Over 30 years on since the city of San Francisco declared a public health crisis and got a judge to shut down what was once a vibrant and wildly sexy bathhouse scene, the Mayor of SF has told a local gay paper that he might consider letting bathhouse open again. Maybe.
Mayor Ed Lee isn’t exactly a libertine, and he’s running for re-election next month virtually unopposed, but he made the comments to the Bay Area Reporter last week likely to appease some of the older gay voters for whom this issue is still a sore spot, and a source of bad memories.
For many men, of course, the bathhouse were gross and unsafe, and places where the AIDS epidemic that killed thousands in San Francisco was essentially born. They’d all be happy to see them stay shut.
But for others, like those who might be still alive who picketed City Hall in towels with signs like “Out of the Baths and Into the Ovens” (this actually happened), the closing of the baths symbolized a loss of hard-won sexual freedom, freedom that they’d only recently found in their lives in the last decade.
The issue has come up several times, via editors of the Bay Area Reporter, demanding that local public health officials relook at the issue in an age when a) lots of self-proclaimed sluts who visit sex parties and bathhouses are on PrEP now, and b) HIV is no longer a death sentence, and keeping this law on the books starts to feel like discrimination.For his part, Mayor Lee just says, “The issue about bathhouses and so forth that is an item that blends entertainment along with safe sex, and I have got to have experts telling me that is something they wouldn’t have a problem with. I would be open to it but I have got to have that kind of process.”
That process involves the director of the Department of Public Health the paper identifies her as “Barbara Garcia, a lesbian” doing some formal study of the issue and giving the mayor a recommendation. There is also the issue of economics, with SF having the most expensive real estate in the country right now.
Bathhouses, meanwhile, exist in nearby Berkeley and San Jose, as well as in Chicago, New York, and other cities where such injunctions or laws against them never existed. In actual fact, SF still doesn’t have any legislation against them, but the judge’s injunction has stood since 1984, despite it saying it could be lifted when the health crisis had ended.
In New York, in 1985, the city health department closed several bathhouses over health code violations, but allowed four others to remain open, citing no violations. The New York Times clutched its pearls and wrote about that fact in 1987.
USA Today wrote a piece about the demise of bathhouses in the country last year, saying that in the late 1970s there were about 200 of them across the country, and that number dwindled to 90 in the 1990s, following the AIDS crisis, and the count is now at around 70.
Anyway, remember when Colby Keller and Brenden Cage hooked up in a sauna in Colby’s first Men.com scene ever in 2011?