Reopening San Francisco's Gay Bathhouses

The city of San Francisco seems to exist in some sort of parallel universe where sex is either commercial, public, promiscuous, more plentiful or simply better than any place on our planet. I have friends who travel to San Francisco regularly because the sheer act of showing up there apparently quadruples their chances of getting laid.

Ironically, the same city that churns out so much gay porn and supports a number of commercial sex clubs has no gay public bathhouses. That's because the San Francisco Department of Public Health issued an order closing the baths in October 1984 at the height of AIDS panic in the city, claiming they were a public nuisance facilitating multiple unsafe sexual contacts. But because it was a local rather than state authority, about a half dozen bathhouses reopened shortly to challenge the regulation. Ultimately, by court order, the bathhouses were allowed to remain open, but were required to remove all private rooms and hire monitors (one for every twenty patrons) to ensure no unsafe sex acts were occurring and expel patrons engaging in unsafe sex practices.

You can probably guess the rest of this story. Bathhouse owners and activists balked at the guidelines. The bathhouses closed one by one either because they refused to adopt the guidelines or due to diminishing patronage. Today, however, some Bay gays are revisiting the issue and even trying to launch a ballot initiative to reopen the bathhouses. Oh yes, I can just imagine San Franciscans heading to the polls to vote on whether or not to reopen gay bathhouses. In fact, these are the only people I can imagine doing something like this.

In San Francisco, America's gay capital, reopening bathhouses is a big thing. First, a group called Community United for Sexual Privacy (CUSP) formed in 1997 to ask the question, "What gave the city the right to say gay men can't go behind closed doors?" Then another coalition loosely led by longtime activist Michael Petrelis called the old Department of Health regulations homophobic and launched the ballot campaign. Supporters were only able to gather 4,000 of the 10,500 signatures needed to put a measure on the November ballot, but they vow to try again.

Condemnation of this movement has been quick and sharp. The Internet digital magazine Salon posted an article in late 1997 by writer David Horowitz called "The Boys in the Bathhouses." Horowitz calls bathhouses "death camps of contagion." Is anybody else as tired of the Holocaust analogies as I am? In the 1940s, European Jews were rounded up and left in concentration camps to be killed. In the 1970s, gay and bisexual men walked freely into bathhouses and had sex with strangers. The "death camp" reference is fallacious. An editorial in the San Francisco Examiner last June asked, "Who wants to take a chance on re-energizing the AIDS epidemic?" The San Francisco Chronicle called it "an absurd proposal that defies reason in a city that has witnessed the city's gay community decimated by AIDS."

But according to Associated Press reports, activist Michael Petrelis says the Department of Health's regulations stemmed from public health concerns that don't exist anymore, and he further claims there's no good reason for the bathhouse ban with AIDS deaths declining and people becoming more educated about safe sex. Petrelis says flatly, "I want that kind of bathhouse facility with condoms, safe sex information, showers and locked cubicles--and safe sex in that cubicle, too, don't get me wrong."

Why not reopen the bathhouses? San Francisco's gay and bisexual male population already support dozens of private, membership-only sex clubs. You pay to play. Raise your hand if you think all that club sex is safe. Raise your hand if you think anybody goes there to read a safer sex pamphlet. Raise your hand if you think these clubs are basically bathhouses without the baths.

What is this controversy really about? Location, location, location. San Francisco Department of Public Health officials think either too much unsafe sex happens in a bathhouse, or that the potential for it warrants regulations about open cubicles and safe sex monitors. As recently as the July issue of POZ magazine, San Francisco Department of Public Health official Dana Van Gorder was quoted saying, "Unsafe sex is more likely to occur in unmonitored spaces." What Van Gorder fails to mention is that there's no evidence, no research, not a single epidemiological study to support either that claim or that closing bathhouses is an appropriate public health measure.

I have never been to a bathhouse, so I only know what friends tell me about them. Apparently, men wearing nothing but towels pair off for sex. Hmm...don't lots of fully-clothed men go to bars to pair off and then head home for sex? What's the difference? Like I said, I've never been to a bathhouse. Every time I've ever been asked to engage in high risk sex it happened in a bedroom. I think it has more to do with behavior than location.

On the other hand, I can't get behind those activists who asked, "What gave the city the right to say gay men can't go behind closed doors?" You can always take it to the bedroom, boys, and close that door. Some men prefer multiple partners and no strings. Fine. But I have to laugh when gay men get all bent out of shape and self-righteous about something like bathhouse regulations. In a country where movies carry ratings, laws compel us to wear seat belts, restaurants are divided up into smoking and non-smoking sections, and you have to be a certain height to get on the rides at Six Flags, it feels false to claim that closing bathhouses or enforcing regulations within them tramples gay rights and sexual freedom or is even remotely homophobic. We have rules and regulations and ordinances about everything in this country. It's what we do. And we do it to everybody.

What tickles me most about this whole mock-controversy is the fact that gay bathhouses still exist in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Jose, and have for years, without the support of ballot initiatives or shrill activists. Nope, they pretty much exist because of queer lust, unadulterated capitalism and greed, and the general indifference of the rest of the population. Isn't it just possible that some of the San Francisco activists involved here have overprioritized sex and the relevance of this issue?