The Queer Issue
It all comes down to the simple matter of a door. That is the reason why San Francisco banned gay bathhouses in the 1980s, in a misguided attempt to stem the HIV crisis.
At the time, people believed closed doors in bathhouses equaled HIV transmission. The underlying premise was that gays couldn't be trusted to love safely in commercial sex venues without supervision.
My city attracted much attention, and caused much hysteria, with this homophobic policy of shuttering the baths. Even though not one other American city imitated San Francisco's example, the anti-privacy forces won. The baths in San Francisco have now been closed for more than two decades. Still, they engender much controversy and misunderstanding from all positions on the political spectrum—as bathhouses tend to, no matter what city you're in.
In San Francisco, the left, represented by the current head of the San Francisco health department, Dr. Mitch Katz, an openly gay man, maintains that reopening the tubs would send a message that the epidemic is over. In the center are people who say sex clubs, which lack private spaces, are the best way to give gay men commercial establishments to meet and fuck in. And at least one right-winger, mistakenly believing the baths still operate, wants to bomb them.
For all the heated rhetoric and myths surrounding the San Francisco tubs, the things I miss most about them are the boring parts, like being able to invite a gentleman into my room, close the door, and talk, without the spying eyes of other patrons or safe-sex monitors.
Back in the day, I had many erotic, intimate, and very pleasurable encounters, leading to a few friendships and two boyfriends. Behind closed doors, we were able to not only have sex, but also talk to each other.
I can't tell you how many conversations I had with sexual partners about the weather, favorite foreign movies, local elections, oh, and our mutual concerns about safer sex and not spreading infections. Or how nice it was to yawn, take a snooze, and snore together for an evening.
Our current sex-club options, with safety monitors on patrol; crappy, deafening club "music"; sucking and sodomizing in front of dozens, many of whom join in your activity without invitation; and no private spaces in which to negotiate safety concerns, reinforce the homophobic misconception that gay men can't be trusted with sexual intimacy.
But it's not just about the inadequacy of today's sex clubs. Ideally, I'd like San Francisco to give up its status as the only American city without gay bathhouses (and private spaces with doors) based on one enormous hard piece of scientific evidence.
Over the past decade, HIV-positive men in my town, without any political, emotional, or monetary support from prevention groups or the health department, crafted the practice of serosorting: positives sleeping only with positives and negatives sleeping only with negatives.
The success of serosorting in San Francisco is not just controlling the spread of HIV but also significantly reducing new HIV infections, and it provides us with a fundamental truth: When left alone, HIV-positive gay men are able to find effective protease cocktails to decrease their viral loads, talk to each other about sero-status and other immune-system markers, fuck only other positive men without condoms, and in the process create a damn good prevention program.
It's sad that HIV continues to spread in the gay community more than 20 years after San Francisco closed its bathhouses. But stopping the spread of HIV is not just about finding new prevention strategies. It's also about undoing old public-health policies that stir up fears about gay male sex and what we do behind closed doors.
Michael Petrelis was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1985, was a cofounder the original ACT UP chapter in NYC, and credits activism, along with an ever-evolving protease cocktail, with keeping him alive.