I Am Troughman: Meet the Elusive Godfather of Golden Showers

Sep 11, 2014 at 4:07 PM ET

Barry Charles walked through the red door at 835 Washington St. in New York’s Meatpacking District late one Saturday night. It was the first time the then-28-year-old Australian had visited the Mineshaft, a notorious gay leather bar that served as the inspiration behind William Friedkin’s seminal film Cruising. This was 1978, pre-AIDS, and Charles found himself surrounded by other men in various states of undress.

Exploring the club, he came across a bathtub in the basement. “We know what that’s there for,” quipped his friend. Charles was too embarrassed to admit he didn’t, not that it mattered—he was soon to find out.

Later that evening, he was again downstairs when someone climbed into the tub. Barely a minute passed before another man started pissing on him, setting off a chain reaction. Charles himself was nearby blowing someone at the time, and the guy began to urinate in his mouth. “I’d never thought about it before. It hadn’t occurred to me that that was a sexual activity,” he says now. “I just loved it from the first moment.”

He turned out to be a quick study. About 20 minutes later, the bath vacated, and he wasted no time jumping in. He was in and out for the rest of the night, at one stage sharing it with another man wearing army fatigues. He says they were surrounded by 10 to 12 men at any one time, men who were either focusing their attention on the pair or taking part in their own scene off to the side.

It was around 5 or 6 a.m. when Charles finally left and walked out into the early morning air, his body and clothing drenched in urine. He headed to the subway and felt a buzz of excitement as he made the long journey home. “I felt I’d discovered something,” he says. “I had such a great night.”

When he returned to Sydney two weeks later, the gay scene was in flux. Though an organized gay rights movement had begun in 1970, influenced by New York’s Stonewall riots a year prior, 1978 saw a stronger push for visibility. That same month, Charles, now 64, took part in a political march that was to eventually become the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Its first year was marked with violent clashes with police, but it signaled a wider shift.

Gay bars and clubs had been operating in the city for over a decade, largely funded and operated by organized crime. But others had begun to spring up that offered more choice for an increasingly diverse scene, and one of them was Signal. Not to be confused with the sex-on-premises venue of the same name that still operates on Oxford Street today, Signal was Sydney’s first leather bar.

“It was probably illegal. It was probably breaking all the laws,” says Charles. “It was just a fantastic place.”

He headed there one of his first nights back in town, wearing a yellow bandana in his back pocket—for the uninitiated, the hanky code, as it’s known, is a way for people to advertise their preferred sexual kink with the use of different colored hankies—an idea he’d borrowed from men in New York and San Francisco. He was standing at the urinal alongside other guys and, with Signal lacking the facilities of the Mineshaft, decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I thought, This is all going to waste, and I just got straight down there and started getting pissed on,” he says. “It was instant rapport. These guys were all into the leather and S&M scene and they were right up for it straight away. And the bar management didn’t mind. They thought it was great fun.”

To his knowledge, it was the first time that a watersports scene had been initiated within a commercial venue in Sydney. What he didn’t know at the time was that he had also just created the beginning of a legend. Lying in that urinal at Signal, an underground icon was born—and his name was Troughman.

By the early 2000s, the name Troughman had taken on an almost mythical quality within the Sydney party scene. Men and women of a certain age, usually in their early 30s and up, would tell stories about the friend of a friend who had seen him at parties. But a lot of younger people didn’t know what to make of it. Was Troughman real? Or just an urban legend used to bolster the idea that they’d missed out on the wild, bacchanalian days of yesteryear? Whichever the case, they were still more than happy to help propagate the rumors, along with additional developments, including news of his alleged death from hepatitis.

The story goes that the mystery man would climb into the trough at major gay dance parties, such as the post-Mardi Gras party or the raunchier Sleaze Ball, and ask guys to piss on him. He would stay there for much of the night, his very presence encouraging guys to create all-out, no-holds-barred orgies.

It turns out that these stories were true to life.

“When the parties started in 1982, they were less regulated than they are now. They didn’t have to have masses of security, because everyone was on the same wavelength, they were all there to enjoy themselves,” he says. “That period was unbridled excitement as far as the parties were concerned, and what happened in my case was that, as I said before, seeing all this piss going to waste when there were about 5,000 people at a party, well, if I just hung around the toilets long enough, I could get things going, and that’s what I started to do.”

To help things along, Charles says he would enter the toilets around midnight in the Hordern Pavilion, the longtime site of the Mardi Gras and Sleaze parties, and climb up to disable the lighting by unscrewing the fluorescent tubes. Once the lights were out, the action would begin—some people, he says, were too nervous or inhibited to take part in a well-lit bathroom. After a few years, someone managed to find a way to kill the lights via a control panel.

“The lights would go out, and immediately people would start coming together,” he says. “Then some sort of backup system would come into play, and the lights would come back on, and you’d have the hilarious thing of people groaning and starting to separate again, but then someone was able to very quickly disable that system as well, and then it was on for the rest of the night. That’s why the parties became what they were and how I became a legend.”

The sexual happenings that Troughman helped initiate—where he’d be pissed on by “easily over 100 or more” men each night—operated with clock-like regularity over the better part of the next two decades. Though in the late ’90s, his interest began to wane. The parties became more homogenized as corporate sponsors began to realize their potential, and the site of the venue itself was leased out to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Things started to change.

“You couldn’t put the lights out in the toilet for a start,” says Charles. “There was no men’s space where there was sexual activity going on. You couldn’t really do what you used to do. I can remember one year, there was a bit going on and one of the security women came in and ordered us out. There were too many restrictions. It was becoming, for want of a better word, too respectable.”

Charles made a conscious decision that the Mardi Gras Party in 2000 was to be his last. It was later that year, around six months after his self-imposed retirement, when the rumors of his death began. Over the next few years, his story slowly began to inhabit a space between history and mythology.

This, of course, had begun years before when local gay newspaper The Sydney Star Observer first gave him his famous moniker in an article about the debauched parties around 1993. The same paper even ran a cartoon depicting him leaving a club surrounded by a trail of yellow puddles. (For the record, Charles would usually pack a change of clean clothes before heading out, but he did wing it on a couple of occasions.) Though infamy was never his intention.

“I didn’t set out to be a personality. When the newspapers started that, it was just hilarious. Then I started to realize that things like that can actually be very positive,” he says, connecting his love of watersports to a greater discourse on sexual politics. “I tie in my sexual activity and any sort of notoriety I received into being able to say that’s what sexuality can be. It can be exciting, it can be unusual and so on—and that’s part of my philosophy of out visibility. That’s visibility, as far as I’m concerned, of gay variety and gay diversity.”

His interest in sexual exploration and its relationship with identity politics began at a relatively early age. He grew up in suburban Sydney in a working-class family, the oldest of two siblings, and realized he was gay around 17. But, being 1967, he was left with virtually zero options to explore. “There was no gay scene that I knew of,” he says. “There were no gay people that you could identify with.”

It’d be two years before he would have his first sexual experience with another man—in a public toilet. He was studying accounting at university (a career he was quick to abandon) and working part-time in the city when he entered the bathroom of an old, converted department store and saw an intricate mural carved into the marble wall. The etching consisted of five or six naked men in various sexual positions: fucking, sucking, rimming. He describes it as beautiful.

“It was just so memorable and so amazing. And I thought, Well, this is obviously the place to hang about if I want to do all those things that those men are doing with each other. And sure enough, that was the case,” he says. “It was the only way to meet another person who was homosexual… I suppose I’m sort of locked into, or was locked into, that way of finding sexuality.”

He became politicized at college, and was one of the three founding members of the University of New South Wales chapter of Campaign Against Moral Persecution, or CAMP, Australia’s first gay rights organization. He would take part in public kiss-off demonstrations, and when his family discovered he was gay a year or so later, he was prepared, handing them a pre-written, 3,000-word essay on why being gay wasn’t wrong and how existing laws suggesting the contrary were unjust. Charles was nothing if not comfortable with his sexuality.

He thrived on what he calls the “outlaw” label that was applied to gay men during his formative years, their behavior literally criminalized. It’s part of the reason he is a bit despondent about the state of the gay community today.

If he stopped lying down in urinals at parties in 2000 because they were becoming too mainstream, the intervening 14 years haven’t helped. He’s glad that gay women and men are increasingly being afforded the right to get married and adopt kids, but in some ways it’s antithetical to what he was fighting for in the ’70s.

“I wanted to be accepted for who I am, not for how I could be just as respectable as straight people,” he says. “If people want a family or want marriage and these things, then they should be entitled to have them. I would never be opposed to those things. I just don’t see it as my pathway. It’s not how I express myself, so I hope us outlaws don’t get lost along the way.”

Still, he has a sense that there is movement in the community, an awakening of something that existed before. Headquarters, a gay sex club in Sydney, has long offered monthly piss parties, which he attends, but they grew so popular that they’re now held every two weeks.

Then there’s the ongoing Melbourne party Trough X. Its cover poster and promo video for the recent piss-themed night both feature Charles. In fact, he says he’s more engaged in the scene now than at any time since 2000, and he’s happy to see that these fraternal bonds are still being formed among likeminded guys.

“We don’t get instructed in gay sex when we’re young, and yet when it comes to it, if we are gay, it’s a magical moment. It’s a magical connection,” he says, adding that for him this is heightened during watersports. “It just does it for me, exploring the limits of my sexuality and what turns me on. It’s breaking barriers and it’s making transgressions and discovering that they’re exciting.”