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San Francisco may let gay bathhouses open again for first time since the 1980s

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Three men in a pool.

San Francisco may allow gay bathhouses to re-open by July, ending rules introduced at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

The city’s gay saunas closed their shutters when San Fran put in new rules in 1984. They insisted owners tore down individual cubicles and video rooms so people couldn’t have unsafe sex in private.

Amid a mounting AIDS crisis, the city and county even sued bathhouse owners calling them a ‘public health nuisance’.

Now gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who covers the historic LGBT+ Castro area, thinks it’s time for a change.

He has introduced legislation that would pave the way for gay bathhouses to re-open.

His plan jettisons rules against having locked doors for private rooms which sauna patrons use. And it also scraps the city’s demand that venues hire people to ensure nobody has unsafe sex on the premises.

In the PrEP era, the rules don’t make sense

Mandelman told the Bay Area Reporter: ‘I think it is about putting a bookend on a pretty terrible chapter in the history of the queer community in San Francisco.

‘The restrictions went into place in 1984 as gay men were dying. And the public health community was desperate to find ways to slow the spread of the epidemic.

‘And I think since that time many folks in the queer community, many people who were around then, felt something had been lost and lamented that now in the era of PrEP these restrictions no longer make great sense.’

PrEP is a drug that massively reduces the risk of contracting HIV. Gay and bi men have been quick to adopt it, and the numbers of new HIV infections have fallen sharply in many cities.

Meanwhile scientists now know that people on effective HIV treatment see the virus go to ‘undetectable’ levels. At that point, they can no longer pass on HIV, even through condomless sex.

San Francisco is one of the major beneficiaries of these new approaches to fighting the virus. Last year the city announced the number of new HIV diagnoses had fallen below 200 for the first time in 2018.

Moreover, the evidence shows monitoring sex in bathhouses has ‘little to no effect’ in preventing HIV.

Free condoms and lube

Mandelman is not alone in supporting the change. District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney represents the South of Market neighborhood where most of the gay bathhouses operated.

He has called on the city to ‘revisit some of the more arcane and reactionary policies that were adopted at the height of the panic of the HIV/AIDS crisis’. He thinks they could prevent San Francisco from continuing to reduce HIV numbers.

Haney will be co-sponsoring Mandelman’s legislation.

Their new proposal would see bathhouses having to provide free condoms, lubricant and other safe sex supplies. They should also provide information about safer sex, HIV and other STIs. However, all this is pretty standard in gay saunas around the world.

Who will open a bathhouse?

Many in the city have welcomed the news, including one of its most famous gay activists. Cleve Jones tested positive for HIV in 1985, a year after most of the saunas closed.

He said: ‘I just think it is time. We have already learned that the regulations don’t result in a reduction of transmissions.’

While the city doesn’t have gay saunas at present, it does have gay sex clubs. These include Eros and Blow Buddies. At present, they don’t have private rooms that patrons can lock. That may change if the new rules come into force.

However, so far Bay Area Reporter says it can’t identify anyone yet planning to open a gay sauna in San Francisco.

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Author: Tris Reid-Smith

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