In gay bathhouses, saunas, membership-only gyms and clubs, there is plenty of stigma to go around. It’s one of those “I would never go to one of those places” until you enter a steam room and bump into someone you know. Still, you won’t talk about it, at least publicly. There’s stigma with AIDS. And there’s also stigma with bathhouses. What we really are talking about is stigma and sex.
This week, D.C. Allen, the owner of Crew Club, a gay private membership gym and club in Washington, D.C., once again acted beyond the call of duty: He donated $25,000 to the DC Center for the LGBT Community to help defray the cost of renovating the Center’s new space at the Reeves Center on 14th Street.
We can only hope that other members of the D.C. community follow Allen’s lead and match his generous contribution. (Full disclosure: I serve on the relocation committee for the DC Center and know the challenges of finding a permanent space for the community, not to mention funding.)
Through the Crew Club, Allen has supported several safe-sex campaigns and helped make available health-related information. In fact, most gay membership-only gyms and clubs conduct free HIV testing on-site for both members and non-members.
If there’s an outbreak of syphilis in the city, after the D.C. Department of Health alerts the Centers for Disease Control, the staff contacts D.C. Allen because of his record of alerting the gay community right away to help prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) epidemics.
In last week’s column, I wrote that every gay-dating website and app should include a “health alert,” with “health” as one of the most prominent navigation buttons. The Crew Club already has “health” on its homepage.
A year ago, the Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce honored D.C. Allen with its Business Leadership Award. Allen also helped create the Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
In 2005, Allen was honored by the Greater Washington, D.C., STD Community Coalition for making a significant difference in getting the word out about a syphilis outbreak to gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men. When the director of the D.C. Department of Health presented the award, he pointed out Allen had stepped up to the plate by putting his money where his mouth is.
Allen refuses to place a stigma on sex. You also get the feeling he wants every customer to enjoy a great experience, leaving happier than when he arrived. If you ever walk past the Crew Club, you will see a lot of happy faces.
A little history of bathhouses: For a few thousand years, they definitely had a stronghold in the community. There are gay bathhouses and there are straight bathhouses. There are Russian bathhouses and you’d find them lining New York’s beaches. There are gay bathhouses in numerous countries. China has them, including in its capital of Beijing. In some countries, bathhouses serve alcohol and have full restaurants.
The first raid on a bathhouse happened in 1903, when New York Police raided the Aniston Hotel Baths and arrested 26 men. Twelve were tried for sodomy and seven given prison terms of four to 20 years.
In the 1970s, “The Divine Miss M,” singer Bette Midler, and songwriter and pianist Barry Manilow launched their careers at the world-famous Continental Baths, also in New York City. There, Midler earned her nickname “Bathhouse Betty.” In 1980, the Saint Mark’s Baths used its premises for voter registration, in concert with the League of Women Voters.
Yet today bathhouses still are stigmatized. Why does sex still carry a stigma? (I will know I have made my point if someone contacts me and says, “I really wish you would have used the term “health club” instead of “bathhouse.”
Quite frankly, before AIDS, going to a bathhouse was not only considered socially acceptable, but encouraged as a gathering place. A bathhouse offered a place where it is safe to be gay. The movement to secure civil rights for gays got help from meetings in bathhouses. Bathhouses have transformed many young gay lives by banishing shame and offering them an accepting community. I am no exception.
Bathhouses are the most honest and real way to meet men if your intentions are straightforward. It’s either in or out, yes or no. There is no in between. You can’t get more real than that.
D.C. Allen stands as a shining example of how one person can truly change lives.