Four gay bathhouses and one that caters to a heterosexual clientele were served notice by county health authorities Thursday that they are violating the city's bathhouse ordinance, designed to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Owners of the bathhouses charge that the county, which oversees them on a contract basis with the city, is trying to run them out of business.
"To me, there's no question," said Tom Homann, attorney for The Mustang Club and Dave's. "They're doing this to make a statement to gays."
Homosexual activists called the move a violation of civil liberties that will have no effect on curbing the spread of AIDS and may, in fact, eliminate a source of education and information about the disease.
"From the perspective of human rights, I want to demand that the hotels and motels of San Diego be put to the same test," said Harry A. (Al) Best, who describes himself as the first "openly gay" Civil Service commissioner in San Diego. "Does sex never occur in those places?"
Gary Stephany, director of environmental health services for San Diego County, said the primary violations uncovered by inspectors were private rooms and lack of sufficient lighting.
"You're not allowed to have private rooms, which means the doors have to be unlocked," Stephany said. "You have to have a window on the door, to be able to see through. You have to have signs posted that say 'Single Occupancy Only.'
"There was not enough lighting in many of the rooms, and there were other violations. They have 15 days to comply, and if they don't, then it's up to the city attorney."
Stephany said that only one of the five has applied for a permit under the ordinance.
"From our perspective, if you don't comply (with the regulations) and don't bother with the permit, then you shouldn't be operating," he said.
Stephany said the city ordinance was worked out in negotiations with bathhouse owners, "and if they can't live with their own ordinance, then we'll end up in court. That's not our desire. Our desire is to make them a safe place."
Nevertheless, Stephany said that "unsafe sex" does occur in such places and contributes to the spread of AIDS. He said bathhouses are among 29,000 public establishments regulated by the county.
"To say we're discriminating is like saying we discriminate against people who use swimming pools," he said. "We regulate those, too. We're just trying to protect the public."
Attorney Michael Crowley, who represents Club San Diego and the Vulcan, said the bathhouse controversy stems from an ordinance passed by the county Board of Supervisors two years ago. That measure was followed with the city ordinance.
At the time, Crowley said, even the San Diego gay task force supported the measures, fearing that sex in bathhouses contributed to AIDS.
"But, as the conduct of the gay community has changed, so, in fact, has it changed in the bathhouses," he said.
On a recent afternoon at Club San Diego, in the 3900 block of University Avenue in Hillcrest, a bowl of condoms was positioned at the front counter. But none of three customers in line bothered to pick one up after being issued a towel and key.
Another client, who appeared to be Latino, did not seem particularly welcome.
"If you're going to come to a place like this, you'd better learn to speak English!" said the man behind the counter.
Nevertheless, Crowley said that bathhouses have become important social outlets and valuable educational centers for informing gay men about "unsafe" sex. He said bathhouses provide a refuge, in contrast to Balboa Park, where, he said, gay men are occasionally beat up.
Best, the Civil Service commissioner, said that, turned away from one place, gay men "may engage in sex in the aisles and seats of porno theaters, which is now happening in San Francisco. To think that you're going to stop sex is preposterous."
Crowley calls the issue the personal crusade of Dr. William Cox, chief medical officer of the county's Department of Health Services. Cox was unavailable for comment.
"There's no question in my mind that Cox is behind a lot of it," Crowley said. "There's no question that he wants them closed down. What we're trying to do, in ongoing negotiations, is reach a point where he feels they're safe enough that he's comfortable with keeping them open."
But, for some, that isn't good enough. Best said he sees the action of county health officials as "nothing less than homophobic. And it's gay-bashing. If we shut down bathhouses, what's next? Bars, bowling alleys? To think that we can legislate morality is an obscenity in and of itself."
Homann, the attorney representing two of the bathhouses, said the county ordinance, and the subsequent city measure, "required clean toilets, which suggests that AIDS is spread through toilets. It posed restrictions on ventilation, which suggests that AIDS is spread through the air.
"There was even one about clothing. Oh, is it now spread through clothes? There were all sorts of picky, irrational requirements. I see the whole thing as a show--to prove that they're doing something about AIDS, when, in fact, they're doing nothing."
Susanne Revis is the owner of The Tubs on El Cajon Boulevard, the only one of five catering to a "straight" clientele.
"I'm horrified," Revis said, "and I don't know how I'll fight it."
Revis said her business is "95% couples, who come here for a romantic evening. I believe I'm being lumped in because they don't want to make it look like they're singling out homosexuals. And that's exactly what they're doing."