San Francisco was once a thriving haven for sexual deviants, didn't you know? It still is, but in a somewhat more tame way than in the 1970s heyday of leather bars, hanky codes, glory holes, and bathhouses. SoMa was home to some of the nation's biggest and baddest bathhouses up until 1983, all of them places where men could find casual, anonymous sex, either in public or private rooms (for a small rental fee), and typically with disco playing over the sound system. Then what became known as The Bathhouse Crisis began, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and all of them were forcibly shut down by the health department within a few years.
The city and various Bay Area doctors began parsing what they knew about the patients they talked to with HIV, and time and again the men mentioned frequenting bath houses. One doctor, in an oral history about the time, said he mostly heard his patients mention "8th and Howard," which was the nickname for the Club Baths. And so, bath houses and their not always honorable operators became the targets of a citywide crackdown, via the health department and then Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
The Crisis lead to a protest by gay men who, in a time when the AIDS virus was still not completely understood, objected to the crackdown as a form of persecution. That same doctor, Donald Abrams, who ultimately supported the closure of the bath houses but who is gay himself, said, "I saw both sides of the issue. The gay community had achieved a lot of liberation and a lot of prominence in San Francisco over the seventies and on into the early eighties, and I thought that closing the bathhouses would really be a political setback."
There were many who, still unaffected by the disease and hoping to hold on to the sexual freedoms they'd gained in the last decade, who decried the bath house closures. In one image in the GLBT history museum archive, you can see men protesting at City Hall, wearing only towels, and one holding a sign that said, "Out of the Baths and into the Ovens!"
As we learn this week of the closure of 330 Ritch, which was once the home of the infamous Ritch Street Health Club, a.k.a. the Ritch Street Baths, we thought we'd take a look back on some of the fliers from these places, which were a primary sexual outlet for the city's gay community long before Grindr was even a possibility.