On the Boystown stretch of Northalsted Street in Chicago is a large brick building. It’s Steamworks, perhaps the last bathhouse left in Chicago. While these institutions once flourished in many cities — in NYC, we had the Continental Baths, the Everard Baths, the St. Marks Baths, the Mineshaft and more — many fell victim to moral panic during the HIV crisis.
The traditional story is that municipal public health officials closed the baths to stop the epidemic. But what if that effort accomplished more? What if shutting down the baths also achieved other, intensely anti-queer political objectives? To answer that question, we need to consider the bathhouse as a community space. And we must also resist the urge to pathologize public, anonymous, casual sex. Instead, we could explore how these spaces were part of a vibrant, safe sexual culture; how they contributed to emotional empowerment and community-building.
By unearthing this history and also by using what we might call a queer lens to see the bathhouse, we can reconsider it as way more than a sex den filled with glory holes.
Bathhouses that specifically catered to men interested in sex with other men were established by the 1920s, and for historian George Chauncey, they were a “starting point” for a distinct gay identity and subculture. By the mid-20th century, especially during World War II, when San Francisco and New York City were sites of soldier embarkation for the European and Pacific fronts, the baths were an important venue for enlisted men seeking safe same-sex sexual encounters.
The bathhouse took on even more symbolic value within the post-Stonewall era. Choosing non-normative and often communal sex while watched, and often affirmed, by other men, was a liberating experience. As historian Ira Tattleman recounts, “These spaces offered new social structures, pleasure practices and changing definitions. To make a sexual choice in front of others, who by their presence were involved contingently and applauded the ability to make these kinds of decisions, became an impetus for self-sufficiency, a redefinition of who the gay man is and what he can do. Sex between men (especially in safe environments) created opportunities for resistance, strategic positions from which to construct the ‘meaning’ of one’s existence.”
In short, public queer sex established a root of queer kinship.
Beyond this emotional impact, by the 1970s the baths provided a wide array of activities, attesting to their growing role in defining gay cultural practice. For example, NYC’s Continental Baths had a dance floor, a Saturday night cabaret and a pool. They also featured entertainers like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. And these establishments hosted benefits for the Gay Activists Alliances, provided onsite STD testing and encouraged voter registration; the St. Mark’s Bath in the East Village of New York City worked with the League of Women Voters to register gay men to vote in the 1984 election.
If you weren’t already, certainly after learning that last bit about Bette and Barry, you might be asking yourself, “Why in the world would anyone fuck with these spaces?” Bette. Glory holes. And efforts to promote civic responsibility. Who would mess with that combo and why?
Folks outside of these public queer spaces had lots of ideas and fears about what happened behind closed doors. Besides seeing them as licentious eye-sores that lowered property values, the baths were spaces of mystery. When we study the mystery, the fears and the anxiety produced by these spaces, we learn what was fundamentally queer about them. And this queerness helps us explain why the baths were so important to our communities and why their doors were subsequently padlocked.
From their architecture to their activities, these venues threatened the power of (hetero)normative ideas about the world: namely, ideas about how we should use public space and what bodies can and should do — when, with whom and for what purposes.
They operated by what might be called the queer logics of space, time and contact/belonging.
SPACE: The bathhouse and their patrons reconfigured what it means to inhabit public space and to perform “acceptable” publicness. Simply put, as the men who came to the baths wrestled for their right to space and to fuck, they challenged the supposedly neat, tidy boundaries that separate “public” from “private.” Instead of hiding in the throes of sexual repression or attempting sexual expression in spaces that they considered unsafe or unavailable (like a “home”), they opted to venture into public space and to seek refuge in the bodies and the conversations of their like-minded peers.
TIME: Since the interactions at the bathhouse did not demand or regularly offer future commitment (like a first date or marriage), they also reformulated notions of time in queer ways. Instead of experiencing time according to narratives of “productivity” and “responsibility” (for example, sex happens after X number of meetings, or adults go to bed at X time), public sex spaces and their visitors practiced a kind of queer approach to the so-called future. Importantly, these folks did not see a need for a fantasy of a stable future. In short, they abandoned the order of heteronormative time — the promise of an interaction tomorrow.
CONTACT / BELONGING: Interactions within the bathhouses also defied ideas of contact with others. Bathhouse patrons engaged with one another’s bodies without the pressure to follow social “protocol,” without the expectation of monogamy, and even without the promise of something beyond those moments of mutual exchange. For Samuel Delaney, the baths promoted an alternative value system that rethinks how bodies can and should interact — often (though definitely not always) offering patrons a more organic, accidental coming together that muddies distinctions like economic class, race/ethnicity and more, providing the possibility of community building across difference.
Because queer folk in public sex spaces refused heteronormative ideas of space, time and contact, they crafted and thrived in what Michael Warner calls a “counterpublic,” or alternative spaces that offer marginalized communities different possibilities to be in the world. And the queer counterpublic of the bathhouse assumed vast importance in the late 1970s and early 1980s when gay males fought to reclaim and nourish healthy expressions of sexuality, build like-minded collectives and assert a stake in rethinking and re-making public space.
Unfortunately, counterpublics are not often welcomed in the broader public sphere. In fact, institutions that nourished oppositional queer logics like the bathhouses had to be surveilled, critiqued and snuffed out for state authority to persist. As a result, the queer ways of thinking and being realized in the baths were often attacked and misrepresented as dangerous or irresponsible precisely because they threatened to break the rules that police our bodies and actions — and ultimately the power of the state and its interests.
Public health policy during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis did just this, and it used the epidemic to do so. During this vulnerable time of uncertainty and increasing death tolls, municipal authorities explicitly dehumanized, infantilized and abandoned gay men, creating a narrative of blame for supposedly undignified behavior. In short, city officials fucked with our dignity. And, with renewed interests in both bathhouses and cultures of public sex, we reconsider how these sites and practices interact with increasingly common and contemporary language and meanings of dignity as applied to LGBTQ peoples and their rights claims.
Stephen M. Engel is Professor and Chair of Politics at Bates College and is the author of Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives. Timothy S. Lyle is Assistant Professor of English at Iona College, and is most recently the author of “Tryin’ to Scrub that Death Pussy Clean Again: The Pleasures of Domesticating HIV/AIDS in Pearl Cleage’s Fiction.”
This is the first of an ongoing series entitled “Fucking with Dignity: Sexuality, Politics, and the Queer Past.”
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