Tales From The Dark Room
Male love at midnight

If the Joy of Gay Sex comes out in Braille, its pages will mimic Madrid's "dark rooms," where Spanish men and their admirers engage in aggressive midnight manhandling. Trashing Iberia's fabled machismo, testosterone tramps weave an all-boys' network of discos and bars where every man is a blind date in waiting.

See also...
... by Brett Allan King
... in the Crave section
... from November 18, 1999

The ancient Spartans, I learned in 7th grade, packed picky men and women into lightless "breeding" rooms. Millennia later, vagina-free utility closets serve boy-friendly Spaniards who have nowhere to copulate. The precocious get their Grand Slam breakfast at "Strong Center" ("Madrid's largest dark room"), a labyrinth of rooms where wall-to-wall groping lasts well past sunrise. Beyond a shadowy, sticky maze, down a hallway and through a mini-cinema, is a dark room scene akin to Picasso's Guernica. The wall of torsos and appendages allows me to go no further.

As I hum Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for love in all the wrong places," promiscuous patrons at "Cruising" honor the Spanish poet Cernuda, plunging to "the depths of the very love no man has seen." The dark room door seems the gate to Hades, as the inquisitive, intermittent flames of Bic-flicking Casanovas reveal eerily lit faces and body parts. To traverse this Tunnel of Lust is to sail up the Mekong. By journey's end, the squeamish will cry, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, "Oh the horror!" Morning mop-up reveals a viscid layer of semen, condoms, and sludge. Past the entry, cautious well-groomed youths yield to hardened veterans.

Amidst filth, smoke, and stale fluid stench, the discreet kiss and fondle. Voyeurs circle-jerk around the action -- bareback boytoys and enough suction to trap light itself. An underfoot squishiness inspires me to leave. Pressing exitward, I'm fondled from behind. I gently wave the hand aside. Mister Unwanted Mystery Date grabs my crotch. I push him away. He insists. I abruptly elbow him. Viva anonymity.

Apart from the allure of shagging anonymously in a Roach Motel, dark rooms are a quickie pit stop for the real-estate challenged. Economics and tradition can keep men home 'til marriage. Criticized as conversation killers ("when a guy starts talking, I get turned-off," says one neo-Spartan), "cuartos oscuros" are a Madrid institution, complete with urban myths (see: The Kid Who Unwittingly Blew His Father, and The Dark Room Heart Attack Victim Whose Corpse Stayed on for the Bacchanalia). "Once at 'New Leather,' a guy shat in the dark room and people tracked it all over the bar," recalls David, who finds his own mischievous bliss tossing fresh fish into the sex-charged darkness. "One guy who was being sucked off, I stuck a sardine in his underwear -- down at his feet -- so when he pulled them up ... [shrieking laughter]."

"Not that I'm defending the old regime, but with Franco these things didn't happen," rings the conservative catch phrase. Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Catholic Nationalist dictatorship banned homosexuality, but gay Spaniards found discreet ways to meet.

"Stop. Stop right there!" insists Mauricio, a retired divorcee. "Those days were glorious, man. You went down to Gran Via [a major Madrid avenue] and it was men, men, men! There was solidarity back then. Now, with freedom gone overboard, it's all dark rooms and 'wham, bam, thank you sir,' and 'if I've met you, I don't recall.'"

Franco's 1975 death spawned sexual revolution. The vox populi may now see gays as tolerable eccentrics, but mass media reflects a broad sexuality (the sitcom Uncle Willy portrays a gay couple; transsexual actress Bibiana Fernández once emceed a prime-time variety show). Despite civil rights challenges, urban gay life thrives. Madrid's Chueca neighborhood is a maturing mini-Mecca of globalized queer culture. Until the mid-'90s, gay Spain had never seen a rainbow flag, Chueca was skid row, and a lack of alternative venues made gay leisure largely the sum of its dark rooms.

Change might not come easy to a generation that came out in a closet. "The first time you go in, you're addicted," says David. "You hear people say, 'yeah, I went to a dark room and it was horrible,' but the truth is -- they're addicted."

Brett Allan King lives and writes in Madrid.