San Francisco May Reopen Its Bathhouses After 30 Years

The city's bathhouses were shuttered by court order at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

At the height of the AIDs epidemic, in 1984, a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a restraining order that shuttered nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs.

Months later, another judge imposed new rules on how bathhouses could operate—No renting of private rooms, unless they secured a hotel license, and employees had to monitor customers’ sexual behavior.

Eventually the ruling was toughened to ban any sex at a bathhouse.

But now current mayor Ed Lee says he’s open to possibly overturning that 1984 ruling.

“The issue about bathhouses and so forth that is an item that blends entertainment along with safe sex,” Lee told the Bay Area Reporter last week.

“I have got to have experts telling me that is something they wouldn’t have a problem with. I would be open to it but I have got to have that kind of process.”

Buzz Bense, former owner of local sex club Eros, says the bathhouses were closed without due process.

“There was never legislation in City Hall. These closures happened because a judge made a decision influenced by politics and the media.”

Lee might support letting the bathhouses return, but its doubtful the Department of Public Health would budge—especially with San Francisco hoping to cut HIV infection rates 90% in five years.

And, honestly, with rents in San Francisco being what they are, we can’t imagine any club could afford to open.

Frank Melleno/ The Fairoaks Project

“Where the fuck can you buy a big building for less than a gillion dollars to open a bathhouse?” asked Bense.

The photos in this story are part of the Fairoaks Project, incorporating Frank Melleno’s photos of the Fairoaks Hotel, a San Francisco bathhouse in the late 1970s.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.