The Austin Chronicle

Bed, Bathhouse, & Beyond

Men's Health Spa Goes Unregulated, but Who Cares?

By Jenny Staff, May 1, 1998, News

Midtowne Spa is housed in this nondescript building on Airport Boulevard.

photograph by Jana Birchum

What on earth could a morality crusader and the owner of a gay bathhouse have in common? Both, it turns out, oppose a new category in the city zoning code for "adult service businesses." Add members of the Austin City Council to the mix, and you've got a united front against the regulation of the only bathhouse in town.

Clearly, the City Council's recent 6-0 vote against the zoning measure (with Councilmember Beverly Griffith off the dais) signaled its unanimous reluctance to weigh in on the bathhouse debate. The proposed zoning code amendment would have created a new, rather sterile, category of adult businesses, defined as "a business that offers sleeping rooms for rent and advertises or provides patrons with video cassette recorders, televisions, video cassettes, closed-circuit television transmissions, or other modes of photographic reproductions that are characterized by the depiction or description of specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas."

Bottom line: The Midtowne Spa bathhouse offers patrons rooms for rent and videos to view. Businesses that offer a combination of these two features, under the proposed amendment to the code, would have been required to comply with city regulations pertaining to location, AIDS education, and parking.

By summarily dismissing the issue with little discussion, did councilmembers do the matter justice? Even with the proposed ordinance out of the picture, city zoning officials are reviewing whether existing adult-oriented business regulations should apply to Midtowne. To classify Midtowne as an adult-oriented business, its supporters say, would limit its potential as a full-service fitness and recreational facility for gay men - further limiting an already sparse field. And the city's queasy liberalism makes officials reluctant to enforce laws that affect gays and lesbians. "When it's in the newspaper the next day, people won't read the fine print. It will look like a blow to the gay community," said Perry Rhodes, a former Midtowne manager who now works for AIDS Services of Austin (ASA).

At least one gay activist fears that the city's silence could have grave consequences. Following the council's vote last month, José Orta - a safe sex activist and former director of Informe-SIDA, an AIDS prevention and education organization - circulated a fax stating that the council's decision has resulted in "an unregulated, city council-sanctioned bathhouse environment [which] could jeopardize a decade of work in HIV prevention conducted by the city's own health department, AIDS prevention organizations, and others."

Others fear that, from a public policy perspective, this is the kind of inconsistent treatment under the law that the gay and lesbian community has long opposed. "We should be playing by the same rules as others do," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL). "I know these [bathhouses] are sexually oriented businesses."

But Mike Zappas, who owns the establishment in question, insists that Midtowne Spa is not a sexually oriented business. While he admits that sex takes place there, he also is quick to note, as he does often: "It's nothing that doesn't happen at every hotel." And in a way, that's the very reason why the Rev. Mark Weaver, a right-wing firebrand who is threatening a comeback after years of dormancy, believes Midtowne shouldn't be regulated - because homosexual activity shouldn't be allowed to exist in the first place. And he vows to renew his campaign to tighten regulations on all the adult-oriented businesses in Travis County (see sidebar, p.24).

As Councilmember Bill Spelman sees it, creating a whole new zoning category for a single business is unnecessary. In the absence of a proliferation of bathhouses in Austin (Dallas and Houston, with populations several times larger than Austin's, only support two bathhouses apiece), Spelman, as an elected official, is loath to get involved. "What happens between consenting adults is not the government's business," he said, though city officials have long since made it their business by regulating other types of adult businesses.

Even with these varying degrees of opinions, many people familiar with Midtowne agree that the bathhouse - part of a national chain whose mission statement is to provide a "safe, clean, and fun place" - does a fairly good job of self-regulation, even without the official classification as an adult-oriented business.

"We recognize that there is this kind of business out there that doesn't neatly fit into any other categories we have," said Stuart Hersh, deputy building official with the city's Development Review and Inspection Department. In writing the ordinance that would have applied to Midtowne, Hersh consulted other cities' adult-oriented business rules, as well as a draft of a similar ordinance that city staff started in the mid-Eighties but never completed because local bathhouses were closing in the wake of AIDS. The final product - had it been adopted - would have required businesses that provide patrons with sexually explicit materials and private "sleeping rooms" to provide safe sex education (which Midtowne already does), and to create two extra parking spaces for each "sleeping room." The spa is already in compliance with the standard prohibition against locating within 1,000 feet of a school, church, daycare center, or other adult business.

As for safe sex education, several activists applaud Midtowne for not only promoting safe sex, but also taking a lead in public health issues, far surpassing its heterosexual counterparts. ALLGO Project Director Oscar Lopez said that Midtowne has excelled by providing free condoms and periodic AIDS and safe sex information in both English and Spanish, and holding canned food drives to benefit area AIDS charities.

A city health department official also recognized the club's work on this front. "I have to applaud Midtowne's efforts to educate people in the area of safer sex," said Richard Bates, who provides HIV testing at Midtowne once a month as part of the city's gay club outreach program. "Whether sex goes on there or not, they're doing all they can to provide information to people, whereas other [establishments] are ignoring the whole issue," Bates said. The outreach program has made overtures to the management of straight bars around town, but "they aren't interested in the least, even though people meet there and go home together, too," Bates said. "It's a form of denial."

The fact that Midtowne is known for its safe-sex education policy bolsters its argument that the bathhouse of the Nineties is far and away the safest place for men to meet and engage in protected sex - without the dangers of getting beaten up or arrested at a public park or restroom.

According to Austin filmmaker Eloise McAllister, the bathhouse culture is a result of social segregation. "It's incredibly important to queer culture to stay different," she said. "Part of being separate from the culture at large means we're left alone to our own devices. One of the things that comes out of that is creativity. It's like the phenomenon of the number of fine artists that come out of Lubbock - you're bored stiff living in Lubbock, so you have to become creative."

A Hot Topic No More?

"Lots of closeted men have no idea of the risk they're putting themselves and the community in. They think that because bathhouses are allowed to operate, they're safe." -José Orta (on left), sex activist
photograph by Jana Birchum

Given the City Council's dismissal of the bathhouse issue, it's hard to believe it was just over a year ago when the matter was rife with debate. In late 1996 and early 1997, the impending opening of a bathhouse in Hispanic East Austin had Eastside leaders in a furor at a time when they were trying to change zoning laws to keep out new industrial sites and other "undesirable" businesses. So city employees went to work crafting a new category in the adult-oriented businesses code, but for whatever reason, the East Austin bathhouse opened and shut its doors within a year. Once that happened, says Hersh, the matter dropped lower on the priority scale. On Jan. 13, the city Planning Commission unanimously adopted the new category with little fanfare. Already designated a back-burner item, the proposal took three months before it landed on the City Council's agenda for final approval - only to be turned down, with only slightly more notice.

When the East Austin bathhouse closed down, Austin was left with only one establishment of its kind: Midtowne Spa, a private club that admits only men over the age of 18, and offers everything from exercise equipment to male dancers to private rooms equipped with beds, televisions, and adult films. Despite the decidedly adult tenor of its services, Midtowne has escaped having to get a certificate of occupancy (CO) to operate as an adult business. "We have told them point blank that if they are operating [as an adult business], they're in violation of the ordinance," said the city's Hersh, "but we don't have any basis to proceed at the moment."

Yet just this week, Hersh said his department is investigating a complaint that Midtowne is, in fact, operating as an adult business. Should the city find Midtowne in violation, the business would be required to apply for a CO. "This isn't anything new that we're experiencing with Midtowne," Hersh said. "We've been dealing with this location going back to 1982."

When arguing his case before the City Council, Zappas primarily took issue with the proposed parking requirements. Two additional spaces for each "sleeping room" were excessive, he said, and would require Midtowne to move to a new location - perhaps even putting the bathhouse in a more visible light. Hersh, however, notes that councilmembers could have approved the proposed ordinance without the parking requirement had they wanted to do so, or Midtowne could have requested a parking variance that likely would have been approved.

But out of sight, out of mind seems to be an apt description of the city's stance on bathhouses. ASA's Rhodes said that any issue connected to homosexuality renders everybody - policymakers and citizens alike - coy and overly cautious. Jesse Washington, the city's chief zoning inspector, agrees. "Nobody wants to step up and talk about it either way," he said. "It's very quiet in planning commission meetings when these things come up."

Orta, the safe-sex activist who is opposed to bathhouses, says the same level of denial still affects the gay community, especially at bathhouses like Midtowne. "There's a lot of unsafe sex going on there in the middle of an epidemic," he said, adding that the proliferation of closeted homosexuals at bathhouses can lead to unsafe sex. "Lots of closeted men have no idea of the risk they're putting themselves and the community in," he said. "They think because bathhouses are allowed to operate, they're safe." He said the fundraising Midtowne does for groups like ASA is done in return for the groups' looking the other way regarding their unsafe sex practices. "That's not responsibility, that's payola," Orta said. "Would a cancer organization take money from a tobacco company?"

But ASA's Rhodes says that people at Midtowne behave in the same way as the population at large: Some have safe sex, some have unsafe sex, some don't have sex. And while Midtowne's education and fundraising initiative is a good move from a political and public relations perspective, "Is that a bad thing, as long as people get educated? It's all they can do," Rhodes said. "They can't put the condoms on for them."

If Midtowne is an exemplar among adult businesses, why would Zappas want to skirt the letter of the law by opposing regulation? "To protect the customers so they can have anonymity," said Bates. Regulating the establishment could, in fact, bring unwanted exposure to Midtowne and its clientele. Hardy-Garcia agrees that the bathhouse scene is a part of the gay community's legacy, because it grew out of men's desire to have clandestine gay experiences. "The closet still affects a lot of people," she said. "It's a safe place to go be gay for a few minutes, and not have to deal with it in your regular life." In the words of Sandy Bartlett, community information coordinator for ASA, "Society at large has provided gay people damn few options, and traditionally, the bathhouse has been one of them."

Steeped in Discretion

If it is indeed anonymity that customers are after, Midtowne delivers. The boxy brown building, on Airport Boulevard just south of Highland Mall, resembles something out of a generic office park; it has no identification out front, just an address. A small sign on the building's side directs patrons to the entrance around back.

The smells wafting from the discount bakery across the street lend an aura of white-bread wholesomeness to the scene. And the bathhouse's retail-store neighbors have witnessed no troublesome behavior spilling from there into the path of mall-bound shoppers. Dedra Riedel, manager of the Butter Krust bakery Thrift Store across the street from Midtowne, says the bathhouse "isn't hurting anybody.... It's very discrete." Riedel said she and her ex-husband used to patronize the location when it was the Frog Pond, an adult business featuring hot tubs, "to get away from the kids for an hour. It was a nice establishment, but I hope they got the mildew smell out." Now, Reidel sums up the building's nondescript appearance this way: "They don't want to draw attention to themselves and be protested against."

But Midtowne may get its protestors yet. Mark Weaver's opposition to the bathhouse ordinance is just a part of his larger plan to clean up adult businesses in Austin. He said his argument to the City Council - that creating a special category would legitimize gay bathhouses, which he calls chief culprits in the spread of AIDS - was "a refusal to agree with the city's way of dealing with sexually oriented businesses. If we can't do away with sexually oriented businesses," he said, "we can at least clean them up." He said the city needs to re-examine its sexually oriented business ordinance, and focus on enforcement through inspections that at least ensure that businesses are complying with the law.

While filmmaker McAllister agrees with Councilmember Spelman that the bathhouse issue in Austin is a relatively minor one, and not deserving of the city's urgent attention, she said the council "got let off the hook" on this issue. "Sex clubs should be regulated. If not, you get into the special treatment thing, and that's ridiculous." The testimony of bathhouse opponent Weaver "gave them permission not to act, not to deal with a contentious issue." But if Weaver (who said he only learned of the latest bathhouse issue through an article in the Statesman) has his way, the council will have to deal with the issue, and others like it, in coming months. "This was just round one," Weaver vowed. "I'll be back."

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