Bathhouse Issue Difficult for Gay Community
NEW YORK (AP) _ At the New St. Mark’s baths, each customer is handed a small white packet marked with black lettering. ″The contents of this envelope could save your life,″ it reads.
Inside, they find a condom - insurance against AIDS for the New St. Mark’s homosexual patrons, say the bath managers.
Not enough, says the state Public Health Council. It has ruled that bathhouses which allow ″high-risk sexual activities″ such as anal intercourse and fellatio should be padlocked, because they spread AIDS.
″Unconstitutional,″ say the bathhouses, and they promise to fight the move in court.
At first glance, the issue seems to be clear cut: defenders of the public health fighting dens of contagion. But the bathhouse question is a complicated one, pitting civil liberties against public safety, and different segments of the gay community against each other.
Jack Stoddard manages the New St. Mark’s baths, one of the largest of the city’s 10 bathhouses. A five-story building on the Lower East Side, it includes a health-food bar, swimming pool, sauna and whirlpool.
Its prime business, however, is providing a place for sex.
At the New St. Mark’s, men meet and pair off, often without exchanging names. They pay $11.50 for eight hours’ use of one of 156 cubicles; each 7- foot-by-4-foot space contains amber-tinted wall lamps and a small bed. Some prefer to use the barracks-style ″orgy room.″
Stoddard is not unaware of the risk of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Last year, his companion of seven years died of AIDS.
″Bathhouses do not spread AIDS,″ Stoddard said. ″The exchange of bodily fluids spreads AIDS. And closing bathhouses won’t stop that.″
So the New St. Marks distributes condoms; it displays posters and literature describing how to engage in ″safe sex.″ The lighting has been improved - in order to spot tell-tale lesions, among other things - and clients must sign a statement indicating they know how to have sex safely.
Still, this is not enough for some politicians, or for some gay activists.
Mayor Edward Koch said Thursday that the operators of the baths were ″vile persons″; he would close the baths, he said, but for fear of court reversal.
″You ought not to be able to purvey death - and charge for it,″ Koch said.
″We have to close down the commercial sex industry, period,″ said Dr. Stephen S. Caiazza, a past president of New York Physicians for Human Rights, a group of gay health-care professionals. He quit that organization because he felt that its stand against the bathhouses was not tough enough.
That there is some reluctance in the gay community to close the baths is not surprising. For years, the bathhouses, as well as the backrooms of gay bars and some bookstores and theaters, have served as sexual oases.
″These are places we can go - ghettos, they are. We can go there and create the illusion that we are safe,″ said Michael Callen, an AIDS sufferer and a leader of the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility, which has promoted changes such as use of condoms which decrease the chance of transmission of the AIDS virus.
Originally, most bathhouses were just places where people could wash and enjoy steam rooms. The New St. Mark’s, for example, was established in 1906 for a heterosexual male clientele. But that slowly changed.
″The pansy men of the Nation - New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco - are just nuts about Turkish bathing,″ reported a New York tabloid in 1933. ″Steam joints of the aforementioned cities are the gathering places of perverts.″
From time to time, police raided the baths and bars. In 1969, a raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village resulted in three days of riots, a pivotal moment in the history of gay liberation. There followed an explosion of gay activity - political, social and sexual.
Though bathhouse patrons are a small part of the gay community - fewer than 5 percent, according to some authorities, though reliable figures are not available - the bathhouses have become a symbol, and some homosexuals fear their closure would signal a return to the bad old days of repression.
″The greatest fear in the gay community is what kind of precedent would this set,″ said Ron Najman, spokesman for the National Gay Task Force.
Supporters of the bathhouses say that many of the patrons are ″deep- closeted ,″ people who may be married and find their only homosexual outlet at the baths. Refused that outlet, they may go elsewhere, to uncontrolled settings where they cannot be educated on safer sex.
Dr. David Sencer, the city health commissioner and an opponent of plans to close the bathhouses, says there is evidence that educational efforts have paid off, and patrons have already changed their behavior.
The rate of other sexually transmitted diseases among homosexuals has dropped, and the average number of sexual contacts by each bathhouse patron has dropped from 23 to three per year, he said.
But as in San Francisco, where officials acted against the bathhouses with the support of many homosexuals, there are gay activists in New York who want them closed.
″My generation sees this (opposition to the bathhouses) as endangering hard-fought, hard-won and well-deserved advances. What they don’t realize is that this was before the virus came along,″ said Caiazza, whose West Side medical practice has become more and more devoted to AIDS in the past three years.
″To appear that we have some right to engage in unsafe sex during an epidemic is irresponsible,″ agreed Mathew Shebar, who heads an organization of 500 gay men opposed to the bathhouses. ″It’s irresponsible to America as a whole and it’s irresponsible to gay America, which is most at risk.″