Lecture renews interest in SF bathhouse closure debate

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday September 23, 2015
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A standing-room-only crowd had piled into the GLBT History Museum in the Castro to hear a lecture, equal parts history lesson and nostalgic remembrance, of what led to the death of San Francisco's famed gay bathhouse culture.

Once a thriving segment of the city's gay community, with more than a dozen bathhouses and sex clubs operating in the 1970s and early 1980s, the providers of sexual play spaces became ground zero in the fight over how to stop the spread of AIDS more than three decades ago. Places with names such as The Bulldog Baths, Ritch Street Health Club, and The Caldron.

Buzz Bense discussed the closure of San Francisco's bathhouses during his talk at the GLBT History Museum. Photo: Rick Gerharter

"How amazing and wonderful we have a room packed with people who want to know about our history and the impact AIDS had on our past lives," said Buzz Bense, a former co-owner of sex club Eros, which continues to operate under new ownership in an upper Market Street building.

More than 50 people, mainly gay men of various ages, had come to Bense's August 13 talk titled "Sex Panic: The History of the San Francisco Bathhouse Closures."

"It is a complicated story turned sleek like a jaguar so we can navigate it," said Bense, who zeroed in on the events that occurred between March and December of 1984. "All these changes and all the politics happened very quickly in this period of time."

By the spring of 1983, two years after the first cases of what became known as AIDS were reported among gay men, community leaders in San Francisco were publicly urging gay men to stop going to the bathhouses and to reduce their number of sexual partners. Their pleas were a counterpoint to those gay men who questioned the veracity of health officials' determination that AIDS was spread sexually.

"We three gay men are convinced that the AIDS epidemic means that we men must �" temporarily, we hope �" change our sexual lifestyles in order to save our lives," wrote a trio of political leaders, Cleve Jones, Ron Huberman, and the late Bill Kraus, in an open letter to the community published in the May 26, 1983 issue of the Bay Area Reporter .

Many men heeded their advice, and at some establishments, attendance declined by half, noted Bense.

"By mid-1983 the bathhouse business was not something you want to buy stock in," he said.

Jones and Kraus had also joined with a number of other local LGBT leaders that month to ask bathhouse owners to alert patrons of their businesses that AIDS is a concern and what precautions they could take to limit their risk of becoming infected.

Yet others felt the only real solution was to close down the bathhouses and began urging the city's health director at the time, Dr. Mervyn Silverman, to take action. Gay activist Larry Littlejohn, whose private appeals to Silverman to shutter the bathhouses were rebuffed, announced in March 1984 that he planned to put a ballot measure before voters that November which would ban sex from occurring at the bathhouses.

Those who supported closing the bathhouses were labeled traitors, and a B.A.R. editorial in the April 5, 1984 issue famously ran a list of 16 names of people it said were out to kill off the gay liberation movement, with Littlejohn labeled "traitor extraordinaire."

"Things got ugly really quick," said Bense, adding, "The rhetoric got more and more hysterical."

At first Silverman saw the bathhouses as a way to reach men at high risk of contracting AIDS and therefore had sided with those against closing them down. But he faced growing political and public pressure to take action against the bathhouses.

Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein supported shutting down the bathhouses as a way to end the spread of AIDS. And on April 9, 1984, Silverman held a news conference to announce that the city would ban sex from occurring at all public facilities.

"People are making this so damn complex," Silverman told the B.A.R. in an interview with the paper following his announcement. "I think that carrying it out might have some complexities as far as the legal system is concerned, but the concept is very simple."

As the city attorney's office drafted the new rules, several bathhouses and sex clubs closed their doors within weeks of the no sex policy's announcement.

By June news broke that Feinstein had sent police officers into the bathhouses to report on what sort of sex the gay patrons were engaged in. A June 7 editorial in the B.A.R. warned, "Big Sister is Watching."

The first move to close the baths came on October 9, when Silverman issued an order "to abate a public nuisance" to 14 bathhouses, sex clubs, and bookstores in the city. Yet within hours many had re-opened under advice from attorneys that the notices were unlawful.

The battle over the bathhouses then pivoted to the courts. And on October 15 a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order that shuttered nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs.

Forty-four days later another judge lifted the restraining order but imposed new rules on how the bathhouses and sex clubs could operate. No longer could they rent private rooms, unless they secured a hotel license, and employees had to monitor the sexual behavior of patrons.

Bathhouse owners, however, refused to open their doors as the court heard challenges to the new rules. The legal fight escalated when the city sought a subpoena to have the clubs turn over their clientele lists.

As the court fight lingered, Silverman announced his resignation on December 11, 1984. Later that month the judge hearing the court case toughened his order and banned any sex from occurring in the bathhouses.

"There was never legislation in City Hall. There was never regulation from the health department," noted Bense. "These closures happened because a judge made a decision influenced by politics and the media."

Although the judge's ruling served as a death notice for the city's bathhouses, over the ensuing years several sex clubs �" i.e. places without private rooms �" opened their doors. Several, like Eros and Blow Buddies, remain in business. By the 1990s the city's health officials saw the sex clubs as avenues to reach gay men and educate them about safe sex practices.

"What happened way back in 1984 has informed our sex culture and given us what we have in San Francisco today," said Bense. "It is important to know the history and where our sex culture is today."

Although Eros a few years ago was required to seek a permit that designates it as a bathhouse, due to its having a steam room, it does not have private rooms. Despite calls over the years by some to have the prohibition against private rooms in bathhouses be lifted, it remains in place.

"I think that queer men across generations are really interested in a more expansive sexual culture. The closure of the bathhouses is an important part of that story," said Don Romesburg, the program chair for the GLBT Historical Society, which runs the museum and sponsored the talk. "It is heartening to see this many people here."