New York City shuttered many of its bathhouses in 1987 as a measure of public health promotion, but that accomplished little more than erasing attempts by gay community members to promote safer sex practices, which the city claimed as its own. As many city officials considered “going to the baths” to be undignified behavior, they were skeptical of any community response that attempted regulation over closure. How the city ultimately decided to close the baths reveals important lessons about who is said to have dignity, who doesn’t and who decides.
Before official closures began, the New York State Department of Health established the Bathhouse Subcommittee to consider possible actions. When it released its recommendations in June 1985, which were reported in The New York Native, it initially opposed closure: “State closure of the bathhouses is simply a means of controlling and regulating consensual sexual relations between gay men, and there is not currently a compelling need so great to justify government interference of this magnitude.”
The subcommittee did recommend that bathhouse owners post safer-sex information, maintain hygienic conditions, provide condoms and ensure adequate lighting. In fact, an April 1985 subcommittee memo, found in the Joseph Sonnabend Papers held by The LGBT Community Center National History Archive, endorsed all 19 recommendations put forward by the community-established Coalition of Sexual Responsibility.
According to the subcommittee chair, “This statement is almost identical to the draft proposal of the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility, except that … the [CSR] statement simply makes recommendations. It does not require anything.” Because CSR is not the law. Nothing could be required because a community organization, by definition, doesn’t have the enforcement power of the state. The memo maintained that the community efforts had failed, and that “the bathhouses, to date, have not voluntarily taken reasonable steps which might lead to a decrease in the spread of AIDS.”
In the fall of 1985, New York made an emergency addition to its state Sanitary Code, which stated “No establishment shall make facilities available for the purpose of sexual activities where anal intercourse, vaginal intercourse or fellatio take place.” Under this new provision, health inspectors surveilled local gay bar The Mineshaft and reported witnessing anal intercourse. They also reported seeing condoms distributed. Additionally, they reported hearing whips being used — which paints a titillating scenario, but they of course did not see it that way.
Once a court ordered that The Mineshaft be closed, NYC Mayor Ed Koch responded in a revealing way: “It’s tough stuff to read. It must be horrific, horrendous in its actuality to witness.”
Ed Koch called gay men “suicidal,” and he praised the court for “bringing to the consciousness of those who have a predilection to engage in this suicidal behavior how ridiculous it is. Maybe it will deter them as well. We don’t know. But we’re going to do the best we can.”
We all know that Ed Koch labored under persistent rumors about his own sexuality, and so these statements could just be the kind of exaggerated assessments made by someone who wished they could be there too.
Soon after, the New York City Council passed Resolution 1685A, which directed the city’s Health Commissioner David Sencer to close bathhouses. According to The New York Native, Sencer always opposed closure, so he announced his resignation shortly after.
By 1987, with The Mineshaft, St. Mark’s and the Everard Baths all closed, New York State Health Commissioner David Axelrod declared, “Today, many of the baths openly encourage safe-sex practices. And based on our observations, dangerous sexual activities are no longer being encouraged and, in fact, are not occurring. We believe the remaining bathhouses have acted very responsibly.”
Axelrod’s claim that the bathhouses acted responsibly — only after the state action — tellingly ignores that the four bathhouses that remained open were the same that had responded to the community-organized efforts by the CSR. So basically the state accomplished little other than erasing the actions gay community members had already taken and claiming their accomplishment as its own.
But in a larger sense, the closures remind us that officials had always undermined the dignity of gay and queer men. They diseased our sexual behavior, they ignored our community action, they took that action as their own and they claimed credit for any positive results. Bathhouse patrons and gay and queer men, more generally, were not dignified.
They were, in the eyes of Mayor Ed Koch, suicidal.
Ultimately, the state’s response to community action on the bathhouses showed that to be dignified in the eyes of the state, we had to be dignified by the state. In the decades that followed, this pattern of being dignified under the state’s own terms would seep into contemporary LGBTQ life. Specifically it would structure our legal battles for decriminalization and marriage, influence our pop culture and give rise to further state surveillance under the guise of “health.”