In the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic first broke, there was an immediate move to close all the bathhouses down. In San Francisco and New York, it became a big controversy within the LGBTQ+ community, activists, leaders and health officials. Soon, every bathhouse and sex club across the country were closed down except in San Diego, where then-Supervisor Susan Golding, bathhouse owners, and health officials (and yours truly, as an appointed member of the San Diego Regional Task Force on AIDS) worked out a plan to use the bathhouses as a place to educate men about HIV and AIDS.
Unlike other major cities, San Diego’s bathhouse customers were, at that time, a majority of closeted men, men on the “down low” and military men. We knew that bathhouses could be used to educate and alert these men about HIV and AIDS, especially in those early years. In fact, bathhouse owners, especially Frank Striti (Vulcan Baths) and Darl Edwards (Club San Diego), paid for the first AIDS educational materials like posters and brochures, etc.
The then-executive director of the San Diego AIDS Project, the late Dr. Hal Frank and I (as the founder and president of the San Diego County AIDS Assistance Fund), worked with Supervisor Golding and got San Diego bathhouses put under the Health Department’s watch as a safety measure. Every customer got a condom, AIDS educational material and there were posters up all over the place. For many of us, it was better to go to a bathhouse than a park or public restroom. In fact, the adult entertainment industry was responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations during those early and dark years of AIDS (1980s) that benefited our HIV and AIDS organizations when no one would help us or support our cause. Mr. Greg Vasic and his wife Alma Rose donated more than $250,000 alone to our AIDS assistance fund in our first five years. Frank Striti also made a huge difference.
San Diego bathhouses were never closed, and we’ve gone from having five different ones at one point, to now having just one left. We all know that bathhouses are not gyms or health spas and men are not playing a game of chess in their private rooms. But now a reality check: During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cases continuing to rise, is the most recent re-opening of San Diego’s one remaining bathhouse cause for concern? It certainly has earned health officials and County Supervisors communications from concerned gay men who feel that this last bathhouse should be closed down immediately. As a county commissioner, I have also been subjected to these concerns and have had conversations with the bathhouse owner who assures me they are “following all the rules and regulations.” But to be honest, some bathhouse patrons have given me a completely different story of what is going on in those “private rooms“ at night. They have also voiced their concerns to San Diego County officials. This is a very concerning issue and to be very honest, I believe the bathhouse should do the right thing and close down on their own for everyone’s health and safety. This is very different than the AIDS epidemic!
What do you think?