San Francisco supervisors lift gay bathhouse prohibitions

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday April 27, 2022
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The former Bulldog Baths building at 130-132 Turk Street is expected to become the new home of Eros sex club. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The former Bulldog Baths building at 130-132 Turk Street is expected to become the new home of Eros sex club. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco could see the return of a gay sex venue as soon as June now that the Board of Supervisors has thrown its support behind removing prohibitions that have kept such establishments from opening their doors in the city's historic LGBTQ neighborhoods. The decision also paves the way for a traditional gay bathhouse to once again operate in the City-by-the-Bay.

At its April 26 meeting the board voted 11-0 in support of a zoning change that allows gay bathhouses and other adult sex venues to operate in the Castro, Tenderloin, and most of South of Market. It needs to vote a second time at its May 3 meeting before the city code update is sent to the desk of Mayor London Breed, who is not expected to veto it.

The changes should become effective in Pride Month. Once they do Eros, the sex club for queer and trans men, will reopen its doors at 132 Turk Street. After vacating its upper Market Street location in December, Eros began remodeling and moving into its new space, where the gay Bulldog Baths had operated in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has led the legislative push to allow for the return of gay bathhouses in the city. His efforts saw the lifting in early 2021 of a rule that prevented adult sex venues from having rooms with locked doors, a feature common in gay bathhouses around the globe. The only such venue left in the Bay Area is Steamworks Baths in Berkeley.

Put in place during the AIDS epidemic, the restriction no longer was needed due to HIV becoming a manageable disease and new infections in San Francisco precipitously dropping in recent years, argued Mandelman and LGBTQ health officials. But a decision by Zoning Administrator Corey Teague in December 2020 to define adult sex venues in the city's health code as being a type of adult business meant they were still broadly banned in the city, including in the three LGBTQ cultural districts.

Thus, Mandelman came back to his colleagues with a second code amendment to define adult sex venues as businesses that include retail sales and service uses. It also specifies that they "may include bathhouse facilities such as pools, tubs, or steam rooms, and are eligible for a Limited Live Performance permit."

The new zoning outright allows adult sex venues to operate 24/7 in the Castro and on upper Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street. The change also makes way for such businesses to operate in much of SOMA and the Tenderloin.

The businesses can seek approval from the planning commission to operate in the eastern SOMA, the Mission, Dogpatch, and Bayview, and if they want to operate between 2 and 6 a.m. in those locations. Adult businesses remain banned in the Chinatown Community Business District.

After the supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee voted April 25 a second time in support of the zoning change, chair District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar expedited having the full board vote on it Tuesday. The decision sets up the supervisors to cast a final vote next week.

"I hope this is it," Mandelman told the Bay Area Reporter of having to update the city's rules for gay bathhouses and adult sex venues. "I hope this opens the door for some entrepreneurs and some really great establishments to open up. In short time it will allow for Eros to open."

Eros co-owner Ken Rowe noted during the April 11 land use committee hearing that the gay- and trans-owned business operates similar to a "day spa" with daytime and evening hours and not as a 24-hour venue. Since it opened in 1992, the business has worked "to exceed," noted Rowe, the requirements the city has placed on commercial sex venues.

"We have been able to weather the crises of AIDS and STIs, the drug crisis, and we find ourselves the only gay commercial sex venue to remain in business post the COVID imposed closures," said Rowe, referring to the closure in 2020 of SOMA sex club Blow Buddies.

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