Back to the Baths?

Return of Bathhouses Sparks Debate

An all-male "health spa" may open at this site in the heart of East Austin.
photograph by Shelley Wood
José Orta is worried. After 15 years of plague, he fears that too many fellow gay men are slipping back into behaviors that helped lead the community into the darkness of AIDS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So when he discovered last summer that a gay bathhouse was opening in Austin, Orta knew he would have to fight it. Referring to the bathhouse -- Midtowne Spa on Airport Blvd. -- as a potential "HIV incubation factory," Orta called on the gay community to insist that management there provide safer-sex education and prevention materials to customers and allow AIDS outreach workers into the facility.

But when Orta was told last fall that a gay bathhouse might open at 500 Chicon -- in the heart of Hispanic East Austin and just around the corner from Informe-SIDA, an AIDS prevention and education organization that he directed at the time -- he began organizing opponents in an effort to keep that facility closed.

San Antonio resident John Baley and other investors in that East Austin facility, Alternative Clubs Inc. (A.C.I.), say the club will be simply a health spa where gay men can socialize in an alcohol-free and sex-free environment. But Orta and others say they don't believe Baley, and they have helped make A.C.I. the main focus of a growing controversy over bathhouses in Austin's gay and AIDS communities.

Orta says he has several concerns, including the location of A.C.I. behind a Catholic family center and near an elementary school and a residential area. But he also fears the image A.C.I. -- and gay bathhouses in general -- might give the gay community, especially in the culturally conservative Hispanic community. "Do we really want to promote the gay and lesbian community as people who want to have anonymous sex?" Orta says, pointing to stereotypes of gay men as sexually irresponsible or, worse, as sexual predators.

José Orta
photograph by John Anderson
Orta, of course, also worries that A.C.I. will be an "HIV incubation factory," and he says he knows that danger from personal experience. Orta discovered he was HIV-positive in the late 1980s, and he is convinced he was infected during a visit -- as an intoxicated and closeted gay man -- to a bathhouse. Often, he says, gay men who are struggling with their sexuality engage in anonymous sex with other men -- and often such encounters are facilitated by alcohol or drug use. Having a bathhouse to visit just makes it easier to make unwise and unsafe choices.

"It's like opening up a free-beer place next to where an AA meeting congregates," Orta says.

Strange Bedfellows

Orta has gathered considerable support in his fight against A.C.I., including from leaders in Austin's Hispanic community. Cathy Vasquez-Revilla,the publisher of La Prensa, a community weekly, and secretary of the Austin Planning Commission, says she is not surprised Orta has sought help from others in the Hispanic community -- many of whom, because of their conservative, religious views on issues such as homosexuality, are not often seen as friends of the gay community. "I think José knows... that lots of minorities are affected by AIDS," Vasquez-Revilla says. "I think he'd reach out to the devil if he needed to, to keep more people from our community from dying."

Vasquez-Revilla knows that finding opposition to a gay bathhouse in East Austin will be easy. She says East Austin residents see the potential that a gay bathhouse might open in the neighborhood as a slap in the face. "It's like the supreme insult," Vasquez-Revilla says. "It's going to be viewed as a white, outside gay business coming in to pollute in a whole other way -- in a moral way."

In fact, the controversy over A.C.I. helped persuade East Austin residents to push (successfully) the Austin City Council in December to pass a moratorium on most commercial permits in an area bounded by I-35, Airport Blvd. and Town Lake. The effort to pass the moratorium had gained momentum after a July fire at the site of Browning Ferris Inc.'s East Austin recycling plant and the opening of the Balcones Recycling Co. facility in the neighborhood angered residents frustrated by the location of potentially dangerous, and what they consider undesirable, businesses in the community. A.C.I. simply added another issue for East Austin residents to be angry about, Vasquez-Revilla says. "It's the straw that's going to break the camel's back," she says.

However, the moratorium, which is scheduled to expire in late January, will not affect A.C.I. because the facility has already received its permits to operate. And when A.C.I. opens for business (which Baley says should happen before the end of this month), Vasquez-Revilla says her worries will move beyond simply the issue of locating undesirable businesses in East Austin. Vasquez-Revilla says she also is worried that patrons of A.C.I. will become targets of gangs that already exist in the East Austin. "There are gangs over here who are killing each other, and now they'll have another target," she says.

A.C.I.'s Baley, however, insists that such concerns are unfounded because patrons of the club will be provided safe and secure parking in a fenced lot at the site. Baley also says none of A.C.I.'s neighbors have approached him with concerns about the facility. "We're just quiet, peaceful neighbors to everybody," Baley says.

Apparently, Baley hasn't met Deacon Willie Cortez, the director of Our Lady's Family Center, a Catholic lay organization next door to A.C.I. Cortez has worked with Orta to organize opposition to A.C.I. by bringing dozens of community residents to Austin Planning Commission and community meetings on the subject. Cortez says he worries how he will keep curious children from the family center away from A.C.I.'s property, and he is concerned that negative stereotypes about gay men visiting the club will scare off patrons and employees of the family center.

Cortez also says he is quite comfortable working with Orta, an openly gay man he calls a friend. "I don't agree with everything [Orta] believes, and he doesn't always agree with everything I believe," Cortez says. "But I believe we have enough in common to be able to work back and forth with each other."

A Steamy History

Orta's concerns about A.C.I. are fueled in part by the history of gay baths. Gay bathhouses were particularly popular in large cities in the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when a night at the baths was in some ways a political statement -- an almost total rejection of societal taboos that gay men found oppressive. In a society where gay men were arrested and beaten because of their sexual orientation, a man could rent a locker or cubicle in a bathhouse for a few bucks, then wrap himself in a towel and scout out the halls for prospective sex partners.

Then came AIDS. Bathhouses did not cause AIDS, but the availability of multiple sex partners at the baths surely facilitated the spread of the virus. As it became apparent that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, could be spread through unprotected sex, officials around the country targeted bathhouses and other sex clubs for closure. In 1985 in Boston, for example, police wielding sledgehammers raided and tore down a gay after-hours sex club. The San Francisco health department, in the midst of heated debate within the gay community, closed that city's 14 bathhouses in 1984.

In Austin, the last bathhouse closed around 1985 after fear of AIDS kept many men -- and their money -- away, says Jim Thurman, who moved to Austin from San Francisco in 1983 and who today publishes Positive Threads, an Austin-based monthly newsletter for people with AIDS. "What happened here is that nobody went [to the baths] because they didn't want to get [AIDS]," says Thurman, who has joined Orta in opposing bathhouses in Austin. "It wasn't the pressure that shut them down here. It was the lack of business."

But today, more than a decade later, AIDS educators fear that a new generation of young gay men sees AIDS as a distant threat. And perhaps the long years of living with the plague have beaten back the fear and worn down the resolve that once pushed bathhouses onto the back roads of the gay community. For whatever reason, the baths are back.

Some bathhouses actually have survived the plague. Bathhouses in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, for example, have operated throughout the years of the AIDS epidemic. In fact, Baley also is an investor in an A.C.I. facility in San Antonio. (It's worth noting that Midtowne Spa's location on Airport once housed the Frog Pond, where straight men could rent hot tubs and entertain lady friends. In addition, several other Austin businesses currently are basically commercial sex establishments for straight men and women.)

Don't Close: Educate

Orta's and Thurman's opposition to the baths has been met by criticism from bathhouse owners and from other members of the city's gay and AIDS communities. One of the owners of Midtowne, Mike Zappas, argues that the key to fighting the spread of AIDS is personal responsibility, not closing bathhouses. He also points out that "there is nothing that takes place at Midtowne that doesn't take place in every hotel."

A.C.I.'s Baley, on the other hand, refuses to call his facility a bathhouse, and he has repeatedly said that his club's management will not permit sexual activity at the site. But Orta says a man identifying himself as an A.C.I. investor called the Austin Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (ALLGO), the parent organization for Informe-SIDA, last fall and asked what could be done to keep ALLGO from opposing the opening of A.C.I. as a bathhouse. And the same individual, Wayde Frey, an employee of Huston-Tillotson College (which is located near A.C.I.), told The Texas Triangle, a gay weekly published in Austin, that investors would not publicly call A.C.I. a bathhouse because "that's the way it's done in Texas. It's a matter of survival," he said.

In any case, Baley says an important issue in the whole debate is who makes decisions about personal behavior and which businesses people may patronize. "It's not right for an individual standing off to the side [to be] making decisions for other people," Baley says. "Maybe adult American citizens can decide for themselves."

Other Orta opponents in the gay community have been more blunt in their criticism, Orta says. "I've had people give me the finger," he says. "I've had people call me names: `sex nazi,' `faggot hater,' `old queen that can't get anything at the bathhouse and that's why I want to shut it down'."

And Orta has some critics in the AIDS community who, far more respectfully than some of his opponents, say that the proper debate should be over how to educate people about how to avoid HIV infection, not whether to tell people where they can and cannot have sex. Oscar Lopez, a public health program specialist for the Austin Health Department who collaborates with AIDS organizations that specialize in working with men who have sex with men, says he thinks AIDS educators need to focus on getting people to modify their behavior and to follow safer-sex practices. "Our mission is not to be deciding where they are having sex," Lopez says. "That's none of our business."

Oscar Lopez
photograph by Shelley Wood
The owners of Midtowne Spa agree, and they have worked with outreach workers to set up AIDS education and prevention programs at the bathhouse, Lopez says. Indeed, doing so is more than just responsible, it's good business, says Bill Zappas, Mike Zappas' father and a co-owner of the Midtowne chain, which includes clubs in Dallas, Houston, and California. "It pays for us for our customers to stay alive -- to be safe and remain healthy," Bill Zappas says. (A.C.I. has not developed similar programs for outreach workers because the owners insist it is not a bathhouse, Lopez says.)

Lopez also says that bathhouses may actually help AIDS education and prevention programs reach some men who might never have been exposed to such programs. Bathhouses, he says, provide men who don't self-identify as gay -- men who might otherwise live strictly heterosexual lives but who are sexually attracted to other men -- a safe location to explore sex with other men without risking arrest or physical safety at public parks or in adult bookstores and other sexually oriented businesses. "It's a whole new opportunity for us to work with men who we haven't been able to get to at our other venues," Lopez says.

Government Wades In

The bathhouse debate also has captured the attention of government officials, including state Rep. Glen Maxey, the state's only openly gay legislator, whose district includes the neighborhood surrounding A.C.I. In November, Maxey joined other A.C.I. opponents in demanding that city officials address the issue of bathhouses. At a November 26 Austin Planning Commission meeting, Maxey charged that A.C.I.'s investors had fraudulently applied for a permit to operate the club as a health spa while intending to operate it as a bathhouse.

"This is a sex club," Maxey bluntly told commissioners. "This is a place where people meet to have sex."

Maxey since has clarified his position, however, saying that he does not oppose bathhouses in general. The issue facing Austin, he says, is how bathhouses are to be regulated to protect their patrons and to keep them out of neighborhoods where they are not compatible with existing development. "I have not taken and do not take absolute opposition to well-regulated, well-organized health clubs that may even have sexual activity inside," Maxey says.

But city officials have expressed confusion in deciding how to define bathhouses, much less how to regulate them. In fact, city officials say that Austin's ordinance covering sexually oriented businesses does not even mention bathhouses because such businesses did not exist here when the ordinance was written in the late 1980s. City officials also say that currently there is not much they can do unless Austin police document sexual activity at A.C.I. or Midtowne Spa. Such activity would violate the businesses' permits to operate as "health clubs" and could lead to their closure.

In the meantime, city officials are scrambling to draft a new ordinance that addresses and defines bathhouses. City planning commissioners are awaiting staff recommendations on such an ordinance, and Trey Salinas, council aide for Mayor Bruce Todd, has said that the City Council might have to move quickly to address the issue.

Regardless of when A.C.I. opens or how fast the city passes bathhouse regulations, opponents of the facility say they will keep up the fight. That fight might include vigils and pickets when the facility opens, they say. Meanwhile, Orta has been left wondering whether the battle over bathhouses has been worth it for him personally. Declining health and the stress caused by the controversy helped persuade him to leave his position at Informe-SIDA last fall, he says.

Nevertheless, Orta says, he would still take on the issue if he had to do all it over again. "Once I tested positive, one of my jobs was to stem the spread of HIV," he says. "And I took the only stand that I could live with."

Dan Quinn is managing editor of The Texas Triangle.

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