Watch: Cruising the World Trade Center. Filmmaker Adam Baran Looks Back at the Towers' Hidden Sex Culture

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday April 10, 2021
Originally published on March 29, 2021

When filmmaker Adam Baran was a closeted high school student he recalls attending his proms at the World Trade Center. He was also just a few blocks away on September 11, 2001 when the came down while he was attending NYU. Now some twenty-years later, Baran returns to Ground Zero for his short film "World Trade" to explore the hidden sexual history of the twin towers.

Taken from the essay "The Towers of Cum & the Horndogs of Yore" by Bill Miller, Baran's eight-minute film offers oral history of the gay cruising and sex that took place from the 1970s to the buildings' destruction. "The film gives the impression that this kind of activity, which happened any time of day despite how bustling the building was, had been going on as long as WTC had alcoves to squirrel away in," wrote GQ recently in describing the film.

But doesn't do so with archival footage, but with narration and oral histories of a number of participants set against images of the sleek One World Trade Center, the new tower in the location. There was every combination of guys there, the narrator observes, from workers to delivery boys to shopworkers, executives, tourists, random dads. "It was pretty hot because it was a mixed crowd of like Jewish men in yarmukes, and Black and Latin and Asian and blue-color guys," says one of those interviewed. What they had in common was anonymity.

Baran, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, has won awards for his short films that have been screened at queer festivals around the world. He has received special acclaim for his music video "Dirty Boots" and his short comedic film "Jackpot," which has been described as "a giddy send up of all the teenage movies we gays never got to see ourselves in." He also was a producer on the acclaimed documentary "Circus of Books" released last year. In addition to filmmaking, Baran is the curator of New York's Queer/Art/Film screening series at the IFC Center NY, and has programmed features and shorts for Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and NewFest in New York. He was the online editor and contributing editor of BUTT Magazine from 2007 - 2011.

In "World Trade," Baran features the voice of five men who cruised the World Trade Center from the 1970s through the 1990s, and examines why The One World Trade Center appears not to be as queer sex-friendly as its predecessor. EMN spoke with Baran about how he heard about the secret world he describes in his film and why he thought it an important story to tell.

"Trade Center" can be watched at the website Mailchimp on their Support the Shorts page through May 25 at this link.

EDGE: What was it particularly about this story that made you want to make a film?

Adam Baran: That's a good question. I'm someone who has always been interested in stories about queer and LGBT sexuality. These kinds of stories don't necessarily get told by other filmmakers and writers in gay cinema and that is what interested me a lot about the World Trade Center.

I read my friend Billy Miller's essay, "The Towers of Cum & the Horndogs of Yore" about the secret spots where people would cruise at the World Trade Center. I was really struck with a couple of things. One was that I had a personal history with the World Trade Center in terms of this was where my high school junior and senior proms were held when I was still in the closet. I also lived close by while attending NYU and going to film school. After I read Billy's essay, it was really remarkable because I'd never considered the idea that there was this secret history of all these different cruising places. And, then, I started thinking about what if on 9/11 there were all these people in these cruising spaces and that idea kind of just stuck in my head.

EDGE: Stories like "Trade Center" are part of LGBTQ history that no longer exist. As a filmmaker why is it important to you to tell them?

Adam Baran: I think what's important is that any group of marginalized people or minority who are different there is an effort by the dominant society to erase such stories or to reduce them to a certain experience. For gay people, the complicated history of cruising, sexuality, and meeting is one of those stories that needs to be told. It is all part of our queer history. Gay bars at the time were few and far between, so guys were having sex in a public place, secret bathroom, secret stairwell and in the bushes.

I think it's important to be able to consider all the different facets and sides of the queer experience, so documenting these stories is very important to me.

EDGE: How did you find the five men who tell their stories in the film?

Adam Baran: Well, one of the men, Billy Miller and the films narrator, is one of my oldest friends here in New York He was the editor of an incredible and very popular magazine called "Straight to Hell." It was created by Boyd McDonald, who was a pioneer, in collecting these stories of underground sex places that existed around the world. When the pandemic hit, I realized that there were probably more people who had World Trade Center stories. I just started reaching out to friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who were in New York during the 70s, 80s, 90s and who were not ashamed of their sexuality and had some history to share. I wound up with these five men. Oh, and believe me, there were a lot of others who had stories, but for a length of time and purpose, we just didn't include them in the film.

EDGE: You must have heard lots of great stories. How did you then choose which ones should be included?

Adam Baran: You need evidence when creating a documentary about a real place, because you're recreating a historical record and real evidence does help bolster your story or argument. Billy's essays was the tour guide for this film.

What I liked about each of these men stories was that they really added a kind of a corroboration with Billy's essay. So, when I hear some stories about the bathrooms that bolstered the fact that, yes, there was all this activity in them. There were two rooms in the in the towers themselves on certain floors that you could go up to and play. And so when I found someone who said, "oh, yes, that was my scene," that's the person that I wanted to talk too. All the men were very thoughtful and interesting guys who had a history and a story to tell about the towers.

I think it added to the message of the film, which is that there has been so much of our lives that have been lived underground.

EDGE: Does Billy Miller (the film's narrator) still have his marked-up subway map?

Adam Baran: I don't know if he does. That's a good question. I'll have to ask him.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite restroom memory?

Adam Baran: I do! I really miss the porn shops that were on Eighth Avenue. I definitely had some fun at those places in my early days. Restroom were never really my thing, but I did enjoy the buddy booths and things like that.

EDGE: I was a bit surprised by the film. I thought it was going to be a lot grittier. You are really contrasting two different worlds in this film between the images and the stories that the men speak about.

Adam Baran: You definitely hit the nail on the head in terms of my intention.

I was so angry about how Mayor Bloomberg, used the tragedy to sort of kick off this relentless campaign of downtown revitalization, gentrification, and rebuilding.

There was so much controversy at the time about who was going to get the contract to build it There was all sorts of shenanigans going on. When the Freedom Tower was built, I felt like that it was still part of this very one-sided way of viewing the tragedy.

I've never been to the 9/11 memorial. I remember being on the subway and hearing somebody say, "How do you get to 9/11?" I thought, "oh, that's a thing that happened not a place you can visit."

Part of the experience of the filming for me was going there for the first time. We went around and we tried to find places that were maybe the remnants or maybe the echoes of these cruising experiences.

Obviously now, because of the history, it's incredibly surveilled and there are police everywhere. I wanted the audience to feel a sense of what was loss. I want them to hear the richness of the stories of the people who are remembering these places, but then not be able to visually access that.

I didn't really want to put a lot of images from the past like. As the viewer, I want you to feel that loss, like we did while walking around the Trade Center filming and looking for these places where you had been, you know, and had really meaningful experiences. Now it is all just so clean and sanitized and that's part of the tragedy.

EDGE: Who is your audience?

Adam Baran: I definitely want queer people to watch the film, but I hope it will resonant with all. I've had a big response from straight women. I think it will be interesting to straight people, but I'm not necessarily catering my films to them.

EDGE: When will this film be available to watch?

Adam Baran:
"Trade Center" can be watched at the website Mailchimp on their Support the Shorts page through May 25 at this link.

EDGE: Any upcoming projects you want to promote?

Adam Baran: Yes, the "Trade Center" is just the first in a series of short films and short documentaries that I'm working on. I am exploring cruising spaces and places where queer people meet for sex and socializing. I have a project that I'm producing that's about a place in Singapore. I'm also producing and working on a film about a place in New York called the "Nine Club." This is another place that very few people know about. It was a gay leather motorcycle club that existed for about 15 years. Unfortunately, there is very little record of it and very few people remember it.