A Peek Under the Towel: Inside the 500-Year History of Gay Bathhouses
It was a cold February morning, 118 years ago this month, when New York City police conducted their first recorded raid on a gay bathhouse. “Intense excitement among 60 persons inside,” read the New York Times coverage on Feb. 22. “The conduct of some of the frequenters of the establishment was questionable.”
Police had been spying on the men at The Ariston Hotel Baths for days. Infiltrating the establishment, they were aghast. In later testimony, police reported witnessing anal sex. Eleven people were charged with felonies, and 37 were eventually arrested.
This marked the first recorded time that police raided a gay bathhouse in America, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
The tradition of gay male bathing spaces dates back to the 15th century — and more gender-neutral bathing is recorded as early as 6 BC. In the late 1400s, police in Florence, Italy, monitored homosexual activity and “suspect boys” at bathhouses. In the 1800s, police in Paris raided a bathhouse and arrested six.
As institutions, bathhouses gained popularity in the last century, in part due to growing gay populations lacking places where they could publicly gather. The risks of police raids deterred some men from stepping into a gay bathhouse, but ultimately the need for intimate companionship outweighed the danger posed by police.
And the raids certainly didn’t close New York’s bathhouses. Some, like the Everard Baths (open since 1888), gained a reputation as one of the more distinguished gathering places for New York City’s queer community. A fire in the 1970s gutted the building, but it reopened.
Then there was the Lafayette baths, run by the Gershwins and frequented by prominent artist Charles Demuth. Across town, the Penn Post Baths offered a less formal, more exhibitionist space.
Despite surviving 100 years of police harassment, though, the gay bathhouses of New York City couldn’t survive the homophobia of Mayor Ed Koch, who shut most of them down during the HIV epidemic. (Today, many cities actually recognize bathhouses as vital tools for addressing HIV by providing health services in a setting where it’s needed most.)
Bathhouses had really taken off around the 1950s in the United States. Following World War II, a more robust underground gay culture began to emerge, spurred in part by the companionship that queer soldiers found in the military. Bathhouses provided a safe place for these men to gather. Less risky than meeting in public, regular patrons knew each other and could self-regulate the scene, looking out for each others’ safety.
Gay bathhouses weren’t just places to have sex. And many institutions provided entertainment, drinks and casual social events that catered to queer men who didn’t want to go to a bar. In the 1980s, many New York City bathhouses even conducted voter registration.
Today, gay bathhouses face huge challenges in staying open. Many still struggle with the stigma attached to them by moral crusaders who gunned for them during the worst years of the HIV epidemic. And online opportunities for queer people to connect have replaced physical gathering places. Some cities, including San Francisco, continue to ban them.
And police harassment continues to be a threat to this day. Dallas police raided a club in 2010; there was rash of raids in Beijing in 2008. Even in cities where they’re legal, patrons would do well to keep their wits about them and watch out for law enforcement looking to target queer men.
Over a century may have passed since that first American raid, but progress remains to be made.