Over three decades after the scourge of the early HIV/AIDS crisis drove public health officials and then Mayor Dianne Feinstein to push for the shutdown of all gay bathhouses in San Francisco, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman says that it's time to overturn this anachronistic and stigmatizing ordinance.
Back in 1984, under Feinstein's leadership, the City and County of San Francisco filed a lawsuit against all the local operators of bathhouses, calling them a public health nuisance, and demanding they have no locking booths or rooms. The legal move came just as safe-sex practices were being found to be effective in the prevention of HIV transmission, but during a moment when health officials repeatedly were hearing from the sick and dying in local AIDS wards that they were frequenters of the city's many bathhouses.
At one point in the late 1970s, San Francisco was home to between 20 and 30 bathhouses, sex clubs that served as additional nightlife options — often the last stop in gay men's travels around the city on nights and weekends, and often featuring DJs and entertainment of their own. There were bathhouses for punk rock fans, disco fans, leather daddies, and hippies, and this entire segment of gay culture was all but wiped away. And local historian Gayle Rubin credits the closure of the baths as one of the nails in the coffin of a flourishing leather culture here.
As SFist has noted in the past, what became known as The Bathhouse Crisis in 1983 was met with plenty of pushback from gay men at the time who didn't want to see their sexual liberation curtailed so soon after they'd achieved it. There were, first of all, still doubts around how HIV was spreading. And there was disagreement even among public health professionals about whether the outright closure needed to happen — indeed it didn't happen in many cities around the country.
But San Francisco was becoming a nexus of the AIDS epidemic, and as Rubin wrote in a history on FoundSF, "bathhouse closure, far from being an obvious public health measure impeded by political pressure, was a case of political pressure overwhelming public health considerations." She adds, "It is ironic that while there are still no legal gay bathhouses within the San Francisco city limits, establishments in nearby municipalities such as Berkeley and San Jose have continued to thrive."
Now, Supervisor Mandelman has introduced a new ordinance to overturn the 36-year-old law, which technically just prohibits adult sex venues from offering private rooms with locking doors. (Eros, a small bathhouse on Market Street across from Safeway, has long stayed open because it offers only public bathing and sauna spaces.)
"Our current regulations for adult sex venues were put in place as an emergency measure at the height of the AIDS crisis when San Francisco was desperate to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS," says Mandelman. "Decades later, with the emergence of PrEP and in light of San Francisco’s reduction in HIV diagnoses to under 200 for the first time since the 1980s, these regulations — including a ban on private rooms and required monitoring of patrons’ sexual activities — have no public health rationale and need to be changed."
The new ordinance would require sex venues to provide safer sex supplies and educational materials to their patrons, but it would remove the minimum standards guidelines currently in place that require the monitoring of patrons’ sexual activities, and prohibit locked rooms and booths.
Blade Bannon a San Francisco based erotic photographer and author who's been an activist for the bathhouse cause, cheered Mandelman's move this week, saying, "The queer community has been advocating for decades to have these regulations changed, and each time we've run into a dead end. Cities around the country and world have successful adult sex venues operating without these restrictions and it's time that San Francisco join them."
It's not yet clear if such an ordinance, if passed by the Board of Supervisors, would lead to the immediate opening of any new businesses in Mandelman's District 8 or elsewhere. When SFist asked if any potential operators had come forward, Mandelaman's legislative aide Tom Temprano said, "To date no potential operators have reached out to our office with concrete plans to open a new bathhouse or adult sex venue. However, community members have spoken to us about the need for such a space and this legislation will pave the way for new operators to open or existing operators to add to their business model."