In 1988, near the height of the HIV epidemic, Brian Coyle — an openly gay, HIV-positive City Council member whose life was fading — helped create a city ordinance to shut down any Minneapolis gay bathhouse and prevent any new establishments from opening, all in the hopes of reducing new HIV transmissions.
Nearly 30 years later, despite the advancements of HIV treatment and prevention, the ordinance remains on the books. And today Minneapolis is one of the few major American cities without a gay sex space.
LGBTQ and sexual health activists want the ordinance repealed, but the local media is unsure whether current city council members will really want to expend political capital advocating for public gay sex spaces.
In January 2017, Minneapolis police raided and shut down the city’s only gay sex club, an unlicensed underground venue known as The Warehouse. Ostensibly the city shut down The Warehouse because it operated as an unlicensed business without a safety inspection by the local fire marshal. But the campaign to shut it down was led by a single individual who zealously pressured state and city officials to intervene.
The Warehouse hosted hundreds of men of all types from the city and surrounding areas on a daily basis, providing them a safe place to discretely meet and hookup.
While some think social hookup apps have removed the need for such venues, such apps only result in sex if you have a place to hookup. Gay bathhouses have proved preferable and safer alternatives to vehicles on public streets, bathrooms and alleyways.
And for some, a sex club isn’t always about the sex. Sometimes it’s just about being in a sex-positive atmosphere, enjoying the sight of other men while relaxing in the nude or being around other like-minded individuals. For others, it’s totally about the sex and being able to seek pleasure without shame.
Gay bathhouses and sex clubs can also benefit the public good. Hennepin Country’s largest HIV organization, Red Door Clinic, had been offering HIV and STI tests at The Warehouse, as well as offering information about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) — a medication that is highly effective at preventing HIV — to men who might not otherwise receive sexual health care or related information.
Scott Delage, former owner of The Warehouse, says Minneapolis currently has other gay sex gatherings happening all over the city, including “private get-togethers hosted in houses and hotels by small networks of friends and swingers clubs,” but there’s no central venue where men can safely gather and get off. Those current sex gatherings can only accommodate so many people, and none offer sexual health services or advice.
In mid-October, about 50 members of the city’s LGBTQ community — including sexual health educators from the Red Door Clinic and legal advocates from OutFront Minnesota, the state’s LGBTQ advocacy organization — met at Lush Bar to discuss the prospect of repealing the ordinance and advocating for gay sex spaces once more.
The ordinance considers HIV an “irreversible,” “uniformly fatal” and “incurable” disease in language that reflects its 1988 impact on the gay community. While the ordinance prohibits businesses that allow “high-risk sexual conduct,” it doesn’t affect straight sex establishments (even though the Minneapolis Health Department recently discovered semen in these establishments).
Gary Schiff, the 9th Ward Councilman promises that if he serves another term he will advocate for repealing the ordinance. But even if he isn’t re-elected, Jacob Thomas and Phil Duran, the Communications and Development Coordinator and Legal Director of OutFront Minnesota, believe that other members of the City Council will still have the political will to repeal it.
“There are 13 members of the Council, and proponents of changes have many potential allies, of whom Alondra Cano — the current councilmember for Ward 9 — cares deeply about LGBTQ justice and has concerns as well,” Thomas and Duran say in a written response to Hornet. “We have no reason to believe she would oppose the repeal of these ordinances.”
They continue, “The Minneapolis Health Department has already gone on record agreeing that the current bathhouse ordinance is not useful for dealing with today’s concerns. Given that, if a proposal is developed for reworking that ordinance, or replacing it with something else (or just repealing it), we expect the city would give it full consideration.”
“Obviously, it’s completely up to council as to whether they amend the ordinances. But I think this one makes a lot of sense because it’s antiquated,” says Dan Huff, the city’s Director of Environmental Health. “It’s also a clunky ordinance. We look at it as our goal is to protect public health and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, and the ordinance currently is not a tool for that.”
Bobbi Gass, who has a masters in public health, says convincing politicians and the larger Minneapolis community about why we need sexually oriented gay businesses will require emotional appeals in addition to citing public health policy.
Gass says, “I’ve heard some community activists say that Brian (the council member who helped create the 1988 ordinance) would have wanted the bathhouse law changed if he could see how much his community was thriving today. To allow the law to remain unchallenged would be against the spirit in which the law was originally written.”
Gass thinks it’s unrealistic to try to convince every gay person they should support bathhouses, and community members who experienced the height of the HIV crisis may forever associate certain aspects of gay culture with death and tragedy.
“That’s their experience, and that’s valid,” she says. But, Gass continues, “As someone who works in public health, I refuse to ignore the advancements around HIV treatment and prevention that make HIV a manageable disease. I refuse to participate in rhetoric that shames and stigmatizes people that have sex with multiple partners, have condomless sex or have sex for money because we know that shame and stigma contribute to the HIV infection.”
Regardless of how someone feels about bathhouses, Gass feels the Minneapolis law contains outdated and stigmatizing language that does nothing for communities still facing the brunt of new HIV infections — particularly young gay and bi men, black men and women and transgender women.
“Plus,” Gass adds, “gay people have always been at the forefront of sexual rights. It’s never been about demanding the right to be just like straight people. It’s about demanding the right to be ourselves and love and fuck who we want.”
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