Largely banished since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, gay bathhouses could return to San Francisco under new legislation introduced to the Board of Supervisors.
District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro neighborhood, introduced an ordinance Tuesday calling for the Department of Public Health to amend city standards established in the 1980s for adult sex venues that effectively shut down gay bathhouses.
Mandelman said bathhouses were once the focal point of the gay community and health care advancements to help prevent the transmission of HIV has made the standards outdated.
“In many ways they symbolized the newfound freedom to live out, proud and happy that gay men from previous generations could never experience,” Mandelman said. “Our current regulations for adult sex venues were put in place as an emergency measure at the height of the AIDS crisis, when San Francisco was desperate to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
The proposed legislation was first reported by The Bay Area Reporter.
Gay bathhouses were shuttered during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, after The City cited them as a public health nuisance in 1984. A court order allowed the businesses to remain open, but only under strict standards that required the use of safe sex “monitors” and door modifications for individual cubicles, rooms or booths to prevent private interactions.
The court order remained in place, and in 1997 the Department of Public Health adopted minimum standards that included staff monitoring and prohibited sex clubs and venues from having doors that patrons could lock.
However, the rules may not have worked as officials hoped.
“There is no evidence showing that the monitoring of patrons at commercial venues that allow people to engage in sexual activity results in safer sex. Indeed, some researchers have concluded that monitoring has little or no effect on high-risk behaviors,” the ordinance reads.
Medical advancements in HIV prevention, like the availability of preemptive medication like PReP and antiretroviral therapy for people diagnosed with HIV, have led to a decline in new diagnoses. In 2018, the number of new HIV diagnoses in The City dropped to 197, a 58 percent decrease since 2011, according to the Department of Public Health.
“It’s time for regulations that were put in place at a time of fear and a lack of knowledge to catch up with the progress we’ve made in the fight to end AIDS,” said Joe Hollendoner, CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “With PrEP, U=U and other advancements in sexual health, bathhouse restrictions are antiquated and stigmatizing. It’s time that these baseless regulations be struck from the code, and we are grateful to Supervisor Mandelman for leading this charge to decriminalize sexuality.”
The ordinance to amend the health code could be adopted in July and new standards would address the availability of safe sex supplies and providing safe sex educational materials for patrons and staff at the businesses.
“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.
Gay bathhouses or saunas became popular during the 1970s in neighborhoods like the Castro and South of Market. Although these businesses operated as a place for sexual hookups, they also became a safe space in a society that was still largely homophobic.
“It’s hard to say if the bathhouses closing prevented the spread of HIV. The truth is people were adopting safe sex, celibacy or dying,” said Randy Alfred, a retired journalist who hosted a radio show, “The Gay Life,” on KSAN-FM at the time. The bathhouses fulfilled a need for community, Alfred said.
Today, EROS on Market and Dolores streets is one of the few operating gay saunas in The City. Residents must travel to Steamworks in Berkeley for a more traditional gay bathhouse experience.