Exclusive: Gay bathhouses could one day return to SF

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 5, 2020
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San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman will propose legislation that would allow the city to have gay bathhouses, like the Steamworks, above, in Berkeley. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman will propose legislation that would allow the city to have gay bathhouses, like the Steamworks, above, in Berkeley. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Nearly four decades after they shuttered amid a court fight at the height of the AIDS epidemic, gay bathhouses could return to San Francisco under a policy change being sought by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

In an exclusive interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Mandelman said he intends to introduce legislation at the February 11 board meeting that would lay the groundwork for how operators of gay bathhouses could reopen such establishments in the city. It would jettison the long-standing prohibition against having locked doors for private rooms rented by bathhouse patrons and rescind the requirement that such venues hire people to monitor the sexual activities of their customers.

"I think it is about putting a bookend on a pretty terrible chapter in the history of the queer community in San Francisco," said Mandelman. "The restrictions went into place in 1984 as gay men were dying and the public health community was desperate to find ways to slow the spread of the epidemic. And I think since that time many folks in the queer community, many people who were around then, felt something had been lost and lamented that now in the era of PrEP these restrictions no longer make great sense."

PrEP, the once-a-day pill that prevents the transmission of HIV, is just one of several effective strategies health officials have in their arsenal nowadays that has led to a dramatic decline in new HIV infections in San Francisco. For years local health officials have also worked to see that people living with HIV are receiving care and on treatment, as those with undetectable HIV viral loads don't transmit the virus to their sexual partners.

Last year, the city reported for the first time that new HIV diagnoses had dipped below 200 in 2018. And San Francisco is on track to reach its goal this year of achieving a 90% reduction in new HIV cases as part of the city's Getting to Zero strategy to end the HIV epidemic.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

No data for keeping old regs
Thus, unlike in years past, the city's department of public health no longer believes there is a need to maintain the restrictive rules governing gay bathhouses. Although it is remaining neutral on Mandelman's legislation, the department for the first time is saying publicly that there isn't a data-driven reason for why such businesses should be prohibited.

"The evidence doesn't show that allowing closed doors and no monitoring would drive new HIV infections or result in more STD infections. And there are new tools in our toolbox with PrEP, and treatment as prevention, and undetectable equals untransmittable," said Tracey Packer, who oversees HIV prevention for the health department as its director of community health equity and promotion.

Packer was speaking on behalf of Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man who is the city's health director, as he was unable to talk to the B.A.R. due to the reports Monday of two patients with coronavirus being moved to San Francisco for treatment. In 2008, shortly after being hired as the city's HIV prevention director, Colfax had said he personally felt it would be "very difficult to justify re-opening the baths."

Last January, Mayor London Breed hired Colfax to oversee DPH, and within months of his starting the job in February, Colfax was again confronted with the issue about re-opening the gay bathhouses.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the South of Market neighborhood where most of the gay bathhouses had operated, sent Colfax a letter April 25 to encourage him to "revisit some of the more arcane and reactionary policies that were adopted at the height of the panic of the HIV/AIDS crisis and that could potentially stand in the way" of the city's recent progress in controlling the epidemic.

Citing research that has found monitoring of sex behavior in bathhouses "has little to no effect" and noting the latest advances in preventing HIV and caring for people living with HIV, Haney wrote that his office "would support the revisiting of the policies requiring monitors and banning locked doors within bathhouses and sex establishments" in the city.

Draft legislation
Haney told the B.A.R. this week that he will be co-sponsoring Mandelman's legislation. It would instruct Colfax to revise by June 1 the health department's minimum standards governing the operation of adult sex venues so they no longer ban locked doors or require sex monitoring by staff.

"I think it was a discriminatory rule that doesn't have any backing in public health and so it is overdue that they change it. I am glad they are coming around to it," said Haney.

The standards could still include prohibiting patrons of the businesses from engaging in sexual activities deemed "as posing an unreasonable risk of infection" for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, according to a draft of the legislation shared with the B.A.R. The standards likely would continue to require the businesses to provide free condoms, lubricant and other safe sex supplies to their customers, as well as information about the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The draft legislation also states the adult sex venue operating rules could also include "such other requirements and/or prohibitions as the director determines are necessary to protect and promote the health and safety of patrons." The supervisors are likely to take up the issue in March at the earliest.

Mandelman had sent Colfax his own letter June 28 calling on him to review the city's "outdated policies" regulating bathhouses, which he wrote "have the capacity to provide safe, clean, and accessible spaces for those who need them, and provide an opportunity to offer safer-sex education, safer-sex supplies, and on-site testing services for those who would benefit most."

Requests to revisit rules
And a handful of gay men over the last two years also had beseeched the health department and city leaders to revisit the rules governing bathhouses. A main driver of the effort has been Blade Bannon, an erotic photographer and author of kink self-help books who has lived in San Francisco for 15 years.

"These places exist in other cities and countries all over the world and guess what, the world hasn't come to an end," said Bannon.

Stephan Ferris, a gay man who has lived in the city since 2005, has been advocating on the subject along with Bannon.

"I find bathhouses to be personally enjoyable," said Ferris, who holds the leather title Mr. Friendly San Francisco 2018. "It just seems the reason they were closed in the 1980s doesn't match up with the science we have now. It is time to change the standards to accommodate that."

Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist in San Francisco who tested positive for HIV in 1985 a year after most of the city's gay bathhouses closed, told the B.A.R. he sees no reason to keep them shuttered.

"I just think it is time and I think we have already learned that the regulations don't result in a reduction of transmissions," said Jones.

And Packer told the B.A.R. this week that the health department doesn't "have any evidence that having locked doors had an effect on transmission of HIV and STDs."

A policy relic of a fearful time
In 1984, amid an often vitriolic debate within the city's LGBT community about whether the gay bathhouses and sex clubs should be shuttered as a way to stop the spread of AIDS, the city filed a lawsuit against a number of the businesses claiming they were a public health nuisance. That October a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order that shuttered nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs.

In late November of that year 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 judge hearing the court case at one point toughened his order and banned any sex from occurring in the bathhouses.

The legal case came to an end in 1989 when the city dismissed its lawsuit. By then the city's gay bathhouses were no more, but over the ensuing years sex clubs opened their doors. Several, like Eros and Blow Buddies, remain in business, albeit without private rooms patrons can lock shut.

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. But they had remained resolute in their opposition to allowing gay bathhouses to open with private rooms.

Minimum standards for sex venues were developed in 1997 that mirrored the earlier court order and remain to this day. They require that all areas of commercial sex clubs be monitored on a regular basis by staff, and prohibit sex clubs and parties from having locking booths, cubicles, or rooms to which patrons have access.

A decade later the city's HIV epidemic, in effect, had ended as new infections began to decline and HIV was deemed to be an endemic disease. In 2013, then-health director Barbara Garcia, a lesbian, had assigned staff to look at the issue of allowing traditional gay bathhouses to again operate in the city but nothing came out of that review to alter the policies.

Five years ago the late San Francisco mayor Ed Lee told the B.A.R. he was "open" to allowing gay bathhouses to once again operate in the city as long as public health officials believed doing so would not hinder their plan to eliminate by 2020 nearly all new HIV infections.

Race Bannon, no relation to Blade Bannon, is a longtime HIV activist and writer in San Francisco who pens the B.A.R.'s leather column. He said this week that it is time that the city junk its gay bathhouse prohibitions. He was part of a group of gay men who had urged local health officials to change the policy back in 1999 and 2000 to no success.

"I think San Francisco, both from a Department of Public Health standpoint and a City Hall standpoint, are led by people who respect facts, data, and real world proven strategies. This legislation respects the facts, data, and real world proven strategies," he said of Mandelman's proposal.

His opinion has only hardened over the last two decades due to the advances in HIV prevention. Plus, he sees no reason why men looking for a traditional gay bathhouse should have to travel to Steamworks in Berkeley or the Watergarden in San Jose.

"One of the points I make to people is not having a bathhouse in San Francisco has become a class and economic issue. Having to travel elsewhere costs money and time that often they do not have," said Bannon. "Even more importantly in San Francisco's current economic and housing landscape, many guys are living with two, three, and four roommates. They often feel uncomfortable bringing someone home or having sex in their own home."

A gay bathhouse would provide a safe venue for men to utilize at a cheaper rate than having to rent a hotel room in the city, noted Bannon.

"A young man may take someone home from a bar and in a rare instance may be assaulted or something like that. If they had a place they could go which was semi-public — meaning a bathhouse — they would feel safer because other people are around," he said.

Unclear if bathhouse would open
It is unclear if a gay bathhouse would actually open in San Francisco, as no one the B.A.R. spoke to for this article said they knew of an operator of such a business proposing to open a location in the city. Thinking of the where a gay bathhouse could open, Jones joked, "I nominate the Pottery Barn," referring to the home furnishing company's now vacant store location in the city's LGBT Castro district at the corner of Market and Castro streets.

Ken Rowe, one of the five gay or queer male identified owners of Eros, told the B.A.R. this week that they are unlikely to install private rooms at their sex club located on upper Market Street.

They don't have much room to add private rooms, nor did Rowe think there was a strong demand for such an amenity at Eros. He also said no matter what rules the city adopts, Eros would remain a condoms-only club in order to protect its out-of-town customers from contracting an STD or HIV.

"We have been here since 1992 and we kind of know what we are doing and our customers know what to expect and our international customers know where to find us and what to expect," said Rowe. "At the onset we don't have any plans for private rooms."

While he agrees the policy in place now has become outdated due to the latest science around HIV prevention and treatment, Rowe said it is other issues that give him pause about adding private rooms at Eros.

"What I am concerned about are the other health ramifications of private rooms and the level of monitoring of them because of IV drug use," he said. "The fact is that I know traditional bathhouses around the country have a consistent problem with that, with overdosing and with death."