Credit: Brittany Sowacke

On the bitterly cold night of New Year’s Eve, heat emanated off the parquet dance floor at Man’s Country. Dozens of nearly nude men, most wearing little more than jockstraps or leather harnesses, plus shoes, bounced to a throbbing disco beat. There were chests fuzzy and hairless, firm and flabby. Bearish beards, porno-ready moustaches, and boyishly smooth faces. They drank and chatted, embraced, and kissed while they moved in a steamy mass to the music. Women and gender-nonbinary people—welcomed only in the last six weeks of the Uptown gay bathhouse’s existence—dotted the room. Against the stage, two muscular guys engaged in aggressive anal sex, but no one seemed to bat a lash.

The debauchery continued until late in the morning on New Year’s Day. The 13-hour Loose Ends party that closed out 2017 also marked the end of an era of Chicago’s LGBTQ history: the last hurrah of Man’s Country after 44 years in business. For gays of a certain age, it was a pioneering place not just for unbridled sexual exploration but for building community. For younger gays it was almost unknown. The property on which the bathhouse sits is being sold and the three-floor building cleared to make way for a condo development.

“When I first became a member in the late 70s, you could check in here and no one would keep track. I know I was in here for four or five days at a time,” said Robert Harvey, who would later serve drinks at the Chicago Eagle, a defunct leather bar that once operated in the same building as Man’s Country. “I would come here at the end of every shift just to hang out. We would get a room and bring a six-pack over, sit around and shoot the shit for a couple of hours, smoke a joint, maybe get laid—sometimes, it depended on your mood—then just go on home. It was definitely a space . . . for as much the social things as the sexual things.”

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

Opened in 1973, Man’s Country was the dream of Chuck Renslow, the entrepreneur and gay rights figure who died last June at age 87. Renslow founded the annual International Mr. Leather contest and the Leather Archives & Museum in Rogers Park. While the AIDS epidemic prompted other U.S. cities to close gay bathhouses in the 80s, Man’s Country persisted. In 1987, Renslow and his partner of three decades, Ron Ehemann, opened the nightclub Bistro Too in another section of the building. That club played host to big-name performers such as the Village People and Divine, as well as a variety of cabaret acts: dancers, comedians, magicians, hypnotists, even drag-queen wrestling. It was closed in the 90s, around the time that Man’s Country became an Internet pornography pioneer, posting videos of strippers’ performances to the Web.

Harvey, now a bookseller, was brought back to work the front desk in the weeks before the closing. He says he sensed that the end was nigh for Man’s Country around 2010, when there stopped being a waiting list for private rooms on weekend nights. While Steamworks in Boystown offers more modern facilities and the promise of a younger clientele, Man’s Country in the age of gay hookup apps had become increasingly niche: older, blue-collar, more men of color.

As city and county property taxes and insurance costs increased, amenities at Man’s Country waned and upkeep was postponed—the hot tub broke and was never fixed; a sundeck on the roof closed decades ago. Profit margins narrowed until the business began operating at a loss, said Ehemann, who inherited full responsibility for the bathhouse.

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

To commemorate Man’s Country’s closing, Ehemann decided to host two parties at the bathhouse, one in mid-November and the final one on New Year’s Eve. He partnered with DJ Harry Cross, 39, cofounder of the seven-year-old Men’s Room party series that’s known as much for creating a sexually liberated environment as for the intense house music played—an atmosphere intentionally distinct from the weekend scene at the tamer bars of Boystown, where one is wont to encounter a group of straight women celebrating a bachelorette party.

As orchestrated by Cross and Ehemann, Man’s Country’s last hours were strange and spirited. Ehemann had the air of someone overseeing a boisterous wake. An affable, handsome man in his late 50s with close-cropped gray hair and earrings, his melancholy was curbed by the sheer amount of work to be done as hundreds of partygoers filled the dim, labyrinthine corridors of the building, from the dance floor to the steam room and the 80 small private rooms in between, some outfitted with BDSM equipment, others with TVs looping porn films. “It’s felt like a wake since Chuck died six months ago, and it’s going to be like this again five months from now during [International Mr. Leather],” Ehemann said before informing a customer that his thermos would have to be confiscated (Ehemann suspected it was filled with the club drug GHB).

As DJ L.A. Olympics played global club jams, two attractive young men peacocked together onstage, making out and at one point simultaneously smelling each other’s armpits. The air reeked of sweat, cigarettes, and “poppers”—alkyl nitrites huffed for a short-term high and preferred by gay men looking to have anal sex because the drug relaxes involuntary muscles. In the functioning steam room in the basement “wet area,” one guy was on all fours, fellating one man after another while his dominant partner looked on. The men spat in the submissive’s face after climaxing, and he’d dutifully answer, “Thank you, sir.”

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

“This is superfun. I haven’t been to Man’s Country in around nine years, and the fact that they’re having one last hurrah and trying to invoke what Man’s Country was in the 70s is amazing,” said David Sanabria, standing in the locker room. “If it was like this every weekend, it wouldn’t be closing. We need more places that promote community and gay men being friends, where people could just go talk and flirt and be cool with each other, not like clubs in Boystown where people are just, like, superbitchy to each other all the time.”

“I’ve had many, many messy nights here,” said Les Greicar. “It’s a part of Chicago history. I just wanted to experience it for the last time.”

The music was extremely loud and never let up, like an engine running full throttle. Some attendees danced the whole night away. Some men had sex—on the dance floor, in the public play area on the first floor, in the bathroom. Others watched. Some of the action looked disturbingly rote, some utterly joyous.

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

Around 4 AM, a skinny blond man in his early 20s who said he was visiting from out of state remarked “I’ve taken seven loads” in a low, blank voice and announced that he was going home.

“It’s fun. It’s like fucking for sport,” said another man, who was sitting outside the steam room, punctuating the sentence by pinching my nipple. “A lot of smaller cities are much more uptight. It’s liberating. A lot of us grow up not being able to experience sex like other adolescents do, and I think that this is a response to a lot of that.”

Older regulars in towels mainly observed from the sidelines or were in private rooms lying on their stomachs naked in hopes of attracting a top.

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

“I guess it’s maybe not for me,” said a shirtless man in his mid-20s who was at Man’s Country for the first time. “I’m glad that it’s here for some people, but I don’t feel connected to this community. I guess I’m just outside this target demographic.”

“It’s a lot of white men,” said Gervais Marsh, originally from Kingston, Jamaica, and a graduate student in performance studies at Northwestern University. “It’s excessive, a little bit aggressive, and taking up a lot of space. But I’m here with good people, so I feel centered even with all of that.”

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

After Ehemann polled the membership of Man’s Country about whether to open the private men’s club to other genders, women and nonbinary people were welcome in the bathhouse beginning with the Loose Ends party in November. They showed up and actively participated in what was previously a zone of pure testosterone. During the New Year’s party, for instance, in the bench-lined room where classic porn had once screened, a woman was on her knees pleasuring the woman seated in front of her. Teri Zeinz attended with her bisexual husband, Balthasaar. “I’m always a little jealous about men’s-only environments—not that they don’t deserve it, but I’d like to observe. I want to see how this space evolved outside of heterosexuality,” Teri said. “I just feel like gay male culture is so different than the others. I’m interested in being myself and being fabulous in a space that is not primarily interested in me.”

Drag acts served as interludes between DJ sets at the Loose Ends parties. At 3 AM on New Year’s Day, drag queen Abhijeet lip-synced “Fuck Machine” by Mindless Self Indulgence while wearing a flat-screen TV monitor that played a video collage of transgender pornography. It was a nod to the inclusion of all genders at Man’s Country, if only during its final months.

Will Wilhelm, a gender-nonconforming actor who performed in Steppenwolf’s Straight White Men last year, questioned the necessity for a place like Man’s Country in a world in which societal attitudes toward homosexuality are far more accepting than in the gay bathhouse’s heyday. “Thinking about the performance opportunities and community place, I don’t know if the need is there in the same way that it has been in recent decades,” the actor said, “but I think there’s something really special about a community­-based building that has this cool performance space.”

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

The end came suddenly, the music ceasing at around 11:20 AM on New Year’s Day, more than a half hour before the party was scheduled to conclude. There were no speeches or toasts. The small number of people who remained exited onto Clark Street into the harsh light of late morning.

“Man’s Country was designed as a space where people could be free,” Ehemann reflected later that evening. “That allows for good and bad and, for better or worse, excess. Last night, partly because it was our final night, the excess seemed to dominate. That said, there were hundreds of people having fun and experiencing, maybe for the only time in their lives, the freedom to interact without inhibition.”

Credit: Brittany Sowacke

At one point during the party, Robert Harvey became wistful. “People [think they] don’t need a place like this anymore,” he told me. “It’s too bad, because things go in cycles. They will need a place like this eventually again because on Grindr you see what you get. You never knew what you’d find here.”

And he should know. A man Harvey had first met three decades before started coming to Man’s Country to pass Sunday afternoons after the death of a partner. Harvey reconnected with him at the bathhouse. They married four years ago.   v