The last remaining gay bathhouse in San Francisco closed with hardly a ripple this week, a victim of stricter laws and changing life styles brought about by the AIDS epidemic.
In April, the San Francisco city attorney’s office had charged 21st Street Baths with violating a 1984 court order requiring clubs to bar sexual activities that could spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome. But this week, the bathhouse’s owners reached a settlement with the city that called for closure of the bathhouse in exchange for dismissal of the charges, said Deputy City Atty. Burk Delventhal.
“They cannot reopen for any sex-oriented business without permission from the courts,” Delventhal said. “If they opened up (again) for a bathhouse, they’d be in big trouble.”
Neither the bathhouse owners nor their attorney were available for comment. A recorded message on the bath’s phone told callers, “We are closed and will not reopen. . . . We have benefited the community for over 25 years and feel now the time has come to close. Thank you for calling.”
In the 1970s, before AIDS began to appear in the gay community, San Francisco was home to 20 to 30 gay bathhouses and sex establishments, said Paul Boneberg, executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS.
The bathhouses were places to socialize, to exercise--and to engage in anonymous sex.
“They were a symbol of gay liberation,” said Laurie McBride, former president of a gay business association. “Many of them were really, really gorgeous--not sleazy back rooms.”
But San Francisco health officials believed that the bathhouses facilitated the spread of the AIDS virus and moved to close them as a threat to public health. That sparked angry opposition from some gay activists who charged that without the clubs, people seeking anonymous sex would look to public places like parks. These opponents also argued that the bathhouses could encourage so-called “safe-sex” practices that retard the spread of AIDS.
Ultimately a local judge blocked the shutdown, instead allowing the clubs and bathhouses to stay open if they monitored their patrons and ejected anyone engaging in activities that could spread the AIDS virus.
Several bathhouses chose to close rather than monitor their patrons. Others closed when patronage dropped, leaving only 21st Street Baths. A half-dozen remaining gay sex clubs, bookstores and theaters have restricted their patrons to “safe-sex” activities, Delventhal said.
End of an Era
To some gay people here, the closing of the city’s last bathhouse marked the end of an era. To others, the era ended long ago with the spread of AIDS.
“The baths died more of inertia than of monitoring,” said George Mendenhall, a reporter for the Bay Area Sentinel, a local gay newspaper.
“People are having regular dinner parties and going to movies and things like that,” Paul Boneberg said. “Most gay men long ago stopped looking to the bathhouses as a place of safety or recreation.”
The AIDS virus attacks the body’s immune system, leaving the victim vulnerable to a variety of infections and tumors. It is transmitted by sexual contact, by contaminated needles and blood and from an infected mother to her newborn. Those at highest risk are homosexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners.
As of April 30, San Francisco reported 3,190 AIDS cases and 1,906 deaths. Nationally, as of April 27, there were 35,068 cases and 20,241 deaths.