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Bathhouses Foster Denial of AIDS Crisis

<i> Michael Balter is a Los Angeles journalist who often covers health issues</i>

On Jan. 26, citing concern over the spread of AIDS, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to prohibit high-risk sexual activities at bathhouses and “similar commercial establishments” in the county. The action came shortly after a special task force of the Los Angeles County AIDS Commission recommended that the bathhouses be closed completely. Although fear of legal action stopped them from going that far, the supervisors made it clear that they will try to shut down bathhouses that do not comply with the new rules.

Bathhouse owners and their attorneys have vowed to fight any attempts at a shutdown, and the American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in on their side. Although vigilance against government intrusion into the private activities of citizens is to be commended, in this case it is misguided. Any attempts to defend the bathhouses would be a grave disservice to the gay community whose rights are thought to be at stake.

As of the last week in January, 51,361 Americans had been diagnosed as having AIDS, and 28,683 had died. Centers for Disease Control scientists, whose statistical projections of the course of the disease have been accurate thus far, predict a cumulative total of 270,000 AIDS cases by the end of 1991. AIDS is a fatal disease; there may never be a cure, and there is no reason to assume that a vaccine will be available at any time soon, if ever. AIDS is a public-health “emergency”; in the words of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, it is the “No. 1 health problem of this planet.”

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The bathhouses are clearly legitimate targets for public-health officials fighting the spread of AIDS. The clientele is made up almost exclusively of gay and bisexual men. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 20% to 25% of gay men in the United States and 5% of bisexual men are infected with the AIDS virus. Despite the euphemistic rhetoric of bathhouse owners that their establishments are “havens” and centers for AIDS education, public-health officials have established that the bathhouses played a critical role in allowing AIDS to spread like wildfire throughout the nation’s gay communities. Today they remain focal points for the kind of anonymous, repetitive, high-risk sexual contact that has been shown to disseminate the disease with great efficiency. And, with an estimated 10,000 visits each month, the 12 bathhouses in Los Angeles County are hardly a fringe phenomenon with little public-health significance.

Gays and civil libertarians are right to be suspicious of any governmental action taken under the banner of an “emergency.” A supposed emergency, for example, was used to justify putting Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II, and today right-wing extremists are often heard calling for the quarantine of AIDS sufferers. Clearly, for some ideologues, concern about AIDS has become a cover for the pursuit of an anti-gay agenda.

These suspicions are exacerbated by the fact that some of the political leaders crying the loudest for closing the bathhouses do not necessarily have the welfare of AIDS sufferers or the gay community at heart. For example, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who spearheaded the board’s recent action, has on other occasions opposed the dissemination of the kind of detailed, frank educational material that is necessary to combat the spread of AIDS.

Yet can there be any doubt that AIDS is a real, not imagined, emergency? Should all decisive measures against the disease be opposed because, in the rhetoric of civil-liberties activists, they “might lead to” or “could be the first step toward” later violations of civil rights? An attorney for some bathhouse owners recently accused county officials of giving in to “hysteria” over the AIDS threat, but, in this case at least, hysteria is not the problem. The bathhouse issue conforms more to the “business-as-usual” attitude that has often stymied efforts to fight the disease. The bathhouses provide a “haven” for those who have succumbed to the psychological process of denial in the face of the deadly AIDS disease--a common and understandable reaction in the face of horror, but one that the closing of the bathhouses would rudely and necessarily challenge.

Ironically, most gay leaders in Los Angeles now refuse to defend the bathhouses, realizing, as one put it, that while their community is being devastated it is “not the time for people to be frolicking around in towels.” In late October, 1985, when the Board of Supervisors first directed health officials to consider closing down the bath-houses, 1,191 people had been diagnosed as having AIDS in the county and 628 had died. As of Jan. 31, 4,354 have contracted the disease and 2,722 have died. These figures will continue to rise geometrically. If ever a crisis has justified emergency measures, it is AIDS.


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