NONFICTION

The Secret History of Cruising

In his first nonfiction book, Cruising, Southern California novelist Alex Espinoza examines a misunderstood aspect of gay male culture—through both a personal and a historical lens.
JENNA SCHOENEFELD
In his first nonfiction book, Cruising, Southern California novelist Alex Espinoza examines a misunderstood aspect of gay male culture—through both a personal and a historical lens.
In Cruising, Alex Espinoza traces the history, experience, and intimacy of anonymous love.

Reading Alex Espinoza’s Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, I checked off certain of his experiences as reflective of my own: being treated as an exotic at predominantly white gay clubs, being cruised by older men as early as age 15, and experiencing cruising as a confirmation of sexuality that was impossible to lie one’s way out of. And in general, I found a story of him that I was very moved by: that of a disabled Latinx gay boy finding himself through cruising and coming to recognize it as a place that was more welcoming to him, his sexuality and his personhood, than any of the organized gay cultural landscapes he could find or afford. Much of gay male culture is a capitalist proposition. But not cruising. Not usually. This is a point Espinoza makes in several ways before the end.

I first moved to San Francisco in 1989 at the age of 21, and I learned about gay male culture interaction by interaction. Queer history, queer culture, was an oral tradition, partial and episodic, vulnerable to myth, propaganda, and state violence. But the attempt to take the oral history of queer culture and put it into print has had, thus far, mixed results. It is an ongoing project. Much of our history is still being written, and yet much of it will never be restored. I remain haunted by what we lost when the Nazis looted and burned the 20,000-volume library of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, for example. All the same, as I read this book, I found myself periodically wishing that history had been less Espinoza’s focus and that Cruising was more of a memoir, or even a novel focused on his own experiences.

As it is, the book we have treats that intimate history as just one of several threads. We move from wordplay about cruising to an ad hoc and frustratingly incomplete history of the practice of cruising to some occasionally bewildering theories about cruising that make leaps and, at critical times, don’t land. “True cruising allows people to set the terms of their desire and both leave satisfied,” Espinoza writes. “It is founded on equality.” This is a note as idealistic as someone who has cruised and never been rejected—but rejection is as essential to the experience of cruising as sexual success.

When Espinoza stays closer to himself, there’s a sharply drawn feeling I want more of: “Anonymous sex,” he tells us, “helped this weird, shy, utterly flawed kid find himself. Cruising helped me realize that I was needed and wanted by men.” One of my favorite chapters focuses on his discovery of Bob Damron’s Address Books, cruising guidebooks that shaped decades of men—he offers a sense of the lost opportunities these volumes represent.

More frustrating is a chapter on cruising in the 1970s, a time when, Espinoza notes, cruising “was unabashedly gay and revolutionary.” Rather than zero in on that, he mysteriously winds up discussing first Lance Loud and then MTV’s Pedro Zamora—television figures from the 1970s and the 1990s, respectively—before turning to an interview with a man called only Adam, who describes his experiences with quaaludes and recruiting men for sex with older men. That doesn’t seem like much of a revolution. In this chapter, as well as in several others, cruising and queerness are often presented as interchangeable, even though, as Espinoza acknowledges, straight men pursue sex with other men too. A history of cruising should, of course, include moments from the movement for LGBTQ liberation, but it is not the same as that history.

Some of the most original work in the book appears near the end, where Espinoza interviews gay men in Russia and Uganda who risk their lives to meet other men and to fight for equality, and in a chapter titled “Cruising Aztlán,” where he movingly tells the stories of several Chicano queer men and the role cruising played in their coming out.

As a memoir, when it is a memoir, Cruising is moving, but as a history, it is partial and indulgent, like the museum collections made by private collectors, the history a man makes for himself. As a polemic, it seems more of a provocation, an attempt to encourage more books and discussion about cruising, as well as more cruising. And that it may do—may it do that and more.

Alexander Chee is the author, most recently, of the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime by Alex Espinoza, Unnamed Press, 240 pages, $21.99
Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime by Alex Espinoza, Unnamed Press, 240 pages, $21.99
CRUISING: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF A RADICAL PASTIME

• By Alex Espinoza
• Unnamed Press, 240 pages, $21.99

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