American gay bathhouses reached their peak in the 1970s. Long before smartphones and the internet, people had to step outside their front door to arrange a social or sexual encounter. As homosexuality was far more taboo in those days, the bathhouses also provided a discrete setting. You could head to the bathhouse, take off your clothes and wander around the labyrinth draped only in a towel.
You could have any number of encounters with different men, and then head back to the real world as if nothing happened. Many closeted gay men relied on bathhouses and cruising areas to get their kicks. But what purpose do gay bathhouses serve today? What were they like at their peak? And why does Europe have a much better gay bathhouse scene than America? Let’s find out.
The Continental Baths
In the early 1970s, at the height of America’s gay bathhouse scene, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow took to the stage at the Continental Baths. They regularly performed as a two-piece, Bette on vocals and Barry on piano – sometimes he’d be wearing a towel. Barry Manilow would go on to become a huge star, but he wouldn’t come out as gay until 2017. Perhaps he may have had an inkling at the Continental Baths.
Although the patrons theoretically had other things to be doing, the sheer force of two emerging stars was too good to resist. People would gather around in the towels to watch Bette and Barry’s now legendary performances.
Their careers were born in New York’s gay bathhouses. Bette Midler came to be known as “Bathhouse Betty,” a sobriquet she would wear with pride. She even made an album called “Bathhouse Betty.” It was the dawn of the gay liberation movement and gay Americans were emerging from the shadows. Bette Midler’s performances of “You’ve Got To Have Friends” at the Continental Baths represents a seminal moment in gay culture. There’s grainy black and white footage on Youtube. It was a high camp celebration; very gay, very New Yawwk and more than a little subversive.
The peak of the gay bathhouse scene
There were bathhouses in the days of the Roman Empire. As same-sex sexual activity wasn’t such a taboo in pagan times, it’s safe to assume that stuff happened. Bathhouses emerged in America towards the end of the 19th-century. They served a specific purpose: people used them to bathe. But by the mid-20th-century, America’s bathhouses were largely frequented by gay men. Inevitably, the bathhouses could be risky places to look for action when homosexuality was still criminalized.
By the 1970s, with the sexual revolution and the aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising, gay bathhouses were action-packed – so to speak! Imagine, it was just about the only place you could go to find guaranteed action. There was no swiping left while half-watching TV. You had to get your kit off and enter the bathhouse with everyone else. So many sexual and romantic encounters were mediated in that way.
When Bette Midler was still performing at the bathhouses, they were packed with gay men. It seemed like the party would go on and on. Sadly, a big disease with a little name emerged and ravaged LGBT+ America.
The decline of the bathhouses
As HIV/AIDS ripped through America’s various gay scenes, the bathhouses became targets. First of vilification and then of legal pressure. Many of the bathhouses were forced to close. In Europe, the gay bathhouses didn’t face the same legal challenges so they remained open, although in a diminished condition.
America’s gay bathhouse scene never really recovered from the crackdown in the 1980s. That’s why major European cities often have superior gay bathhouses.
There are still gay bathhouses in America of varying quality. Los Angeles’ bathhouses are still doing well today. Many bathhouses struggle financially though with rents that are high and most hookups are now arranged online. They survive, for now – for how much longer remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: the bathhouses will never reach those lofty heights when Barry and Bette provided the musical entertainment. Could you imagine Lady Gaga performing at FLEX LA? Come to think of it, you probably could. Maybe they should call her agent.