Gay Bathhouse Under Pressure to End Privacy for Sexual Acts
The place is a veritable haven for barefoot men in towels.
On almost any day of the week, they can be found wandering the darkened hallways of the 1350 Club--the city’s only homosexual bathhouse--past the orange and black doors whose keys rent for $12 to $15 for six to eight hours. Some of the doors stand open, revealing single black-lighted beds upon which naked patrons rest in various attitudes of repose. Most doors stay shut, hiding from view what takes place within the tiny rooms they protect.
Lately the doors have become symbolic of an emotional controversy. On one side are city government and health officials who say the doors must be removed to prevent sexual contact likely to spread the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome. On the other are the facility’s owner and patrons who see the club as an important link in the fight against AIDS, and the doors as guardians of homosexuals’ right to privacy.
At stake is the existence of the club itself, a local landmark since 1977 which, according to owner Glen Moering, will close by June 30 unless the city rescinds its demand for removal of the doors and beds.
‘A Grave Injustice’
“I think they’re (perpetrating) a grave injustice,” Moering, 56, said of his adversaries in the city during a recent interview at the club. “If you were in your own home or in a hotel room, the city inspectors couldn’t come in and ask you which side of the bed you were on. I can get AIDS anywhere; I will close the club before I sacrifice the privacy of our members.”
Dr. Rugmini Shah, the city’s chief health officer, said, “If they don’t remove the doors we will turn it over to the city prosecutor.”
To be sure, not everyone comes to the 1350 Club on Locust Avenue for sexual encounters behind closed doors. Besides the rooms with the beds, the club features a gym, pool, sauna, whirlpool baths and disco. It even has a television room where patrons can relax in comfort to watch “Saturday Night Live” or whatever else strikes their fancy.
But scattered throughout the facility are video screens featuring X-rated films graphically depicting sexual acts between males. And on a recent Saturday night, all 50 of the club’s private rooms were occupied well before 10 p.m. with a waiting list so long that staffers were urging patrons not to add their names to it.
“I come here to (have sex) if they’re cute,” said Robert Tickell, 35, a Signal Hill travel agent who added that he visits the club two to three times a week but only has sex about 10% of the time. “Otherwise, there are always people I (can talk to).”
Orgy Room Now TV Room
Back before AIDS was on everybody’s mind, patrons say, the atmosphere at the club was much more sexually charged. What is now the TV room, they say, used to be an orgy room. And the club’s “glory holes"--openings in walls through which anonymous sex acts were performed--have been removed.
Patrons credit the changes largely to Moering who, 2 1/2 years ago on his own initiative, embarked on an ambitious campaign to fight the spread of AIDS through education. As a result, the club today features prominent signs in every room and on nearly every wall urging patrons to engage only in “safe” sex--that which does not involve the exchange of bodily fluids. Also, according to Moering, all customers are required to sign statements pledging to engage only in safe sex practices, employees monitor all areas of the club except private rooms to assure that no unsafe practices take place and patrons caught engaging in unsafe practices are asked to leave the premises.
“The 1350 is one of the most enlightened clubs in Southern California in terms of AIDS education,” said Michael Brown, executive director of The Center, a Long Beach organization contracted by the city to combat AIDS.
At the outset of his anti-AIDS efforts, Moering said, his business suffered a 40% decline that he has only gradually been able to recoup. Today, he said, the club--which is open 24 hours a day and attracts as many as 100 patrons on a Saturday night--has 5,000 to 8,000 active members, each of whom pays $12 for a six-month membership and $7 to $15 per visit depending on whether he rents a room with video screen or only a small locker.
But nobody has been asked to leave the club for engaging in unsafe practices in nearly five months, manager Mike Sargent said. And on two recent visits to the facility, a reporter who did not identify himself as such to staffers was not shown nor asked to sign any pledge regarding unsafe sexual practices. (Moering said he could not explain why a pledge had not been required and said he would investigate.)
Unsafe Practices Shock Patron
In fact, according to many of the patrons interviewed, unsafe sex practices still occur at the 1350 Club with some regularity. Tickell, for instance, estimated that only about 25% of those whom he encounters at the club use condoms or pay attention to the “safe sex” signs. And another patron, who did not want his name used, said he was “shocked” by the amount of unsafe sex he sees occurring at the club.
It was a sex act considered unsafe by a visitor, in fact, that led to the impasse between the club and the city. Earlier this year, Rob Chapple, himself a homosexual and self-proclaimed anti-AIDS crusader, became incensed after witnessing what he said were unsafe sexual practices at the 1350 Club.
Chapple did two things: He attracted local newspaper coverage by dressing in a death mask and black cape while distributing free condoms and anti-AIDS literature in front of the bathhouse, and he contacted Councilman Edd Tuttle, who in turn complained to the city’s Health Department.
Shah, the city’s health officer, said her department made its recommendation that the doors and beds be removed as a result of its own inspection following Tuttle’s complaint. That recommendation also complies with recent guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which urge the closure of all bathhouses containing facilities for sexual activities. She also noted that regulations adopted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors require bathhouse owners to police their establishments and remove any patrons caught engaging in unsafe sex.
“All we can say is that these factors contribute to the spread of AIDS,” she said regarding the doors and beds.
Moering and his supporters, however, say that to focus on the degree to which bathhouse patrons practice unsafe sex is to skirt the real issue. People who are unsafe, they say, will be unsafe wherever they are. By driving them out of the bathhouse, they say, the city will unwittingly be driving them to male prostitutes or into its parks, beaches and parking lots where their chances of contracting or spreading AIDS will be even greater. And by scaring off customers seeking privacy, they say, the city will be eliminating an important gathering place where homosexuals can be educated regarding the prevention of AIDS.
“Bigotry is the real issue,” Moering said. “Homosexuals are the easiest minority in the world to beat on.”
Added Jay Kohorn, an attorney representing the 1350 Club: “Bathhouses are easy to scapegoat: If the government does something to close them, it looks like it is doing something to fight AIDS.”
Support for that point of view has come from diverse quarters.
Dr. Gary Richwald, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, who is conducting a study to determine if a correlation exists between bathhouses in Los Angeles County and the spread of AIDS, cautioned against basing public policy on speculation. Richwald said he knows of no scientific evidence linking structural modifications of bathhouses to reduction in the transmission of the disease.
And Rob Kramme, president of the Lambda Democratic Club, a gay-oriented political action group in Long Beach, said his group opposes the closure or harassment of bathhouses because such actions are “not dealing with the AIDS epidemic” which, he said, can only be combatted through education.
“I think it’s unfortunate . . . that the city feels it necessary to request official action regarding the bathhouse,” Kramme said. “It is one place where men gather and therefore one more place to disseminate information.”
Indeed, the potential loss of a gathering place was on the minds of some patrons recently as they chatted on a bench in the club amid rumors of the facility’s imminent demise.
‘More of a Social Club’
“I come here on Saturday nights because it’s the most comfortable place in town,” said one man, a 30-year-old garment industry worker from Long Beach who said he frequents the 1350 mainly for its “open, loose” atmosphere and pornographic videos. “This is more of a social club--people talk here.”
Added a 49-year-old Anaheim resident who said that fear of AIDS had significantly reduced the frequency of his bathhouse visits: “This is a place to hang out, relax, and meet interesting people. If it happens, sex is great.”
Moering, meanwhile, said he is particularly concerned about the fate of some of his less stable clients who frequent the bathhouse because it is the only place where they feel comfortable, safe, anonymous and accepted.
“Where are these people going to go?” he said in his office during a recent visit to Long Beach from his Idaho home. “I can think of half a dozen who are probably going to shoot themselves.”
But he said that unless the city has a change of heart he will not apply for a renewal of his business license when it expires at the end of June. Because he owns the lease to the building in which the club is housed, Moering said, he will probably open another business there, though he would not say what it would be.
But he said he would rather not close the bathhouse he has operated with pride for the last nine years. “I still have a small hope that reason will prevail and we will be encouraged in our efforts” to combat AIDS, he said. “My fondest wish is that the city will change its mind.”