On 9th October 1984, San Francisco’s Director of Public Health, Mervyn Silverman, ordered the closure of fourteen bathhouses in the city. Within six hours of him issuing the order two had already re-opened. A further ten had re-opened within 24 hours.
Clearly the defiance of the closure orders highlights just what a contentious issue it was. Indeed, the events that led up to and followed the issuing of the order illustrate very clearly what happens when mainstream politics, gay ‘community’ politics and the emerging AIDS crisis collide; something that was far from unique to San Francisco.
It also illustrates not only the extent of disagreement amongst gay people on how to manage the emerging AIDS crisis but also the intensity of that disagreement; fuelled, undoubtedly, by the fact that AIDS appeared at that stage to be invariably fatal. For example, for every gay activist arguing that the closure was essential to save the lives of gay men there was at least one other arguing that it was counter-productive, both in terms of halting the spread of the disease and in terms of protecting gay rights. Both factions felt their position was based on defending the best interests of gay community; such was the nature of the emotional and political turmoil generated by the AIDS crisis.
At the same time, within the ‘mainstream’ political arena there were claims that failure to close the bathhouses represented an irresponsible pandering to the demands of the gay community. On the other hand, others questioned the evidence to support such a strategy and argued that closure was nothing more than a manifestation of homophobia: a political expedient to appease the heterosexual majority with an ill-informed ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. The fact that Silverman himself had appeared to be strongly opposed to the closures only a matter of weeks before his decree merely fuelled this latter view.
In May 1983 longtime gay activist Larry Littlejohn had written to him asking him to close the bathhouses. Silverman had responded by saying it would be “inappropriate and, in fact, illegal for me to close down all bathhouses and other such places.” *
When Littlejohn had written to him again in September Silverman had again declined, on this occasion arguing that bathhouse patrons might “immediately switch to other locations where we would have less access to post warnings and provide some education.” *
This was a view that was shared by AIDS education organisations such as the AIDS Foundation of San Francisco. And, indeed, there is some evidence that a number of bathhouses were undertaking education measures on their own initiatives. When I visited San Francisco in June 1983, for example, I remember seeing ads such as the one below, from the Sutro bathhouse, in the gay press.
Nonetheless, not everyone was convinced. Bill Kraus, president of the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club, argued that “it would be increasingly difficult to tell straight politicians that there is a terrible crisis if we don’t act like there is a crisis ourselves.” * According to Randy Shilts, in his book And The Band Played On, Kraus’ advocacy of bathhouse closures earned him the title of “sexual Nazi”.
And then, in March 1984, Larry Littlejohn announced that he would be starting a petition to add a new ballot initiative to the elections in November of that year. The initiative would seek to prohibit “sexual activities among patrons of public bathhouses”.
To other gay activists and AIDS activists this was an extraordinarily dangerous initiative; seeking a public vote on a complex and emotive issue that very few people knew a lot about. There was little doubt that Littlejohn would achieve the 100,000 signatures necessary to put the measure on the ballot paper. In the minds of many activists there would be many evangelical and New Right organisations queuing up to support the initiative. And once they got it passed it would act as the thin end of the wedge for further homophobic initiatives; not just in California but across the US.
Whether it was the threat of Littlejohn’s petition or, as some have speculated, pressure from San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Silverman suddenly seemed to shift his view. On the 9th April he announced that “all sexual activity between individuals is to be eliminated in public bath facilities in San Francisco where the transmission of AIDS is likely to occur” *. He included in this bathhouses, the backrooms of certain bookstores and sex clubs.
This measure seemed to persuade Littlejohn to drop his petition but it didn’t seem to appease Mayor Feinstein. She sent two plainclothes police officers into bathhouses to investigate and write a report of their findings. Despite the fact that the report was never released, much was made of how shocked the investigators were by what they saw.
Bathhouse owners clearly saw the writing on the wall and in September took a couple of initiatives to address the increased pressure. Their first move was to form the Adult Entertainment Association and commit to a number of measures aimed at reducing high-risk sex on their premises. These included boarding up glory holes, closing orgy rooms and distributing condoms.
Then they announced an agreement with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation on further measures for AIDS prevention and education.
But it all proved to be too little, too late. On 9th October Silverman made his announcement. And the battle really began.
* Christopher Disman, The San Francisco Bathhouse Battles of 1984: Civil Liberties, AIDS Risk, and Shifts in Health Policy in Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy. William J Woods and Diane Binson eds, 2003