Story at a glance

  • Bathhouses were once a major gathering place for gay men in San Francisco and other cities.
  • During the HIV/AIDs pandemic, the city put restrictions on the bathhouses, forcing many of them to close.
  • Now, the city is removing the restrictions allowing for bathhouses to potentially return.

More than three decades ago, the HIV/AIDS pandemic closed gay bathhouses in San Francisco after the city and county declared them a "public nuisance" over alleged unsafe sex practices. This January, another pandemic threatened the planned reversal of the ban, but as the city reopens, the bathhouses will too. 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to remove the restrictions on “adult sex houses” that banned locked doors for private rooms rented by bathhouse patrons and required monitoring of the sexual activities of customers.

Rafael Mandelman, the District 8 supervisor, spearheaded the effort earlier this year, intending to introduce the legislation in February. 


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"The restrictions went into place in 1984 as gay men were dying and the public health community was desperate to find ways to slow the spread of the epidemic. And I think since that time many folks in the queer community, many people who were around then, felt something had been lost and lamented that now in the era of PrEP these restrictions no longer make great sense," Mandelman told the Bay Area Reporter.

While the coronavirus pandemic soon shut down most of the city, Tuesday’s decision will allow gay bathhouses to begin returning to the city — although perhaps not for a little while longer, after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered San Francisco County and several others in California to close indoor operations for fitness centers, worship services, personal care services, malls, offices, hair salons and barbershops. 

When they do open, however, Mandelman told the Advocate he supports adding requirements such as providing condoms, safe sex educational materials and HIV and STD testing. 

"When properly operated, by providing access to safer sex educational materials and supplies and HIV and STD testing, these venues assist rather than impede our efforts to control the transmission of HIV," Mandelman said. "I hope that this ordinance will support our efforts to get to zero new HIV infections and will put a bookend on a painful chapter in the history of the queer community in San Francisco." 

In 2018, new HIV diagnoses dipped below 200 for the first time in San Francisco, which is aiming for a 90 percent reduction in new HIV cases this year. Joe Hollendoner, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said in a statement that the decision reflects how much has changed since the restrictions first went into place in 1984.

“Bathhouses symbolize freedom for many in the queer community, and the ability for them to once again operate in San Francisco represents the tremendous advances our city has made in ending HIV transmissions,” Hollendoner said in a press release. “Whether it be breakthroughs like PrEP or U=U, members of our community now have more prevention options than when bathhouses were closed, and it is time for these outdated restrictions to be revised.”


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Published on Jul 29, 2020