‘The Toilets at Flinders Street Station’ by student Xavier O’Shannessy was developed in Writing Nonfiction in 2020.
As far as public amenities go, the new men’s toilet in the Flinders Street Station underpass is fine, I guess. You enter through a bluestone archway and the walls are resplendent with old fashioned white tiles lined with glossy brown and yellow ones. There is another set of double doors with inlaid windows separating the sinks and trough from the stalls. It should feel like pissing with kings.
The ones further towards Flinders Street were dirty and proper old and stinking of piss and beautiful. They were demolished in late 2016 and replaced with this sanitised approximation of themselves. These new toilets are far more fluorescent. The old and the new are on a blind date that’s going badly. Gleaming tiles meet pitted doorways, porcelain sinks are graced by metal mirrors, tiled walls are adorned with futuristic hand dryers.
When I visit at about 2pm on a Monday afternoon, I’m struck by how much of the outside I can hear while weeing into the metal trough. That thudding, rushing sound people make in the underpass enters the space and it feels like I’m on show. The trough is about four metres long. I’m at one end and a middle aged man in track pants is at the other. He’s stealing glances and doing quite a lot of shaking. Turns out this is a beat.
The history of gay life in Melbourne is devastatingly ephemeral. Most traces of it are erased by shame, or by shamed children, or by a shamed society. Some of the few places we can touch our shared past are the last remaining beats.
A beat is a public space that gay men claim as a secret place for sex. There’s an entire infrastructure of secret sex places hiding in cities you think you know. They’re mostly parks or public toilets and they’ve been around since gay men were forced to hide themselves. Which is to say, forever.
In 1929 Thomas Dillion was getting a blow job in a Flinders Street Station cubicle from Harold Porter. When they were interrupted Dillion said to the arresting officers, ‘It is a pity you did not come along a couple of minutes later[:] I would have blown off. It was lovely.’
In 2002 The Age reported that over a two-week period Victoria Police arrested 102 men in ‘a Flinders Street Station toilet’ and charged them with 299 sex offenses. That’s a lot of hand jobs.
Dillion and Porter didn’t use this glorified hallway of porcelain and steel, but their spirit remains. As I wash my hands more thoroughly then I need to, I notice two other men doing the same. One is the man in the tracksuit who was almost certainly encouraging me to jerk off with him.
The other man is at a sink in behind the green doors. He’s washed his hands at least three times since I’ve entered. He lingers at the sink, he lingers at the hand dryer, he lingers in a stall. An ancient homosexual ceremony. At the sink he tries to catch someone’s eye in the mirror, at the dryer he keeps glancing sideways. He’s not a big guy, but his desire increases his size fivefold. He is alone in that little section of cubicles. He notices me looking at him and we stare at each other through the glass. My heart quickens. Illicit arousal grows. I dry my hands and re-enter the world.