by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Francisco officials and community members are trying to determine whether gay bathhouses should be allowed after an absence of nearly three decades.
Most such businesses shut down almost 30 years ago, as the AIDS epidemic raged. In 1984, a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued an injunction forcing several bathhouse owners to remove doors from private rooms and have staff monitor patrons to ensure they were practicing safe sex. The order was to remain in place until the city's public health director declared the AIDS epidemic over.
Virtually all of the clubs closed rather than comply with the rules, but one city official noted this week that bathhouses themselves were never banned. The Castro neighborhood sex club Eros, which has offered a steam room and sauna for years, is applying for a bathhouse permit, but one of the owners has no desire to add private rooms. The city's handling of gay bathhouses has come to the forefront in recent weeks as many straight-oriented massage parlors and spas have sought bathhouse permits.
The decision on whether to allow private rooms – which is what makes a bathhouse a bathhouse for many gays – rests with Health Director Barbara Garcia.
In response to a request to interview Garcia, Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields said in an email that Garcia "has assigned staff to look at the issue and once they have reported back to her, we should have something substantive to say. We know this is an issue of concern to many members of the community."
Local gay activist and blogger Michael Petrelis, who's been pushing for bathhouses to be allowed, recently reported on his Petrelis Files blog that Garcia told him she would give staff until Saturday, August 10 to come up with a statement.
Asked about allowing private rooms and not requiring monitors, Dr. Tomás Aragón, San Francisco's health officer, said in a Wednesday, August 7 interview that health officials are reviewing how the minimum standards established in the late 1990s were developed.
He said staff also "met yesterday with a UCSF researcher to look at the evidence to see whether we believe there might be any evidence one way or another about the impact of the minimum standards."
Aragón said those guidelines "were developed with a lot of input from the community. We feel that changing the minimum standards without involving the community would not be the best thing to do."
"In a few days," the agency will release a list of frequently asked questions to summarize "the key questions people have" and "put some factual information out there," among other objectives, said Aragón.
"It is a good idea for us to revisit" the standards "because a lot of things have changed," since they were established, he said. Health officials want to ensure they proceed "in a thoughtful way and have the diversity of stakeholders around the table," said Aragón.
"People are expecting we're going to come out with a pronouncement," but that's not the case, he said.
Asked about having a public forum, Aragón said, "We have to plan and design that" and involve vendors and others in the discussion.
"The questions that we're receiving are really good and valid questions, because other locations do it differently than we do it in San Francisco," he said.
Aragón said that it's "a misconception" to consider that the AIDS epidemic is over.
"HIV is a chronic viral infection," he said. "... We do have a pool of people who will continue to be infectious, even though you might say it's endemic here."
"We still have a lot of disease in the community," Aragón added.
Gay Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose District 8 includes the Castro, supports putting the doors back on in sex clubs.
"I support elimination of the ban on private rooms in bathhouses," Wiener said in an email. "This ban doesn't have a basis in public health and is arbitrary. Gay men have various ways of meeting other gay men for sex, whether in bars, bathhouses, or online. To claim, as this rule does, that having sex in a private room in a bathhouse is somehow riskier than going to someone's house or having public sex in a bathhouse, makes no sense to me."
Matt Dorsey, who is gay and a spokesman for the city attorney's office, noted, "There's nothing in the injunction that ever prohibited or banned bathhouses in San Francisco."
SFPD permit hearings
Dorsey said the San Francisco Police Department is the "front line enforcing agency" for bathhouses, and he said businesses interested in a bathhouse permit should check Article 26 of the police code which, in part, defines a bathhouse as a public place where sauna, steam, or any one of numerous other types of baths is available.
In an email, the Bay Area Reporter asked Dorsey whether sex clubs such as Eros could have private rooms, and whether they still have to have monitors.
The city attorney's office's current interpretation of city law "is that rooms cannot be locked and club staff must have some means of viewing what's going on in the room," said city attorney spokesman Gabriel Zitrin.
As part of the approval process, SFPD sends bathhouse referrals to the health and planning departments and other city agencies, according to police Lieutenant Troy Dangerfield, who works in the permits unit.
Dangerfield said police check with health department staff to ensure that businesses comply with health regulations, "and they give us an okay before we can approve any bathhouse permit."
In an email, Dangerfield emphasized that the SFPD doesn't "make an issue as to whether it is a gay or straight bathhouse; our goal is just compliance with the bathhouse law."
The longtime gay sex club Eros, at 2051 Market Street, is the only business of its kind currently applying for a bathhouse permit, said Dangerfield.
Police have had "no problems" with Eros, he said, but the club's sauna qualifies the business as a bathhouse "and they have to get a permit."
As for the club getting the permit, Dangerfield said, "We defer to the health department as a referral before we can issue a bathhouse permit, so if we were going to issue one, they would get the first crack at saying 'No.'"
Ken Rowe, who became an Eros co-owner in 2005, said the club doesn't want to add anything, including private rooms.
"That's why it's a little strange" that the business, which opened 21 years ago, is just now having to get a bathhouse permit, said Rowe. The police department contacted the club in late June, he said.
Eros provides a space for people to have sex, as well as safe-sex materials including condoms and lube. The health department requires staff to ensure patrons are practicing safe sex, among other duties, said Rowe.
Private rooms are "just not part of our business model," he said. "We think what we offer here is a community space. We have a lot of educational activities." He added that with private space, "you pay for that space and length of time," but with a more open site, "when a customer comes in here, they're paying for the use of the space for as long as we're open, so there's no time constraint."
It seems that for all intents and purposes, Eros is already a bathhouse, but Rowe said, "It all depends on how you define bathhouse. According to the police code for bathhouse, yes, if you provide a steam room or sauna, that's a bathhouse. By normal vocabulary, a gay bathhouse is private rooms and yeah ... since the court injunction against private rooms in San Francisco sex clubs, that adds to the confusion."
The health department monitors and permits sex clubs, while police handle bathhouse permits.
Rowe said Eros has a massage permit "because we have a separate massage studio here that's non-sexual [and] that's been going on for nearly 20 years. We're being lumped together with the sex parlors in other parts of the city. We're still trying to figure out what's going on."
The SFPD's Dangerfield said in an email that many of the businesses being asked to get bathhouse permits "have been referred to us by the health department because during their inspections they advised the owners that they also needed a bathhouse permit from the police department. ... We have not solicited any bathhouses at this point. That's not to say that we won't, but we have been busy just dealing with the referral at this point."
He added, "We are not looking to shut down any businesses. We just want businesses to comply with the law and we are willing to work with the business[es]."
In his message supporting private rooms, Wiener said bathhouses and sex clubs should have to offer HIV and sexually transmitted infection information and free, on-site testing in collaboration with HIV-prevention groups, as well as free condoms.
"Gay men are going to have sex, and the way to reduce HIV and STI infections is education, testing, and quick access to treatment, not an outdated restriction on where gay men can or can't have sex in privacy," he added.
At least in its preliminary form, the 1984 injunction mentions bathhouse operators participate in the education of patrons "toward the prevention of high risk sexual activity including but not limited to that suggested by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "
In a statement emailed to the Bay Area Reporter this week, Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, the AIDS foundation's director of state and local affairs, noted that times have changed over the last 30 years.
"The city's policy on bathhouses is a remnant from a – thankfully – bygone era," stated Mulhern-Pearson. "It's time to revisit the policy, informed by our current understanding of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. San Francisco AIDS Foundation was founded for the purpose of delivering education, resources, and support to reduce risk taking and promote safer-sex options in every scenario. We welcome a dialogue to develop sex-positive policies that serve the best interest of our community."
Petrelis has raised issues with the bathhouse permits as several straight-oriented businesses have applied for them. The B.A.R. obtained documentation related to the 1984 injunction through his website.
"With the lifting of the [Don't Ask, Don't Tell] ban on gays in the military and the ban on gay marriage in California both lifted, I believe now is the best time for San Francisco to lift the gay bathhouse ban," Petrelis said in an interview this week.
Asked what benefit they offer, Petrelis said, "The privacy of a cubicle with a door allows for partners to negotiate safe sex," however sexual partners define that, "as is done across the bay at the Berkeley Steamworks, and down in the South Bay at San Jose's Watergarden."
Rowe, of Eros, said, "We always ask ... what is it you're missing about those private rooms from the 1970s? Generally, what guys talk about is a sense of camaraderie" and "a sense of freedom," among other benefits. "Those are all aspects we try to do at Eros in our whole building," he said, including through the club's lounge, classes, "and having an open space for guys to play in altogether."
Scott Sanchez, planning department zoning administrator, said the planning code doesn't define what a bathhouse is.
"Over the past few weeks, we have received a couple of applications," said Sanchez. He said these are the first such applications the agency's received since he joined in 1999.
"This is something that is not what we're used to dealing with," said Sanchez. The planning department would consider whether a business has private rooms or baths when trying to determine when a bathhouse permit should be approved, he said.
"We review the floor plans and business description to make sure they are consistent," Sanchez said in an email." We also review for compliance with various planning code requirements," including use size and hours of operation.
To view the bathhouse documents that Petrelis obtained, go to https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1B-q9WCAYaNeVJIX3dxc3ViQW8/edit for the preliminary injunction, https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1B-q9WCAYaNcFNqaXR0cHRmcm8/edit for the modified preliminary injunction, and https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B1B-q9WCAYaNejVCRFFUU0NZWW8/edit for the city's definition of high-risk sexual activity as of 1984