San Francisco tells gay bathhouses, "Welcome back!"

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday January 25, 2021
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Traditional gay bathhouses like Steamworks, above, in Berkeley can seek to open in San Francisco for the first time in nearly four decades. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Traditional gay bathhouses like Steamworks, above, in Berkeley can seek to open in San Francisco for the first time in nearly four decades. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

For the first time in nearly four decades operators of traditional gay bathhouses can once again seek permits to open in San Francisco.

The city's public health department has rescinded the restrictions that have kept such businesses from operating in the city since the mid-1980s. A legacy from the height of the AIDS epidemic, bathhouses in San Francisco until now could not have private rooms with locked doors and were required to monitor the sex of their patrons.

Those regulations, when put into effect, resulted in a de facto ban on gay bathhouses in San Francisco, leaving residents to have to travel to such businesses in Berkeley and in San Jose. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lone gay bathhouse left in the Bay Area is Steamworks in the East Bay and it remains closed because of the health crisis.

While gay sex clubs without private, locked rooms continued to operate in the city, most eventually closed their doors. There is just one in operation today: Eros on upper Market Street in the city's LGBTQ Castro district.

"It is symbolically significant right now. Whether it is significant on the ground depends on if entrepreneurs with the vision and financial capacities and the savvy to open can and operate one of these," said gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman of the lifting of the old bathhouse rules.

Mandelman, who represents the Castro, spearheaded rescinding the outdated sex venue rules last year. Health officials late last week informed Mandelman's office that they had updated the rules governing adult sex venues.

They had been granted an extension of the initial January 1 deadline to do so due to employees being out on vacation for the holidays. Public health officials were also dealing with a late end-of-year surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that has just now begun to recede.

"It seems like a reasonable set of rules for the running of a bathhouse, which is what we wanted," said Mandelman, adding that he has yet to be approached by someone wanting to open such a business in the city. "If somebody comes forward, we will have to see what is the interrelationship between public health and land use. As we all know, it is hard to get anything approved in San Francisco."

Mandelman's office provided the Bay Area Reporter a copy of the bathhouse rule revisions ahead of their being publicly published. The three-page document, titled "Minimum Standards for Operation of Sex Clubs, Commercial Sex Venues and Parties," details various sexual activities that pose risks for transmitting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases that patrons of the venues should be discouraged from engaging in.

Among those detailed in the rules are anal and vaginal intercourse without a condom and fisting without the use of a latex glove. Easily visible signs at entrances and throughout the venues alerting patrons to the activities that pose a risk for HIV and STDs must be displayed in English, Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog.

Patrons must state in writing that they agree to adhere to the posted rules regarding prohibited sexual activities in the venue and be informed of the consequences of non-compliance to the posted rules. Customers must have valid IDs showing they are 18 years of age or older.

Patrons clearly intoxicated or under the influence of substances are not to be allowed entry. The rules also ban the sale or consumption of alcohol or other substances inside the venues. The same prohibitions apply to anyone who rents out a venue to host a private party.

The rules ban sex in exchange for money or free entry into the venues, which are required to have two staff people working at all times. The venues must provide safe sex materials free of charge, such as lubricants and condoms. Those establishments with locked rooms must have such materials stocked in each room.

And all such businesses need to provide wash-up facilities for their patrons where they have access to hot and cold running water, liquid soap, hand sanitizer and paper towels.

"The following minimum standards for the operation of sex clubs, commercial sex venues and parties are intended to ensure that these venues provide a safe environment for their patrons and do not contribute to the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in San Francisco," notes the document.

Many of the city's gay bathhouses were located in the South of Market neighborhood on or near Folsom Street. So many gay-related venues, from bathhouses and sex clubs to bars and stores catering to leather fetishists, were located in the area by the 1970s that it was known as the Miracle Mile.

But the AIDS epidemic led to the corridor's diminishment, with waves of redevelopment in recent decades further decreasing its LGBTQ offerings. Nowadays SOMA has transformed from being a heavily industrial area into a booming residential neighborhood.

Allowing for the reopening of traditional gay bathhouses could be a boost for leaders of the area's Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District as they try to preserve the neighborhood as an LGBTQ enclave. The city's paving the way for the return of such establishments is also coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health crisis for nearly a year has curtailed people's ability to meet up in person, whether to socialize with friends and family or engage in sexual hookups. With life not expected to return to a sense of normalcy until late in 2021, a gay bathhouse could be ready to open just as the health crisis fully subsides.

"I think our community as well as other communities have a long history of enjoying in-person meetings. The pandemic has certainly affected many of the businesses in our area," said Robert Goldfarb, a gay man who is the president of the SOMA LGBTQ cultural district's board. "If someone where to start now then by the time they would open the timing probably would be ideal because we would be looking at the pandemic in the rearview mirror just in time for them to open."

With the new rules in place, Goldfarb told the B.A.R. he hopes a gay bathhouse operator will come forward to open a location in San Francisco.

"I think that would be a significant boost to the community in general and probably meet some pent up demand, if you will," he said.

While he believes there are potential locations to situate a gay bathhouse in the Castro, Mandelman told the B.A.R. it is likely to be easier to find a suitable location that can secure the necessary city permits to open in SOMA.

"It is a good development and sets the stage for bathhouses to be part of our economic recovery," he said. "I hope very much that they will."

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