do it in the bathroom or at a bookstore. And it was intoxicating. Especially growing up, because I was infantilized. I think when you’re disabled you’re infantilized by others, but I was able to slip into a different persona while I was cruising.

 It was very fun, erotic, and taught me more about my body and how to control it. That’s what it has provided me, but it’s different for each person. For me that’s what it was and for a lot of men that’s what it was. In writing this book one of the things I wanted to do is use the idea of identity, as I am a Latino male, I wanted to put that front and center. I think a lot of times the gay cultural history is often viewed from a predominantly white lens and I wanted to write something from a non-white lens, which is why I wanted to put race front and center. It isn’t about casting wide brush strokes over the gay community.  No, it’s specific, it’s about the gay community but it’s about the brown gay community and how the practice intersects in these complex and important ways.

Would you argue that cruising overlaps with sex work? 

There is some overlap but sex work is a clear exchange between sex and money or currency whereas cruising is a more of a casual exchange that doesn’t necessarily function on the understanding that you’re going to cruise and offer someone something and get money for it. It’s a leisurely act of getting off. That’s the difference. Both involve sexual acts in public or semi-public places. Cruising is a practice that tends to be very specific to the gay community, specifically gay men, but there is definitely some overlap. 

What are the parameters of cruising, especially since the onset of dating and hook up apps like Grinder or Tindr?

Apps provide another filter. It’s almost like back in the day when you had to hail a taxi versus calling Lyft or Uber. Lyft or Uber can decide where you get picked, who’s going to pick you up, and the cost. What the apps do for cruising is what the apps do for other services. 

You can chat with someone and say “Meet me at the bathroom at this time”. You already know how this person looks like and you can vocalize what you want and what they want. There is still a certain amount of continuity in the act of cruising it’s just a little more streamlined now and it’s a little less anonymous. A newer generation doesn’t really call it cruising. When i was talking to younger gay men, they were looking at me confused. The common term now is “hooking up.” That term’s not unique to the gay community, however. Nobody really calls it cruising [anymore]. Yet, though the word isn’t the same anymore, the act is still happening. At its heart it’s the same thing. 

I think one of the things that the apps do is present a degree of added danger, you can expose yourself in a very public way by saying you’re going to be somewhere at a specific time. There are websites where you can create a profile and put in your zipcode and see all the cruising sites that are constantly being update. What that does list possible dangers. They list warnings, the best times to go, when to go and expect to have fun versus when it’s dead. It’s definitely more national, more global because I can be traveling and use the apps to see what is happening in the area I’m in.

What would you say are some risks to cruising? Is it the same for all men? 

For trans men it’s definitely a very different heightened risk because by nature trans individuals are already visible members of the community. I, as a gay man, can mask my homosexuality. I can go into a room and people won’t necessarily assume my orientation, but trans people are more likely to be policed and monitored, so when you throw trans individuals into that practice it heightens the dangers because the practice itself is already so policed. We are beginning to see this rising threat of surveillance presenting new dangers from men, especially in countries like Uganda and Russia, who have very stringent gay laws. In other parts of the world, and even in this country, there is real danger to cruising. There is a risk for a lot of the queer Latino undocumented men who participate in the practice, but also know that the risk of arrest isn’t just jail time but also potential deportation. The risks are varied and come in different forms. 

Think about George Michael who was arrested in a bathroom in Beverly Hills in the 1990s, while he was cruising. This man started to make advances towards him and it turned out he was a police office. That opportunity, that moment, is when George Michael came out. That’s an interesting case because what George Michael did is turn it into something positive rather than a career ender. He ended up writing a song about it called Outside. The video plays on the idea of surveillance as various individuals engage in sexual acts out in public. 

Risks are different for different people in different parts of the world, the country,and people from different socioeconomic statuses. I wrote a book about it and there are risks to that because I’m risking my own exposure. My research has shown that the risk and cruising go hand in hand. Men who cruise  are aware of the risks but they do it anyway because there is something about this risk and the thrill it provide. Despite this, it’s a practice that continues, that has continued across the ages. I think there is something that is worth exploring in that.It remains the ultimate symbol of gay resistance and revolution.

You can grab your own signed copy and meet Alex Espinoza in-person on July 27th at 5 PM at BookPeople!

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