Castro Gold's closes steam room
by Kevin Davis
A predominantly gay gym in the Castro closed its cruisy steam room indefinitely last week after receiving "numerous complaints" of sexual activity and a health department warning.
The Market Street Gold's Gym steam room was blocked off Tuesday morning, October 25 with yellow caution tape across it and a sign that reportedly said, "Closed due to inappropriate behavior."
Stories vary about the extent of sex behavior in the room and opinions about that behavior.
One three-year member, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, called general manager Gwynn Villegas "neurotic" and "a prude" after Villegas expressed fear last year that police could send in plainclothes officers and shut the business down.
Villegas told the Bay Area Reporter that he fears that his business will face the consequences of establishments like some of the bars that have been closed because of back room activity. He said that he received a warning from the health department.
Health department spokeswoman Eileen Shields would neither confirm nor deny the department had issued a warning. "There is no way to provide you with a response to the particular case at Gold's Gym you are asking about," Shields said Monday.
She added that she checked with Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, STD Control and Prevention chief, who said in a statement, "We have been working with a variety of sites, including Gold's, to promote safer sex and STD screening."
Gold's officials were prickly about the business appearing antigay and disclosed little information. Dan Dietrich, the manager of five Bay Area franchises, including the Market Street location, pointed to the company sponsoring a Pride Parade float and supporting the Stop AIDS Project.
Some gym members have speculated that the steam room closure may present a breach in their membership contracts. Villegas, however, disputed that claim.
He said the closure does not present a breach of contract for members because the "gym closure" clause of the membership agreement stipulates that facilities might close for maintenance for up to 60 days without extension of membership. He interprets the word "maintenance" broadly, and said that interrupting the alleged constant sex will "maintain" the room for legal use in the long-run.
"My job is essentially to oversee this operation and allow the gym to remain open," said Villegas. "Closure will remedy the situation."
But, Villegas, who formerly managed the old City Athletic Club, would not provide details on how many complaints he has received and for what behavior.
"I've spoken to individuals on a case by case basis," said Villegas. "These complaints, with respect to members, are to remain private. I'm not at liberty to discuss improprieties. That is proprietary and confidential information."
Dietrich implied some flexibility on the issue of recompense to members for closed facilities, saying, "I can discuss that with the member," but turned tight-lipped about what he might work out.
"The intricacies of our agreement are not for public consumption," said Dietrich. "It's a private matter."
Dietrich compared people "touching themselves" with other gym scofflaws such as those who wear heavy cologne, sweat on equipment, or shave in the shower and allowed that the staff monitors for illicit behavior.
"We rely on the interaction of clients and members," said Dietrich.
What members are saying
In a one-hour unscientific sample of gym members outside Gold's last Friday afternoon, responses ranged from people who avoid the steam room because of its reputation to those who don't mind and even admit to taking part in various activities. But, whether in favor of steam room masturbation or against, many refused to give their names for fear of creating friction with the management.
Those avoiding the steam room altogether outnumbered the others 10 to 7.
"God only knows what goes on in there," said student Jaden Nane, 32, a member for one month.
"I never felt comfortable using it," said Alan Westley, 29. "I don't mind getting cruised. I avoid the shower and steam room. I don't want to be around that."
David Nelson, 37, said he would only stand in the sometimes standing-room only steam room. "I don't sit down," said Nelson. "I don't want to partake."
Others took a laissez faire attitude toward friskiness and suggested politely setting boundaries when dealing with unwanted advances, without involving the management.
"I can handle it myself," said healthcare worker George Kelly, 45. He added that he has witnessed oral sex and mutual masturbation and "even participated." Kelly, a five-year member and HIV-positive for 21 years, is disappointed by the closure because he said it helps him "sweat out toxins and medication."
"Pretty innocent touching," and "momentary" oral sex, is how Matt Lucking, 50, described the action. "Nobody ever fucks. People sometimes ejaculate."
Eric Rofes, a Humboldt State University education professor and sociologist who has studied bathhouse history and culture, said it might be difficult for the gay men's community to reach consensus about sex in places not intended for sex. A greater parallel can be made with sex in public restrooms than with 1970s gay baths, he noted.
"You can't assume a population of gay men share a political vision of anything so broad," said Rofes, who is also a Castro Gold's member. We are "in a different moment in our understanding of the politics of gay men's sexuality."
As for gym cruising, Rofes said people should be careful about drawing comparisons with feminist arguments against sexual harassment and objectification.
"My argument is that in the Castro, gay men should be able to take care of themselves," said Rofes. "I want to say, grow up."
Crispin Hollings, Rofes's partner, said those who use the steam room are circumspect about behavior.
"It doesn't create a public health question," said Hollings. "No conversation is going on about this."
But for the health department, hygiene and disease prevention, rather than personal space and etiquette, is the main issue.
"We would object to ejaculation on a shower floor just as we would object to feces on a shower floor," said Health Director Dr. Mitch Katz in an e-mail. "In either case, we would tell the business that it was their job to prevent exposure to bodily fluids."
"If we had information that people were having unsafe sex at a gym, we would tell the gym management that they had a responsibility to prevent such behavior," Katz added.
San Francisco Police Sergeant Chuck Limbert, who works out at Gold's daily, said he was unaware of any police reports about lewd behavior, but said the heavily trafficked steam room closes down for cleaning or repairs every few months anyway.
"I haven't heard anything and nothing has been reported to me," said Limbert, who does not use the steam room out of modesty. "As a gay liaison I have to have something to keep to myself."
Castro beat cop Officer Lisa Frazer recalled two men acting inappropriately in the locker room over a year ago.
"Gold's is a reputable business with a good reputation," said Frazer. "Management stepped in and did the responsible thing without being forced to."
But gyms in other cities have been hit with lawsuits over inappropriate behavior.
In May, a straight man sued the mostly gay David Barton gym in Manhattan for $25,000. Carlos Sosa claimed gym management allowed locker room sexual activity, and accused the staff of not exercising professional standards. He also sued for breach of contract and emotional distress.
The Sosa case, "inspired a whole discussion about appropriateness of sex in gyms and places seen as gay male spaces," said Rofes. "It's an unfortunate dilemma for people managing gyms. The gym manager has to mediate those tensions. It's not a job I'd like to have."