A LOOK AHEAD * Bathhouses and other indoor trysting grounds for gay men are drawing fire. And although other cities are acting against them on health grounds, in Los Angeles . . . : Future of Sex Clubs May Hinge on Zoning
Basic Plumbing has been told to close. King of Hearts is history. The Prowl has been cited. Neighbors want the Barracks to go away. The Vortex is shuttered.
The past year has been tough for gay sex clubs in Los Angeles. They are under fire, as they have been in other cities in recent years. But for far different reasons.
Whereas elsewhere these indoor trysting grounds for gay men have come under attack for allowing unsafe sex, that most Southern Californian of concerns is at work here: land use.
Centered in Hollywood and Silver Lake, the clubs have tended to open without regard for permits. Most of them aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Now they are running afoul of local zoning laws dealing with sex businesses, which the city of Los Angeles started to enforce in 1995 after settling a court challenge.
The city attorney’s office recently filed misdemeanor charges against three clubs for operating too close to residential zones. The building department has cited others for the same reasons. And a club that won a zoning variance to remain open is facing an appeal by a neighborhood group.
Inevitably, the enforcement has touched nerves. Club owners are feeling embattled. Neighborhood activists are frustrated that some clubs have continued to operate illegally, or that in several instances they were closed, then reopened phoenix-like under new ownership in the same spot.
City officials have had to navigate between neighborhood concerns and the now-prevailing view in Los Angeles that gay sex clubs and bathhouses serve a useful purpose by providing a controlled environment for anonymous sexual encounters. Better behind doors, where condoms and safe sex messages are available, than in public parks and bathrooms, this philosophy goes.
That is a dramatic change from a decade ago when Los Angeles County officials considered bathhouses hotbeds of AIDS transmission and then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner vowed “to try and close every single bathhouse in Los Angeles.”
He did not succeed.
Some baths closed. Others fought back in the courts, beginning a legal battle that ended with a 1992 settlement keeping them open with the understanding that they would prohibit anal sex without a condom and offer safe sex information and condoms to patrons. Enforcement was left largely to the owners.
There are now 11 gay bathhouses in the county, fewer than at the onset of the AIDS epidemic but about the same number as the late 1980s. Estimates of the number of sex clubs vary from about seven to 10. Often underground operations that come and go, they are not formally regulated by the health department.
Though not as firmly entrenched in gay male culture as the baths, sex clubs have long been around. The recently closed King of Hearts in Silver Lake was said to be 20 years old. Starting in the early 1990s, a second wave of clubs opened as an alternative to the baths.
Drawing crowds to nondescript buildings that blend anonymously with their surroundings, the clubs usually are bereft of signs or any hint of what they are about.
Like gay bathhouses, they are about sex--but in a different setting.
The baths, which range from the grungy to the scrupulously clean and stylishly decorated, have small private rooms, saunas, steam rooms and common areas that can be quite elaborate. At the upscale Hollywood Spa on Ivar Avenue, towel-wrapped patrons can look each other over while working out on gym equipment or sipping freshly squeezed orange juice from the cafe. Vintage Hollywood posters cover the walls, strobe lights flicker, and DJs spin the latest club music.
In sex clubs, the decor leans to basic warehouse: Large rooms sometimes so dark patrons can’t see their hands. There may be couches, mazes and cubicles with swinging doors. But the clubs do not offer the privacy of the baths, and patrons keep their clothes on.
The clubs have proven popular and profitable. They charge a membership fee, usually in the $10 to $15 range, plus admission fees of $3 to $8 a visit.
On weekend nights there are lines of men waiting to get into the two-story Zone on North Sycamore Avenue in Hollywood. Owner Peter Deep says he has 30,000 names on his list of current and recent members.
“My experience with men is men will not stop having sex. And we provide a safe place,” said Deep, who opened the club in 1991.
Unlike many of its competitors, the Zone is legal. Deep applied for a zoning variance, which he needed because he was near a residential area, and got it--no doubt because the club is immediately surrounded by light industry.
He says he spent $100,000 meeting building codes and works hard to be a good neighbor, cleaning up the street, hiring security and providing valet parking for his customers. He has little sympathy for the underground owners. How can they complain of harassment, he wonders, when they knew all along what the zoning restrictions were?
Still, he agrees with them that in this city of commercial strips running through residential neighborhoods, it is tough to find a site that meets the city’s zoning criteria for adult entertainment businesses: They can’t be within 1,000 feet of another such establishment, or within 500 feet of a residential zone, religious institution, public park or school.
Lee Struwe says he and his partner, Hosea Cobb, were not aware of the regulations when they opened Basic Plumbing among a mix of businesses and homes on Hyperion Avenue in Silver Lake four years ago. They chose the spot because it was “basically a gay area,” he said. “Location is very important.”
Cited for zoning violations in 1995, Struwe and Cobb have been embroiled in a heated battle the past year.
Neighbors blamed Basic Plumbing patrons for cruising problems that turned their streets and yards into a late-night arena of drug use and public sex. They staged a well-organized campaign against the club’s application for a variance and won.
But Basic Plumbing is still in business. “I’m going to fight as long as I have the ability to,” vows Cobb, who lashes out at opponents as “bigots and liars.”
“We were held responsible for drug addicts shooting up two and three blocks from our business. How can they do that? . . . Why are we being singled out?” he asks, providing his own answer: “Sex.”
Pebble Wilkins, who lives on Hyperion and fought the variance, said neighbors “would not be any happier to have a live nude club there. If that’s bigoted, then so be it. I can’t think of many predominantly residential neighborhoods that would want to have [sex-related businesses.]”
No more ready to relent than Cobb, she speaks of frustration over the club’s continued operation. “We’re not going to give up on it until they’re somewhere else.”
The uproar over Basic Plumbing spilled over to King of Hearts, which had operated illegally for years just down the street in relative obscurity. Now everybody knew about it. Cited by the city and told they too would encounter neighborhood opposition if they sought a variance, the new owners closed King of Hearts last summer.
Recently advertisements appeared in a local gay magazine. “Exxile: A Private Men’s Club Now Open Nightly.” The address was the King of Hearts building.
“Business must be good because they keep coming back,” observed Al Garcia, principal inspector for the city Building and Safety Department.
Much the same succession occurred not far away on Myra Avenue, where the Nighthawk was replaced by the Prowl, and in Hollywood, when another long-standing sex club, the Meat Rack, shut down.
Within a year it was replaced by the Barracks, which managed to win zoning board approval with the backing of City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who advocated a number of conditions dealing with parking and other neighborhood concerns.
“We support a limited number of sexual-encounter clubs in our district,” said Conrado Terrazas, a Goldberg aide. “If people are going to have anonymous sex, it’s better to have it in an enclosed building than outdoors. We do not condone outdoor sex.”
Fine, says Geoffrey Saldivar, but not in his neighborhood. The president of a local residents’ group, he is incensed at Goldberg’s support of the club and has appealed the variance to the full City Council.
“They’re not interested in us. They’re interested in making money,” he says of the club, contending that it has ignored the conditions of its zoning approval. The Barracks’ operator, who closed another Hollywood sex club--the Vortex--after it was cited, declined comment.
The spate of club citations has raised eyebrows, coming at a time when there have been complaints about police handling of gay cruising in Silver Lake and state Alcoholic Beverage Control inspections of gay bars.
“I have to say I think it’s beyond coincidence that they’re suddenly targeting all the sex clubs at the same time we have a pattern of harassment going on in the Silver Lake area,” said attorney John Duran, who has represented some of the clubs. “The statute is being applied disproportionately to one particular community.”
“Not true,” retorts Deputy City Atty. Lynn Magnandonovan, who filed misdemeanor complaints against Basic Plumbing, the Vortex and King of Hearts this year. “There is not selective enforcement. We are prosecuting both heterosexual and homosexual adult establishments when they violate [zoning laws] and they are brought to our attention.”
As it turns out, a number of the sex clubs opened while there was a court-ordered moratorium on enforcement of the adult ordinance, which called for sex businesses to meet the residential zone restrictions by 1991.
That same year the law was challenged in federal court. In 1995, the case was settled. The establishments that filed the lawsuit could stay put, while other sex businesses too close to homes would either have to get variances or move.
That the Los Angeles battle over gay sex clubs revolves around zoning rather than sexual practices stands in contrast to New York and San Francisco, where the bathhouse controversies of the 1980s were revived in the sex clubs of the ‘90s.
In San Francisco, which shut its bathhouses in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, some clubs were threatened with closure a few years ago for failing to follow safe-sex guidelines. And in New York City, several clubs were closed in 1995 after some in the gay community voiced concerns about unsafe sex and pressured authorities to enforce the state’s strict health code.
Here there have been no such stirrings. The self-policing policy that emerged from the bathhouse settlement has been informally applied to the sex clubs. They have been encouraged by AIDS groups and the city AIDS office to offer free condoms and promote safe sex.
“You can’t really legislate people’s behaviors,” said Bob Mosby, chief of public health investigation for the county health department. “If people are going to engage in this activity, the best thing we can do is keep them informed and educated.”
Local AIDS prevention workers do not pretend that all the sex is safe in the baths and clubs. Rather, they argue that shutting the sex venues will not eliminate risky sexual behavior.
“This isn’t the only place that unprotected sex is going to happen,” said Lee Klosinski, director of education for AIDS Project Los Angeles. “I really think if you take away this, multiple others that are much more difficult to control are going to pop up.”