When and where public baths have been popular, they’ve meant different things to different cultures. They might be sites for socializing, religious purification, spiritual/bodily cleanliness, relaxation/pampering, public health/hygiene, homosocialiality, and, of course, sex, or some combination of those things. At the start of the twentieth century, single-gender communal bathhouses were central to emerging gay communities all over North America and Europe. At the end of the century, those sites of community formation were associated with the rapid and devastating spread of HIV/AIDS. In 1984, the city of San Francisco ordered the closure of bathhouses, insisting that often anonymous and unsafe sex was at the heart of the bathhouse. But the closure of the gay bathhouses in AIDS-era America echoes the closure and backlash against queer bathhouse spaces in places like early twentieth-century Russia and Mexico. The bathhouse was a contested space because of its same-sex sexual activity, with or without the threat of the looming pandemic. 


Steaming the “Nefarious Sin”: Bathhouses and Homosexuality from the Victorian Era to the AIDS Epidemic

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Elizabeth:  Fair warning, friends! This episode has a lot of penises and sodomy in it, and since that’s important to the content, this is the last time we will be bleeping them. So if your coworkers are under the age of whatever age you deem approprite to hear about butt sex, then you might want to hit pause, or put on the old headphones. NSFW etcetera. Woohoo!

Averill: Public baths have been common around the world for centuries, particularly in cities. When and where they’ve been popular, they’ve meant different things to different cultures. They might be sites for socializing, religious purification, spiritual and or bodily cleanliness, relaxation and pampering, public health and hygiene, homosocialiality, and, of course, sex, or some combination of those things. At the start of the twentieth century, single-gender communal bathhouses were central to emerging gay communities all over North America and Europe. At the end of the century, those sites of community formation were associated with the rapid and devestating spread of HIV/AIDS, or as they still described it in 1981, “the gay cancer.” In 1984, the city of San Francisco ordered the closure of bathhouses, arguing that often anonymous and unsafe sex was at the heart of the bathhouse. Despite–or, as community historian Allan Berube argued, because of–the AIDS pandemic, gay rights activists protested the closure of the bathhouses, just as they’d protested the harrassment and closure of bars like Stonewall two decades earlier. The tension between the City govenrment and the the gay rights activists in 1980s San Francisco seemed to be centered on the AIDS pandemic and a public health crisis, but was just as much about the regulation of sex between men. In that way, the closure of the gay bathhouses in AIDS-era America echoes the closure and backlash against queer bathhouse spaces in places like early twentieth century Russia and Mexico. The bathhouse was a contested space because of its same-sex sexual activity, with or without the threat of the looming pandemic. 

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Elizabeth: Bathhouses were often as important as bars to gay (and to a lesser extent, lesbian) community development. I’m sure you could sit down and list a few reasons why, YES, OF COURSE bathhouses were gay hubs! These are homosocial spaces, where nudity was not just encouraged but expected, and the facilities included gyms, massage parlors, private rooms or stalls, steam rooms, and communal pools where you could soak next to all kinds of beautiful young bodies! DUH! GAY HUBS! SEXY! But while the conditions may have been ripe for centuries, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that such facilities emerged as openly gay hubs, and in some countries, they still weren’t (and aren’t, today) exclusively gay the way they were in the US from the 1970s to 1990s. 

Averill: The most interesting thing to me is actually how challenging it is to find records of queer subcultural movements that relied on or utilized bathhouses. In my own research, for example, there are no records of men in 20th century Dublin being arrested in bathhouses for same-sex sex, which was a crime in Ireland until 1993. But the bathhouses were there in Ireland, as they were throughout the British Isles. In fact, the very first Romanesque Turkish bathhouse was built in County Cork in the 1860s, and similar facilities followed in Dublin and several other Irish towns. I’ve yet to find the evidence that those spaces were taken over by a same-sex desiring community – which doesn’t mean it isn’t out there! It just means we need to keep looking. 

Elizabeth: More surprisingly though is that Matt Houlbrook’s research on early twentieth-century London suggests that same-sex desiring men did frequent bathhouses for sex, but there are no discernible records of the police raiding those the way they did bars. Scholars of other cities and cultures have found ample evidence of the bathhouse in queer subcultures. Victor Macias-Gonzales has shown that Mexican bathhouses had a longer history of sexual industry, and a particularly queer moment from the 1880s through early 1910s, before being stamped out because of the homosexual connection. Dan Healy, the historian of Russian homosexuality, writes that the Russian baths were very much a part of the queer economic sex market until at least 1941. And in the US, community historian Allan Berube, wrote extesively on the signficance of the bathhouse to American gay culture, and even produced an analysis for the California state legislature about why shutting the bathhouses down in 1984 was a bad idea. 

Averill: But the bathhouses are not, have never been, exclusively sexual spaces. Communal bathing, both in mixed and single gender spaces, has been quite common across cultures and periods. In Rome, particularly from the 1st century CE on, the empire built spectacular public baths accessible to any one with two pennies to rub together–actually, two denarii, the lowest denomination of Roman copper coinage, was the price to bathe! And on holidays, many baths were free admission. At the height of their power, the Romans threw money and talent at the construction of really decadent bathhouses. The grandest of these were huge complexes offering various pools set at different temperatures, with swimming pools, lounges for reading and relaxing, and steam rooms. While the wealthiest Romans often had baths in their own homes, they still bathed communally, with friends, business associates, and the like. Communal bathing was social, a kind of vulnerability that made bathers equals for a time, and could be religiously imbued, particularly as many Roman bathhouses were paired with a temple. The best Roman baths were built around a natural hot spring, which was believed to be divine in origin. Similarly, in the Ottoman empire, the public baths serviced the needs of daily ablution rituals in Islam. A traditional Turkish hamam is a room that relies on steam, quite like the Roman baths, rather than dry heat, to cultivate the purification of its bathers. Ottoman hamams were very social spaces, with rooms filled with cushions for relaxing after a good steaming. 

Elizabeth: Though of course men, women, and children used public waterways for a kind of communal bathing, facility-based communal bathing wasn’t popular in the UK until the Victorian era. Public bath houses were built to wash the unwashed masses in the early industrial era and were, for many, the only place where city folk could go to wash off industrial grime. In 1846, Parliament passed the Public Baths and Wash-houses Act, which permitted local governments to construct public swimming baths for the working class to use. But the more luxurious and private “Turkish” baths were intended for a more genteel bathing crowd. Turkish baths were advertised as cure-alls for everything from skin diseases to diabetes. By the turn of the century, private baths were widespread, and entire towns were dedicated to bathing as a medical solution. 

Turkish Baths in Jermyn Street | Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images

Averill: Other cultures have communal bathing traditions that predate the Victorian Turkish bath craze. Actually in Japan, before European influencers convinced the Meiji emperor that doing so was gross, men, women and children bathed in the nude at their local sento, or public bath, regularly. Sento still exists in Japan today, though now in gender-segregated facilities. The truly communal aspect of the sento is lost now, and with the widespreadness of indoor plumbing, fewer and fewer Japanese visit the sentos. In the 1990s, the bathhouses of Tokyo were frequented by foreigners more than Japanese, which was both a blessing and a curse. Some foreign patrons didn’t know the rules and customs of the sento, and did horrifying things like getting in the soak tub before washing, or going in in their undies. 

Elizabeth: Similarly, the Russian banya is a cultural institution that has survived tsarist regimes, Soviet collapse, and modern Russian (whatever is going on there now). The large gym-like Russian bath facilities popular in the UK and US are modeled on the late-imperial banyas, which were standardized over the course of the nineteenth century. Traditionally a family home would have its own bath — usually a two room structure — where the entire family would spend a Saturday sweating in the hot, dry heat of the banya. These were small, and in the rural areas of Russia, might even be feared, because they were said to be the home of a spirit, the Bannik, to which every third banya belonged. For many Russians, though, the community or family banya was a weekly or even daily ritual, for health and spiritual cleansing. 

Averill: Whether in one of the small “black banyas”, named because they were built without chimneys and so were colored black by the soot and smoke of the fire, or in a public banya built of brick and overseen by attendants, the experience was the same everywhere: In the antechamber, one would robe and disrobe. The bath itself is a space with a stove or fire heating stones, which is doused with water to disseminate the heat. The water evaporates, leaving behind temperatures of up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Bathers recline in the nude, sweating profusely, until they can take the heat no more. A wealthier bather might have a third room, with a spring-fed pool to cool off in; others would go jump in the snow, or find a nearby pond or river to dip into, before going back into the banya for another round. The ritual of bathing in the Russian style is believed to cleanse the spirit, as well as to purify the body of toxins and filth. 

Elizabeth: At the center of the larger European and American adoption of public baths and healing bathing were new standards of public health. For much of the early 19th century, the miasma theory of disease transmission still reigned supreme. Though ultimately incorrect, the idea that disease was transmitted through bad smells and bad smelling things is one of the reasons we have wonderful things like modern sewer systems, and why Florence Nightingale and mid-century nurses implemented cleaning policies in hospitals. In both efforts, those responsible believed that if they cleaned out the bad smells, they would clear out infections and diseases. By mid-century, British physician John Snow established that diseases were in fact caused by microscopic organisms, GERMS! The germ theory, which caught on pretty quickly across European and American medical academies, changed the way that public health officials and doctors thought about health, medicine, and disease.

Averill: While cleanliness didn’t prevent disease because it eliminated bad smells, it did have the potential to wash away the germs that caused disease. Fortunately for Russians, the emergence of germ theory coincided with a reorganization of Russian society. Alexander II emancipated the serfs and created zemstovs, or local councils, to govern town and regional affairs. While many serfs were still de facto tied to the land, others moved in droves to the cities in search of economic opportunity and a better life. This new urban workforce necessitated larger, communal baths. In the old system, doctors worked exclusively for the tsar and his family. In the new system, doctors could be employed at the regional level, working for and with zemstvos to provide care and public health policies for rural folks. Russian doctors were quite excited that Russia had a preexisting system of regular bathing, but knew that for bathing practices to be effective in curbing the spread of diseases, the banya had to be standardized to the doctors’ specifications, rather than those of traditions. 

Elizabeth: The bad news was, of course, that banyas were not standardizable. The “black banyas” that were common in the countryside were dangerous at the best of times. Many peasants couldn’t afford the fuel to get the fire hot enough, or didn’t have the time each week to take the “Saturday” bath that was rumored to be common. It was far less common than doctors hoped. The best, then, that the docs could do was standardize the public baths built in cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. They came up with rules for how long someone should spend in the dry heat, what temperature the room should be, how often to return to the room after cooling off in a pool, where the grey water should be expelled to, and more. 

Averill: But these large communal banyas were not like the traditional home or family banya; these were spaces where strangers could and did gather. The social aspect of the ritual expanded considerably for urban folks, and these facilities, as rife with sexual potential in anonymity as with business deals and friendship, were the models exported to North America.  (We should note that most Russian baths in the US followed the settlement of large Russian and Jewish populations, particularly after WW2. While the explicitly gay bathhouses of cities like San Francisco shuttered in the wake of the AIDS crisis, many Russian baths survive to this day. They remain a cultural touchpoint in Russia, something that Vladimir Putin talks about like Barack Obama talked about basketball brackets and beer. The banya is so diffuse in Russian culture that it is a marker of national identity and commonness, and makes a regular Joe feel connected to the leader of the country. And it holds on to some of those feelings in some Americans circles. Among other pop culture references, you probably recall seeing members of the Sopranos crime family conducting business deals in them. More recently in an episode of the hilarious Brooklyn 99, goofy cop Jake Peralta meets a shady eastern European in a Russian bath to try and secure a confession of counterfeiting. The shady eastern European sees the banya as a safe place, where naked vulnerability makes equals of the two men. Jake refuses to take his towel off, however, because of course that’s where he’s hidden the wire, so he makes up an excuse – he penis is horribly disfigured! – and gains the other man’s trust with what would have been a sweaty shirtless hug.)

Elizabeth: Healy is careful to emphasize that the banya, though an attractive place to same-sex desiring men, is not wholly representative of the same-sex desiring experience in Russian history. Instead, from the 19th to at least the mid-20th century, the baths were epicenters of male sex work. The police virtually left the banya alone, because they kept same-sex sex off the streets. Individuals who could, according to Healy, “rent a private room in the finger bathhouses were able to indulge themselves without risking their reputations.” The bathhouses were sites of what authorities called “gentlemen’s mischief”–in other words, men who could afford to, the elite and wealthy, could procure private space to pursue their same-sex sexual encounters. 

Averill: Until the late 19th century, sexual exchanges followed a very patriarchal pattern – master/servant, employer/novice, with the young acolyte performing the passive role in those sex acts. By the 20th century, prostitution shifted and subverted those traditional roles in the banya. Generally the sex workers were the young men who worked at the banyas. They might be the penetrator or the penetrated, the one who presented an erect penis for stroking or did the stroking of his client. There was more flexibility when the power dynamic was economically motivated and outside the realm of traditional patriarchal relationships. Individuals could signal to one another a desire for a fling with a “significant glance” across class, generation, and other traditional hierarchies.  

Elizabeth: Both Pollock and Healy discuss the Russian writer Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote Wings, the first literary exploration of same-sex love in Russian. Though there are no steamy sex scenes, Kuzmin specifically identifies the banya as a site of a young same-sex desiring man’s sexual awakening of sorts. He was, notably, working as a bath attendant, a banchchik. Kuzmin’s novel was lambasted by Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky, and other critics for its “decadence.” The bathhouse scene seems, according to Pollock, to be based on Kuzmin’s own experiences. In his diary, Kuzmin wrote of visiting a banya in St. Petersburg. On October 23, 1905, he wrote “In the evening I had the urge to go to a banya simply to be stylish, for the fun of it, for cleanliness,” where he requested a male attendant (over a female attendant), and he got Aleksandr, who had a “bold and uninhibited gait… He was very tall, very well built, with just a hint of a black mustache, light-colored eyes, and almost blond hair… He stared straight at me, motionless, with a kind of mermaid look, not quite drunkenly, not quite insanely, almost terrifying, but when he began to wash me there was no room for doubt. [Aleksandr asked me] ‘How do you like it’” and they had sex.  

Karl Bulla, The Egorov Baths, St. Petersburg, Russia | Fair Use

Averill: I actually thought about this topic because of a kind of famous image that I always find when I’m talking about queer spaces and same-sex desire. Pollock dissects this image in his book – it’s one of Karl Bulla’s photographs, showing the social intimacy and open nudity of the banya, with pairs of men in various states of engagement. To some, I guess sure, it could look like normal everyday bros hanging out in the nude. Everyone seems quite comfortable, at any rate. There is the couple that is at the center of the photo – one man lies on a bench, his hands behind his head, looking up into the eyes of another man who stands over him. The standing man is apparently washing the reclining man’s penis with a cloth. The eye contact… is quite something. On the right, one man sits on a bench while another stands before him, massaging his scalp. On the left, one man pours water over another, while a third man watches them, standing with one hip jutting back and knee bent, his hand holding something – it’s hard to tell from this distance – at about pubic height. 

Elizabeth: Undoubtedly many a Russian man in possession of this photo masturbated to it with little difficulty. It leaves little to the sensual imagination. 

Averill: But it could, sure, be just a buddy shot of completely asexual bro time. 

Elizabeth: Many would not see the sensuality of such a photo. Or would willfully ignore it. As Pollock notes, one reason so many people were up in arms about Kunzin’s novel was that he “besmirched” the innocence of the banya. But while the reality was the banshchiki most definitely provided sexual services to the patrons of the banya, over the course of the late imperial Russian period, the banya was nationalized and desexualized in Russian mythology. From the 1860s to the 1880s, the sex work of the banshchiki was well documented, in popular, medical, and other sources. But as public health officials sought to standardize and appropriate the bathhouse as a medical miracle, the Russian state (and local governing bodies like the zemstvos) asserted a particular identity for the banya. It was a quaint, significant, spiritually and physically healthful ritual enjoyed by all Russians, even though it was not really any of those things. But that’s the banya that was exported to the US with emigrants, and that’s the banya that Gorky and Trotsky defended. Over the course of the 20th century, the banya was fused to patriotism and Russian identity. 

Averill: In the late-nineteenth century, proprietors in North America and the United Kingdom imported much romanticized versions of Turkish and Russian baths. In Britain, this was spearheaded by David Urquart, a diplomat and Member of Parliament, who wrote The Pillars of Hercules, a travel narrative of his time in Morocco. He quickly found a building partner, and constructed the first private bathhouse, St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment, in Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. By 1861, there were over 600 “Hydropathic Establishments” in Britain. These often palatial institutions would ultimately serve a very different function from the public baths that many cities around the world built in the 18th century to accommodate the bathing needs of urban workers. The Victorian baths, in contrast, were spaces of elite primping and pampering from Mexico City to New York City, London to Moscow. 

Elizabeth: As elsewhere, Mexico had bathhouses before the Victorian Turkish bath trend took off. Bathing regularly was one way that Mexicans established their superiority to Europeans. Spanish America quickly developed along divergent cultural paths from the home country, creating locally autonomous states and powerful resistance movements to colonial rule. When Mexicans of European descent traveled to Europe, they wrote home about how smelly and dirty the Europeans were, who bathed but once a week or less. In Mexico, mostly because of the tropical climate, elite Mexicans preferred to bathe daily. That Mexicans (even if by necessity) bathed more regularly than Europeans became a sticking point of pride and national identity. Bathhouses provided the facilities for all Mexicans to aspire to the elite levels of cleanliness. 

Averill: The Turkish/Russian-style bathhouses that were built in North American and the UK in the nineteenth century were purposefully homosocial. In many cases, as in 19th century Mexico, gender segregation was one of the only aspects of moral regulation that were policed in the bathhouses. 

Elizabeth: During the colonial era, bathhouses were under surveillance. According to Macias-Gonzales, Christians and authorities “feared that the ‘nefarious sin’ of same-sex sex would offend God and bring divine wrath upon the realm.” The Church and Crown surveilled convent baths, college pools, steam rooms, and suburban watering holes, because such homosocial spaces were rife with sex. By the early 19th century, though, those surveillance practices had lapsed. Instead, authorities focused on preventing public opposite-sex sex, enforcing single-gender bathing, and apparently ignoring same-sex desiring people in those spaces all together. Between 1821 and the 1870s, a weakened state meant the lapsing of even the enforcement of single-gender bathing, so in effect those establishments could, if they wanted, operate as brothels (as many, as in Russia, the UK, and the US, did), catering to both opposite sex and same-sex desire.

Averill: At the end of the 19th century in Mexico, the US, and the UK, bathhouse proprietors seized the opportunity to create luxurious oases for their patrons. They resurrected the model of the Roman bath, building warrens of private rooms, large communal pools of varying temperatures, with additional facilities for “massages,” barber services, mani/pedis, body scrubs, and both fitness and lounging areas. Unlike earlier iterations of the baths, the Victorian-era structures were often designed with common spaces, like communal steam rooms and rooms with large soaking or swimming pools, but most also had private spaces, including private baths, where individuals could retire alone, or with one or more others. Advertisements for these sumptuous bathhouses in Mexico City promised “modern comfort and Oriental luxury with fluffy pillows, divans, magazines, newspapers, books, and a well-stocked buffet table.” Such spaces were really quite perfect for cruising, and then slipping off to a private room to pursue whatever nefarious sin one might get up to. 

Elizabeth: According to Macias-Gonzales, by the 20th century, Mexican bathhouses were seen as sites of “sexual license, irresponsibility, degeneracy and scandal.” As a result, some bathhouses back pedaled on their promises of decadent luxury, urging patrons to be in and out in 45 minutes, strictly forbidding sharing baths and getting too close to other patrons, and other measures of regulation. Other bathhouses, of course, carried on with business as usual, procuring or protecting sex workers for paying clients. 

Averill: Bathhouses in Mexico, Russia, the UK, and the US were also spaces where race and class played, both in sexual relationships and just in the general population. In Mexico, where bathhouses were primarily for Europeans and Euro-descended Mexicans, the private Turkish bath clientele were mostly men from middle and upper class, who gathered in the baths to socialize, pamper, gossip and close business deals. In terms of racial politics, as Macias-Gonzalez points out, the bathhouse obliterated the pretense of whiteness that Mexico’s mestizo’s cultivated through clothing, scents, and cosmetics. In the bathhouse, where all of that was literally stripped away, the mestizo was constantly reminded of his social class. That is undoubtedly part of what made the bathhouse such an alluring space for the social and business dealings of the Mexican elite. Their whiteness was all that they needed to establish their superiority. 

Elizabeth: In bathhouses where sex was bought and sold, class and race were embedded in the exchanges. Class in particular is often a common point of negotiation in public sex – young working class men, for example, made up most of the male sex workers of London and Dublin, and they were generally engaged by upper class men. In early twentieth century New York City, the effeminate upper class men who sought sex with other men preferred working class “straight” fellas, cops, soldiers, sailors, dock workers, who otherwise went home to wives but were good to go with a fairy now and then. In the US, it was rare for self-identifying queer men to seek sex with other self-identifying queer men. In Mexico City, class was inextricable from race. Mestizos and indigenous men were the service workers, who couldn’t hide their identities in the bathhouse. 

Averill: But it wasn’t necessarily the working class or indigenous men who queered the bathhouses of Mexico by providing sexual services to the white patrons. Instead, according to Macias-Gonzalez, “The effete material decadence of the bathhouse, combined with its homosocial dynamic, ultimately queered the … space.” Mexican bathhouses in the 19th century were the epitome of luxury — men went there to be pampered, to gossip, to drink and eat sumptuous things, to get pedicures and waxed mustachios and yes, maybe a rub and tug from a pretty bathhouse worker. Those indulgences were the problem, evidence to the people and government of Mexico that the elite men of the cities were too soft, too decadent, too effeminate. That their indulgences also led often to same-sex sexual encounters was almost an after thought — as it had been throughout the 19th century, when the authorities were more worried about women sex workers plying their wares in the baths. By the early 1910s, the Mexican government shut the bathhouses down entirely. 

Bathers at San Niccolò, 1600 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: North American bathhouses ultimately took on similar characters as the Mexican establishments, and were ultimately the target of local governments for similar reasons: that they catered to queer tastes, which clashed with societal expectations of gender and sexuality. According to Allan Berube, the bathhouses in the US evolved toward being exclusively gay spaces over the course of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, when bathhouses made their debut in the US, Berube notes that bathhouses were just bathhouses, where the natural conditions occassionally faciliated sex between men, but it was by no means a given, and required lots of coded language and body signals. Up through the 1920s, though, some bathhouses were identified by same-sex desiring men as “Favorite spots.” Favorite spots were bathhouses and YMCAs where managers and/or cops looked the other way, and men could go there and know that they would find other men seeking sex. Such facilities were frequently raided by vice squads. In the 1920s and 30s, the earliest gay bathhouses were established. These were bathhouses with private cubicles. Men could cruise the communal bathing spaces of the saunas, steam rooms, and pools, and then discretely slip away to one of these private rooms, which had locks, and do that which men do behind locked doors. These early gay bathhouses were also frequently raided by police and vice squads. Some managers and owners fought to protect clientele, and those became the most successful of the early gay bathhouse models.  

Averill: Starting in the 1950s and 60s, the “modern gay bathhouses” emerged, with communal bathing largely falling out of favor around the US – thanks, indoor plumbing – and so bathhouses were pretty exclusively for sex. Those first modern bathhouses like the Club Turkish Baths in the Tenderloin of San Francisco were subjected to regular policing crack downs, and were dangerous spaces in many ways – because that was the height of McCarthyism, which was rooting out both communists and homosexuals and blacklisting them all. But these spaces transformed with the gay rights movements. They were places where men could find sex with other men, but they were also social spaces. In the 1960s, as gay activity at the Y decreased, bathhouse activity increased. Owners installed fitness rooms, fantasy rooms, and a range of spaces that cultivated the sexual subculture in new and exciting ways. Orgy rooms were installed in some bathhouses in 1967. In the 1970s, masturbation spaces in baths with video screening rooms for gay porn.  Men could meet, talk, organize, and yes, have sex – one on one, in groups, in pools, on benches, in cubicles, in kinky fantasy rooms designed to look like jail cells, the glory holes of public lavs, YMCA steam rooms, and anything else that was both meaningful to the mid-century gay experience and a total turn-on.

Elizabeth: Finally, in January 1976, the Consenting Adult Sex Bill went into effect in California. This law made same-sex sex in semi-private spaces, like the locked rooms of the bathhouse, legal for the first time. The gay bathhouses thrived – and again, not just as sex spaces, but as communal spaces. Bathhouses hosted parties to celebrate Pride, Halloween, New Year’s Eve for their LGBT patrons. They had entertainment nights – notably Bette Midler got her start performing in San Francisco’s bathhouses! And they provided services to the community. In San Francisco, the City Clinic conducted STD testing in the baths from 1970s on. 

Averill: In 1981, gay men started dying of a mysterious disease, known first as GRID – the gay-related immune deficiency – or the “gay cancer” – and finally AIDS. The bathhouses responded quickly. According to Allan Berube, in the early 1980s, many of the fantasy zones were boarded up and replaced with fitness rooms. The bathhouses handed out condoms and put up safe sex posters. Randy Shilts, the San Francisco Chronicler journalist who covered the AIDS epidemic more robustly than any other journalist in the US, wrote in 1983 that “San Francisco bathhouse owners and representatives of gay bars and businesses yesterday pledged their support for what the city’s public health chief has called the most ‘intensive’ public health campaign in recent city history.” The businesses all posted AIDS warning in their establishments, per health department guidelines. 

Elizabeth: In a May 1983 article in the Bay Area Reporter, Mike Hippler reported that “no one knows what causes AIDS, [but] many are afraid that, like gonorrhea and syphilis, it is communicable, and therefore the baths have come to represent a potential source of contamination. But are the baths a danger zone? … fucking around at the baths, or anywhere is a risk factor, but not a proven cause, says Dr. Dritz (of the San Francisco Department of Health’s Communicable Diseases Department.) But the more intimate contact you have with people, the more chance you have to pick up something from those people.’” While individuals for and against closing the bathhouses waged war in the newspapers throughout 1983, 72 San Franciscans died of AIDS complications. Every year the numbers increased. There was panic, from within the queer community and more damagingly from without. 

Gaetan Dugas | Fair Use

Averill: There’s a fantastic book by Philip Tiemeyer called Plane Queer, and it’s about the gay men who served as flight attendants from the 1950s through and beyond. Though Tiemeyer confirms that the disease was aided in its spread from coast to coast by sexually active stewards, including those who visited bathhouses, he dispels the mythology that Randy Shilts constructed around Gaetan Dugas. Dugas was a French Canadian flight attendant – one of many same sex-desiring men who found careers and joy flying the skies with United, American, and other airlines. Dugas, while he wasn’t patient zero, he did have unprotected sex with men when he knew he was sick with a sexually transmitted disease. Bathhouses, he told one doctor, were ideal, because in the low lighting, no one could see his lesions, the physical markers of Kaposi Sarcoma. But such tales of willful spread of the disease were few and far between. And the Dugas story wasn’t known in San Francisco or else where until Randy Shilts’ book, And the Band Played On, was published in 1987. There was no connection between the horror story of Dugas’ behavior and the closure of the San Francisco bathhouses in 1984. There is a connection between Shilts’ book and the long-term public memory of gay bathhouses as vectors of AIDS – and that is significant in and of itself.

Elizabeth: Rather, the bathhouses were contested spaces, and had been long before the AIDS epidemic. In the year before the officially mandated 1984 closure, the bathhouses were at the center of conversations for how to deal with the epidemic. As Christopher Disman has noted, there was evidence available in mid-1984, when the closure decision was made, to suggest that there was no real correlation between bathhouse visits and AIDS risk. In 1984 there were 14 openly gay bathhouses in San Francisco alone, with average monthly attendance rates that ranged from 3,500 to 12,000 patrons. Resistance to the baths came from both outside the lgbt community, in the form of city officials, police, and the like, and also within the lgbt community. Bathhouses represented a particular vision of gay sexual expression; for groups following in the footsteps of the Mattachine Society of the late 1950s, which sought to assimilate into hetero-like experiences of love and sex and life, through monogamy, marriage, white picket fences, etc, the bathhouses were problematic. 

Averill: In July 1983, Ron Huberman, Vice President of the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club wrote an op-ed, responding to accusations that the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club was trying to get the bathhouses closed. that “Over and over again we have stressed that the bath houses are not the issue, but they are simply a physical location for sex. Some continue to spread the rumor that we at the Milk Club are trying to close them! Goodness, anyone with an ounce of sense realizes that closing them would only shift individuals involved to other places, such as parks, glory holes, private residences, etc. … [we need to] spread the news about this illness to our people so that we can protect each other.”

Elizabeth: Even before the official closure, the media war definitely had an impact on the community’s perceptions of the bathhouses. By mid-1983, some of San Fran’s bathhouses had experienced a 50% drop in attendance. The fear propagated through the media was barely mitigated by the return fire from bathhouse supporters – even those like Huberman, who represented a very mainstream gay rights political organization. When the 1984 decision came down, most of the 14 bathhouses closed; some ignored the order, and some acquiesced because they were already dealing with the blowback of AIDS panic. 

Averill: Despite Ron Huberman’s assurance that the Milk Democrats were not trying to shut down the bathhouses, in March 1984, Larry Littlejohn distributed a pamphlet that would ask for an initiative to shut down all sexual activity in public bathhouses. A directive deriving from the petition eventually made its way to San Francisco’s Health Director, Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who made the call on April 9 to close the 14 gay bathhouses in the city. He was supported by the Mayor, as well as members from a range of gay rights activists. The closures were not enforceable, because the bathhouses fell under the purview of the Police Department, not the Health Department, but ultimately four bathhouses closed permanently, likely a side effect of additional panic and anxiety created by Silverman’s directive. The Public Health Director identified bathhouses as vectors of a deadly disease. It is not surprising that such an announcement had consequences for those businesses. 

Elizabeth: The champions of the bathhouse as a social, community-building space didn’t give up the fight easily, but they had to fight both political machines and public opinion. Allan Berbue, in the immediate months after the closure, assessed the impact to the city of San Francisco, and the efficacy of curbing the spread of AIDS by closing the bathhouses. He found that bathhouse patrons simply sought alternative spaces to have anonymous (often unprotected sex). One Oakland bathhouse owner reported that the weekend of the closure, business at his establishment increased 142%. Increased sexual activity in the streets of San Francisco meant increased arrests for public sex. And the YMCA was again a popular space for sex, leading to the Nov 1, 1984 signs going up at the Central YMCA reading “The Central YMCA is not a bathhouse. We will not function as one” and closed their steam room. 

Averill: Disman summarizes a convoluted and circular battle between various groups – the Health Department, Mayor’s office, Police Department, Milk Democrats, bathhouse owners, bathhouse patrons, and others. “In April 1984, the City tried to prevent the baths in San Francisco from operating as sexual spaces, and that October it tried to eliminate certain baths entirely, as sexual, commercial places.” In the end, the authorities were de facto successful. They succeeded in stopping gay men from having access to semi-private bathhouse spaces for sex. 

Elizabeth: As both a celebrated community historian and gay rights activist, Berube recommended that instead of closing the bathhouses, the city should use the baths as spaces to promote safe sex and safe sex education, that the bathhouses should be preserved as zones of safety, privacy, and peer support, and that the bathhouses were essential in the fight against AIDS. And public health officials tended to agree that education was the best preventative, but in those early years, before there was any kind of federal or concerted national effort to understand and deal with the disease and epidemic, incorrect information and iffy “education” circulated alongside the bathhouse debates. In 1984, for example, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation published a chart of risks that identified fellatio with withdrawal before ejaculation as “possibly safe” (it is not), and, according to Disman, in 1985, they “took out ads discussing the uncertain safety of French kissing.” Misinformation and panic muddled the waters. The City of San Francisco responded to this early uncertainty by attempting to desexualize the bathhouses entirely through regulations. In some ways, they succeeded. 

Averill: If you grew up at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US, then when you hear “bathhouse,” you probably think of these seething dens of iniquity where AIDS was spread by evil doers and innocents alike. And it is true that too many men contracted and passed on HIV when having unprotected sex in a gay bathhouse. In one of the early CDC analyses of the spread of the disease – from which journalist Randy Shilts incorrectly identified Gaetan Dugas as “patient zero” – bathhouses were among several key sites of transmission, as infected men went to bathhouses in New York, Los Angeles, and San Franscico and had sex with other men, knowingly or unknowingly infecting them. As Disman points out, it was Shilts’ book and the movie adaptation that shaped the American public memory of the bathhouses and the AIDS epidemic. In reality, high-risk sex was as likely to take place in private homes as in the baths.   

Inset, Bathers at San Niccolò | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: In the 19th century, public health officials had strong opinions that bathhouses could have incredibly positive impacts on a nation’s health. The Victorian Russian/Turkish bathhouse craze stretched around the world to immense popularity across Russia, the UK and North America. In some cases, their health benefits outweighed the potential moral challenges they posed, as in mid-19th century Mexico. Police and other authorities often looked the other way (or accepted bribes), and ignored what went on behind the doors of single gender bathhouses. However 1980s American public health and local government officials eventually went the way of the Mexicans,. Rather than reintegrating the banya into a nation mythos like the Russians, or ignoring the same-sex sexual activity behind locked doors as in the UK, Americans maligned the bathhouses for promoting what most Americans at the time perceived as an immoral sexual “lifestyle.” As Christopher Disman has shown, the AIDS pandemic was an excuse, rather than a reason, for the ultimate closure of those establishments. And the long term consequences have been interesting. In an effort to shut them down, city and regional authorities painted bathhouses with the taint of the AIDS panic. 

Averill: Now when we teach the basics of the gay rights movement (for those of us who do that, and history curriculum leaves a lot to be desired on that front, at the high school and college levels), the focus tends to be on the less overtly sexual spaces like bars where lgbt people gathered and forged common identities and communities. The bathhouse is more a footnote in that narrative. And certainly some of that boils down to the lack of source material to write those histories, as suggested by Matt Houlbrook, or as I’ve found in my own research. But I think it’s also an effort to desexualize the identity politics of the gay rights movement. But it seems clear to me that desexualizing the history – of Russian bathhouses, of gay community development, or anything else – strips it of its hard edges and messy truths. 


Allab Berube, “Resorts for Sex Perverts: A History of Gay Bathhouses,” My Desire for History (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 

Allan Berube, “Don’t Save Us from Our Sexuality,” My Desire for History, ed. By John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 

Teresa Breathnach, “For Health and Pleasure: The Turkish Bath in Victorian Ireland,” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no. 1 (2004) 159-175.

Ed. by Chris Bull, While the World Sleeps: Writing from the First Twenty Years of the Global AIDS Plague (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003). 

Nine Cichocki, “Continuity and Change in Turkish Bathing Culture in Istanbul: The Life Story of the Cemberlitas Hamam,” Turkish Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, (March 2005) 93-112. 

Christopher Disman, “The San Francisco Bathhouse Battles of 1984: Civil Liberties, AIDS Risk, and Shifts in Health Policy,” Journal of Homosexuality vol. 44, no. 3/4 (2003) 71-129. 

Dan Healy, “Masculine Purity and ‘Gentlemen’s Mischief’: Sexual Exchange and Prostitution between Russian Men, 1861-1941,” Slavic Review, vol. 60, no. 2 (Summer 2001) 233-265.

Konstantin Kashin and Ethan Pollock, “Public Health and Bathing in Late Imperial Russia: A Statistical Approach,” The Russian Review, vol. 72 (January 2013) 66-93. 

Victor M. Macias-Gonzalez, “The Bathhouse and Male Homosexuality in Profirian Mexico,” Masculinity and Sexuality in Modern Mexico, (University of New Mexicao, 2012).

Ethan Pollock, Without the Banya we Would Perish, (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Philip Tiemeyer, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (University of California Press, 2013).


W. M. Brown · May 24, 2020 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for sharing the history and analysis!

Teresa Breathnach · March 27, 2021 at 4:43 am

Hello – really interesting piece, thanks! I thought you might be interested that when I was doing some research in Cork city, where there were at least 2 baths I think, someone told me that the local slang term for a gay man was ‘a steamer’. I’m not sure if this was connected to the baths or not, but a possibility nonetheless!

    Averill Earls · March 27, 2021 at 8:08 am

    That’s fascinating! There’s next to nothing on 20th century Cork gay history – maybe that’s my next project. Thanks for sharing, Teresa! What was your research on in Cork?

      Teresa Breathnach · March 27, 2021 at 9:41 am

      Hope you can confirm the reference at some stage! My interest was in Barter’s Turkish baths in Ireland- long time ago now! Best regards- T

        Averill Earls · March 30, 2021 at 9:34 pm

        Oh my gosh, Teresa Breathnach! Of course! I read your article, loved it (it’s been so long, it didn’t even register). Thanks for the tip! Thanks for listening too!

          Teresa Breathnach · March 31, 2021 at 4:03 am


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