The Shoulders I Stand Upon
By BigMike Phillips
How do I begin this article … hmmm, well as always, I am going to be honest and not ashamed, or will I be shamed because of how I have enjoyed my sex experiences over the last 48 years of my life.
You see, I am a gay man who loves to have sex with other gay men, and a lot of that sex was in bathhouses as I was growing up in the newfound gay world that I was exploring. Every single time I would visit another city, state, or country, the one place I always made a point to visit was the local gay bathhouse.
I Googled “gay bathhouse” for this column and it says: “… bathhouses offered a place where men could engage in anonymous sex, but they were much more than that. Some of the bathhouses offered a fully-equipped gym for working out, swimming pools, steam rooms, saunas; some offered living room-like settings; some offered sodas and snacks while they spent time together or just hung out.”
As I was coming out as a gay man in 1975, a friend first introduced me to this place called “a bathhouse” and I was literally a kid in a candy store. I felt I had gone to heaven and could not believe such a place even existed. Even then, I never allowed anyone to make me feel bad about going to a bathhouse. Because for some reason, people have judged bathhouses as a bad place to go for sex, but I have always felt them to be a safer and cleaner place to go.
Gay men will have sex almost anywhere; the parks, in night clubs, public bathrooms, their cars, you name it, they would be there having sex. So, to me, the bathhouse provided a safe place to have sex, offered a place to shower, provided condoms, and even a room for privacy if I chose to. Most of all, they provided education on sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), such as syphilis and gonorrhea, let us know the signs, where to go to get treated, and to make sure to report your sexual partner’s names (if you knew them), so they too could be notified.
All bathhouses have rules and regulations given to them by their local County Health Departments and they must abide by the laws, or they would and will be shut down. To keep from having their clubs closed, anyone who did not abide by the rules would be 86’d (meaning you were put on a list never to be allowed back in). All who enter must show a legal photo ID, be 18 or older, and sign a release that states they understand and will follow the rules and will let their guests know that they are entering a private, all men’s establishment that has nudity and men having sex with other men. This also gave the bathhouses a record of everyone who entered, as well as the date they were there.
If anyone reported to the Health Department that they may have caught a STD and mentioned they had been at the bathhouse, the Health Department would then notify the bathhouse and give them a list of names. Then the bathhouse could notify their guests very discreetly and ask them to report to the health clinic. I remember a couple of times in the 1970s and early ’80s getting notified and going to the clinic to find out I had caught an STD and then getting one of those penicillin shots in my ass. Boy those shots really hurt, though I did appreciate getting those notices.
The very first time I came to San Diego, I was so excited to finally come to the land where I believed had the best-looking men anywhere. Come to find out, there are gorgeous men everywhere you go. I had my friend Joe, who had a summer home in Mission Hills, just drop me off at the “tubs” (that’s what I have called the bathhouses from the very first time I ever went) straight from the airport. It just so happens it was Club San Diego and I had the time of my life. It’s funny now when I think back about how much I loved going to the baths, because I have only visited a few of the bathhouses that ever existed in San Diego in all the years I have lived here.
The bathhouses in San Diego have been around since the WWII era, starting as far back as the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Being that San Diego was such a huge military town, many military men were looking for places to have discreet sex, not necessarily gay sex. I could not find any factual dates, but it did mention the Seven Seas Locker Club and the YMCA downtown.
Over the years, many more gay baths started opening in the early 1970s, such as Atlas, Dave’s on the Beach, Gent’s Turkish baths, Glen’s, Plaza Baths at Fourth and E, Club Mustang, and Club San Diego. Many of these bathhouses were listed in the Damron Travel Guide (for gays and lesbians) and the International Guild Guide, which help gays find amenities all over the country and the world.
Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO)’s May/June 2022 newsletter identified the building that housed the Vulcan Steam Room and Sauna, as potentially historical. Built in 1961 and previously located at 805 W. Cedar St. in Little Italy, “It provided a private and safe space for gay men to socialize when physical and romantic relationships between men were stigmatized and illegal, until the law changed in 1976 … this bathhouse is a special element of the city’s historical, cultural, and social development for serving as a gathering space for gay men and as an informational and support center during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” It also mentions Frank Stiriti, the owner and founder of the Vulcan. “Stiriti was an advocate and educator for the LGBTQ+ community, co-founder of the Gay [sic] San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) and recognized on The Center’s Wall of Honor in 2008, in addition to other leadership roles.”
None of these bathhouses exist today, except for Club San Diego, which opened in 1986. It was the early 1990s when I first met Darl Edwards, the owner of Club San Diego baths, because of his generosity to our community, especially during the AIDS crisis. As a bathhouse owner, he and Frank Stiriti were huge angels in our community with their donations to so many HIV/AIDS organizations. Darl was also the founder of the Imperial Court de San Diego, and he made sure that the court found ways to raise money and committed his life to supporting so many HIV/AIDS organizations.
Club San Diego, along with the Vulcan, made it a point to educate patrons, encouraging safe sex and having safe-sex materials and posters throughout their bath houses, a practice that still exists today. Once a month, Family Health Center, an HIV/AIDS organization, would come to the club and do free, anonymous HIV/AIDS testing, and Impulse San Diego provided free condoms to help ensure safe-sex practices. Just so you know, the Health Department still comes every six months to inspect the facilities.
By the 1990s, many bathhouses around the country closed because of the pressure of the LGBT community (and especially their greater surrounding communities), over fears that they were spreading AIDS even more. Darl believed if he closed the club, then gay men would be even more careless and not have opportunities to clean themselves, be provided with condoms, or have any helpful materials. Darl never did close his doors and chose to stay open, and he was a big help in so many ways with promoting safe sex and education. Without a doubt Darl knew he had a responsibility and always supported our community, especially financially, until his death in 2010.
Richard “Omar” Lowry, who owned #1 Fifth Avenue at the time, took over running the Club for several months before Darl died, then became the official owner. Omar was a beloved and highly respected businessman and member of our community. Like Darl, he too was a big supporter financially for so many causes. At some point Omar became sick, and Marc Birou and his husband Jerry Lyon began running Club San Diego, and after Omar’s death in May 2020, Marc and Jerry took over the club as the new owners. Right before Omar passed away, the club had a fire, in May of 2019. After an extensive remodel, they were able to reopen the club in October 2019. Then COVID happened, causing Marc and Jerry to once again close in March of 2020. They were finally able to reopen in February 2021. The club has never stopped doing all the things needed to keep the place sanitary. Marc even put in a UV air purifier on the A/C units to sanitize the air. They are constantly having improvements added and will continue to make sure that those who enter feel good, are safe, informed, and have a great time. I believe that Club San Diego is one of the more beautiful clubs in the entire U.S. Don’t just believe me, check it for yourself.
André Bowers, the current general manager, told me he is proud of what the club has become. He also shared this with me: “Club San Diego is a self-care sanctuary where generations unite, welcoming all to explore, embrace, and evolve within a diverse and inclusive community. Unwind, connect, and celebrate in our state-of-the-art amenities, making each visit an unforgettable journey of relaxation and self-discovery …”
Club San Diego is located at 3955 Fourth Ave, in Hillcrest. For more information, check out their website clubsandiego.com.
A special thanks to Dana Wiegand, the archivist at Lambda Archives, and Chuck Kaminski, Lambda Archives board member emeritus and administrator of the Facebook page: San Diego LGBTQ Historic Sites Project, for all their help with information about the past bathhouses.
These are the shoulders I stand upon.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].
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