Bathhouses are perceived in wildly different ways within the gay community. Some see them as laidback, sex-positive environments in which to relax, cruise a bit, take a steam, or even take a swim (in some of the larger ones). For some it’s a convenient way to meet certain needs quickly and easily; for others it’s a social environment. Others perceive bathhouses to be uncomfortable places where creepers wander the halls staring down guys who aren’t interested.
But most gay men don’t know about the long secret history of gay bathhouses and the role they have played in our overall history. Maybe you know about the bathhouse closings in the ’80s in cities like San Francisco and New York that were part of those cities’ efforts to combat AIDS. Maybe you know a little further back into the ’70s when bathhouses became known for their entertainment in addition to their cruising – where, believe or not, Bette Midler got her start.
But not many people know much before that. The fact is that gay bathhouses have been around for more than a century, dating to at least the 1890s.
Bathhouses were established by several groups during that time. Turkish baths have been part of that culture for centuries. Jewish groups created bathhouses for religious purposes. Other bathhouses were built by charitable organizations to help the poor. Many New Yorkers at the time did not have bathrooms in their tenement housing, so public baths were built as a way to promote hygiene.
I think we’re all aware that once you got a bunch of men naked around each other some shenanigans are bound to happen sooner rather than later. Very quickly some bathhouses became known as more permissive of sexual behavior than others. Most behavior still needed to be somewhat covert for awhile, though.
But already by the first few years of the twentieth century exclusively-gay bathhouses began to sprout up. The first bathhouse police raid in New York City happened in 1903 (!), when no fewer than 78 men (!!) were found in the Ariston, a known rendezvous point. Sounds like a hell of a party. 26 of those found in the baths were prosecuted. The rest were publicly shamed as they left, as the neighborhood had become aware of what was happening and gathered around.
Interestingly, the layout of the baths raided in 1903 (and those of a typical Turkish bath) will look very familiar to a modern bathhouse patron: individual changing rooms along long hallways, a room with lockers in it, “hot room” like a dry sauna, a sauna, a “cooling room” with cots, and a “tank”, presumably a small pool like a hot tub.
Bathhouses have been around ever since. Police went through phases of raiding for awhile and then not giving a shit for awhile, but the baths were never completely snuffed out – until, in some places, the AIDS crisis. New York’s and San Francisco’s bath cultures never recovered, but other cities have carried the torch from there.
For decades, as LGBT people had to live in the shadows and hide from the dominant culture, gay men had few outlets. Bathhouses provided a place of relative security (except for the occasional raid) and a place to find others like them, whether for a quickie or a long-term relationship.
Some of this article, including the Ariston sketch, draw from Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 by George Chauncey.