During last summer’s Women’s World Cup, Alex Morgan, a star player on the US national team, celebrated a goal against England by raising her pinky finger and mimicking the act of sipping tea. Media analyses tended to interpret the gesture as an insult, a mockery of the English propensity for tea. Yet, Morgan was clear that her tea-sipping celebration was a reference to “and that’s the tea,” a phrase commonly used as a “sign-off” on Instagram by her favorite actor, Sophie Turner. Similarly, many younger women use the phrase as a signature to emphasize a point or close out a post when relaying gossip on social media. “Tea” has gone mainstream. Much like people dancing to YMCA at a Republican heterosexual wedding, tea has become divorced from its original use by gay men. Indeed, discussions of Morgan’s cup of tea referenced the Boston Tea Party and Kermit the Frog, but did not refer to gay culture at all—no mention of anonymous sex in public toilets, the place of gossip among gay men, or Black drag culture.
Get your cup and saucer, as I attempt to partially rectify this erasure by serving up the tea about the historical and cultural importance of tea in understanding gossip in gay male cultures.
In his ethnography of the 1970s gay “clone,” Martin Levine proposed four central issues in clone culture: dancing, drugs, dick, and dish (or gossip). Levine saw gossip as equally important to sex as part of gay culture, but of course the two are intimately intertwined. The term “tea” probably evolved from a British gay slang term for urine, and, by extension, restrooms became known as “tearooms.”
In the era before Stonewall, it was common for men to meet to have sex in public restrooms, a dangerous activity that could lead to jail time or the permanent destruction of one’s reputation. Tearooms were (are) frequented by men who were openly gay as well as by men who identified as heterosexual and were married with families. Openly gay men came to refer to the straight men who frequented these restrooms as “tearoom trade” (”trade” is a slang term for men who identify as straight but have sex with other men).
The concept of the tearoom has a long history in gay culture. Aaron Rosanoff’s 1927 Manual of Psychiatry lists “Tea House” as part of the “special slang” among homosexuals. Gay slang from the early twentieth century had a variety of terms referring to the clandestine ways in which gay men would find one another. Examples from Gershon Legman’s (1941) glossary include “playing checkers” (moving from seat to seat in a movie theater in search of other gay men) or “church mouse” (a person who visits churches in order to grope other men or cruise for sexual partners). Of course, gossip was crucial not only for knowing where to successfully find other gay men and how to protect one’s reputation, but also as a way to spread awareness of “rough trade”—straight-identifying men who have a history of assaulting their male sexual partners.
The details of tearoom interactions were divulged in Laud Humphrey’s 1970 ethnography, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Humphrey’s work was quite controversial, particularly for the ethical concerns related to keeping detailed records of the sexual practices taking place in a public restroom. Humphrey often took on the role of the “watch queen,” the person who served as lookout for police or others who might interrupt the tearoom activities. Humphrey went so far as to collect the license plate numbers of the men who regularly attended his research site and later used that information to visit the homes of his research subjects disguised as a social worker conducting a health survey. Of course, this was not simply an invasion of privacy, but posed a real risk for those in Humphrey’s study.
The concerns about Humphrey’s work reflect the precarious situation faced by those participating in tearoom culture. Being exposed as tearoom trade could ruin one’s life; the possibility for gossip about one’s sexuality to be released was a constant threat. The potentially devastating knowledge of a man’s tendency to visit tearooms came to be known as “tea,” as in “He is tea” or “I have his tea” (see Johnson 2008). The fact that “serving up tea” originated in the context of tearoom culture reflects the ways in which gossip serves to regulate social practices and identities in gay male culture; there is a peculiar etiquette to the serving of tea. In my work with African American drag queens in the 1990s (Barrett 2017), tea played a central role both in the negotiation of personal relationships and the enforcement of broader cultural behavioral norms. The ways one can serve up tea also reflect the possibilities for the strategic manipulation of gossip as a cultural practice. The various things one can do with tea (serve, sip, pour, spill, or simply possess it) reflect distinctive positionalities within (and well beyond) tearoom culture.
Because recognition or revelation outside the confines of the tearoom context poses a serious threat to all involved, knowledge that another is a tearoom habitué becomes a valuable asset. The possibility of outing someone makes tea much more powerful and severe than a merely salacious tidbit or scurrilous piece of gossip. The phrase “having his/her/their tea” refers to possessing knowledge of another’s true self, such as the knowledge that he participates in tearoom sex. The possession of another’s tea opens the door for potential blackmail or the destruction of that person’s reputation out of anger or jealousy. Possessing the tea can also ensure one’s safety by knowing which men might be “piranhas” (violent gay-bashers). In this case, gossiping about violent predators serves as a way to alert others to potential danger.
Similarly, in interpersonal feuds, romantic rivalries, or competitive contexts (such as drag pageants), possessing the tea of one’s competitor provides an important advantage. Drag queen interlocutors in the 1990s would talk about having the tea of their competitors—knowing exactly what they were capable of (a perfect lip sync, attractive legs), what their vulnerabilities were (poor make-up skills, unable to walk easily in heels), and how to easily intimidate or embarrass them. Tea is thus the information at the heart of potential gossip regardless of whether or not the information is ever revealed. One may use tea to undermine competitors. For example, if a queen is unable to gracefully bend over while wearing heels, one could have a friend offer the queen a tip but let the bill fall to the floor. The queen would then have to forego the tip or risk being exposed. Typically, one holds onto tea for some time, letting it steep, sipping it occasionally while waiting for the right moment to serve it up properly.
Sipping tea refers to the pleasure of possessing tea and the power or moral superiority that tea provides. A widespread meme involves a picture of Kermit the Frog sipping tea captioned with a bit of embarrassing gossip above Kermit and “but that’s none of my business” below. Although the Kermit meme is not “gay,” it does capture the essence of sipping tea. In other words, sipping tea refers to the schadenfreude felt in seeing another embarrass themselves, particularly by pretending to be something they aren’t. In the case of closeted men who visited tearooms like those Humphreys studied, watching a man struggle to present a heterosexual front in public allowed openly gay men to feel morally superior to closeted men.
Rather than spreading gossip, sipping tea is about resisting the desire to blurt out the truth. The joy of watching your competitor struggle to bend over in order to pick a tip up off the floor. Of course, having tea is hard to enjoy if nobody knows you have it, so sipping tea often involves dropping the odd calculated intimation as well as the types of conventional indirectness that Marcyliena Morgan (2002) has studied among African American women. An example is “loud talking” in which a speaker addresses a person other than the intended audience, as in saying “Don’t you think it’s sad when guys think sleeping around makes them popular?” knowing that the guy who slept with your ex is within earshot. The indirection makes it possible to deny that one even has tea to serve—“but that’s none of my business.”
Publicly revealing gossip is itself regulated by cultural norms. Tea must be served properly. If gossip is blabbed accidentally or blurted out in the heat of the moment, then tea has been spilled. Spilling tea typically reflects a messy and undesirable lack of self-control, but one can strategically spill tea as a way of ending a confrontation or gaining the upper hand in an argument. When the gossip is juicy enough to shock or embarrass, letting it spill in a public dispute can be a dangerous weapon.
The same is true of pouring tea, which involves spreading gossip in excess. Tea can be poured through telling the same piece of gossip to everyone who will listen or it can be poured by sharing multiple pieces of information about a particular person. As with spilling tea, both types of pouring tea convey a lack of restraint. Spreading gossip to as many people as possible makes one appear a troublemaker, while publically revealing all a rival’s sins comes across as an inability to control one’s anger. To properly serve up tea requires not only an awareness of the most opportune moment to reveal such information, but the ability to turn a piece of gossip into a skillful verbal performance.
To serve up tea properly requires wit, verbal skill, and dramatic flair. One of the most popular pieces of gossip being spread among the drag queens I worked with in Houston involved a relatively insignificant and uninteresting bit of information. The police had dropped by the house of a queen, Coco, while her friend Chanikwa was visiting. Coco hid and Chanikwa told the police that Coco wasn’t home. This isn’t a particularly gossip-worthy story or bit of information; in terms of tea it is of little use. However, Chanikwa was able to serve up this bit of tea in a way that made it the talk of the town.
Chanikwa described how the police came to the door looking for Coco, who was suspected of passing stolen checks. In an attempt to hide from the police, Coco (who was small) hid under the couch cushions as Chanikwa unlocked the door. Chanikwa claimed that she was able to spread her dress out across the couch to hide the lumps created by Coco’s presence underneath. When the police officer showed her a picture of Coco in full drag, Chanikwa responded by saying, “I’m sorry officer, I don’t know her.” The police officer then pulled out an old mug shot of Coco out of drag, dressed as a man. Chanikwa replied, “No, officer, I don’t know her either.” The story regularly produced howls of laughter among the bar patrons where I conducted my fieldwork. The use of “her” to refer to Coco out of drag was a flagrant insult, suggesting that Coco was unable to pass as a man. Thus, Chanikwa read Coco for her inability to produce a masculine self-presentation and Coco was unable to respond or refute the put-down without revealing herself to the police and being arrested. Of course, this is probably not what actually occurred, but the outrageousness of the story was needed to make the tea worth serving.
When it comes to serving up tea, verbal prowess is often more important than the gossip that one chooses to convey. Those most skilled in the poetic genre of serving tea are able to make tea out of nothing; a comic telling or quick-witted retort can become worthy of gossip in and of itself. Chanikwa was especially skilled at serving tea. At one point during my research, she was entering the bar dressed to the nines when someone said, “Hi Chanikwa, How are you?” Chanikwa’s response, “I am flawless” was met with boisterous laughter. The story of Chanikwa’s reply immediately became the tea of the moment. Indeed, it temporarily became a running joke to repeat Chanikwa’s response whenever the question was asked. When the way in which one serves up tea becomes the tea itself, one has become a master at serving up tea. Gossip may become worth sharing simply because of the way in which it is delivered.
The tea that Kermit sips today has drifted far from its origins among men meeting for sex in public restrooms. Yet, not much has changed when it comes to the importance of tea in negotiating interpersonal relationships and normative expectations for human interaction. Gossip may be about something as commonplace as yet another win by the US women’s team or something as serious as cheating on one’s wife with men at the local rest area. Regardless, it is the way in which the gossip is transmitted that turns everyday news into tea worthy of being served to a queen.
Charlotte Hollands is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is fascinated with the power of hand-drawn images to reveal and describe complex truths. She is developing new ways to use illustration within social science research and is currently completing her first graphic non-fiction book, written by Alisse Waterston.