Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

It’s month eight of the pandemic, and while some might be wishfully thinking about enjoying a drink from their favorite bar or ordering their favorite meal in person in the hopefully not-too-distant future, others are waiting for when they can indulge in pleasures that are harder to order to-go.

On its exterior, Steamworks is rather unremarkable. Its door isn’t clearly labeled. There aren’t any posters or advertisements on the side of the building. It looks more like an armory or a warehouse than anything else. 

But in true if you know, you know fashion, the space opens up once you’re inside, past a check-in counter to a complex that includes a gym, a steam room, and saunas, as well as private rooms and public spaces to have sex—often called “play spaces”—and the opportunities they present. 

To the untrained eye, gay bathhouses like Steamworks are mere dens of iniquity, where taps on the bathroom floor, a lingering glance, or a door ajar says much more than you’d expect; but to the initiated and the experienced, they are indeed that, but also so much more. 

“Yes, they’re about sex,” says Gary Wasdin, executive director of the Leather Archives & Museum. “We don’t run from that, we don’t hide from that because, you know, sex is awesome. And having, you know, a lot of sex is awesome. But, there was always this concurrent side that was just as important, especially in the 60s and 70s, as bathhouses emerged and became popular. You know, even just meeting with your friends to hang out and chat was dangerous in this country.”

The explosion of dating apps and the landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down homophobic anti-sodomy laws have certainly made it safer and actually legal to seek out same-sex hookups. But even still, bathhouses have historically provided a certain amount of safety and ease to the gay male community that can’t be denied. 

And Wasdin says that continues to this day. Even finding hookup partners via apps comes with its own degree of risk, either in going to a stranger’s home or having them come to you, as does meeting at bars and good ol’ fashioned cruising. Bathhouses, Wasdin says, can provide a neutral, safe space to meet and have sex.

“For gay men in particular, bathhouses were about risk reduction,” Wasdin says. “And it’s a place that allows you to meet others to have sex in a relatively safe environment; and so, you know, boom, March comes, that’s gone.”

As with many other businesses amid the ever-continuing pandemic, bathhouses and play spaces are also under significant financial stress; and that’s alongside a historic shuttering of these spaces, adding another head to the hydra of the forces that are closing these doors. 

Like many explicitly queer spaces, bathhouses were frequently the target of homophobic vice raids in the 1960s and 70s. While gay sex was an obvious and significant part of bathhouses, the greater conversation about them has largely ignored the civic good also undertaken at these spaces.

A 2010 article from World of Wonder, the production company behind the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, details that before the 1980 presidential election, the New St. Marks Baths in New York City and the League of Women Voters held a registration drive at the now-shuttered gay bathhouse. 

And according to an exhibit at the Leather Archives & Museum about the now-closed Man’s Country bathhouse in Chicago, owner Chuck Renslow closed the glory holes and the orgy room at the bathhouse in the 1980s after the HIV/AIDS crisis reached the city. 

According to the exhibit, safe sex pamphlets and condoms were passed out at the bathhouse after the HIV virus had been identified, and STI testing was done at a clinic upstairs at the bathhouse.

That community work continues to this day, albeit in a different form. 

Emjay Rawls, who worked at Steamworks from November 2015 to October 2018 and calls it the best job she’s ever had, says that the bathhouse often sponsors events in the community at popular gay bars in Boystown, including Hydrate, Roscoe’s Tavern, and Sidetrack.

Rawls says Steamworks also financially contributes to annual pride celebrations in the city.

“The Pride Parade literally is all because of Steamworks and all the money they dish out. That’s just all Steamworks,” says Rawls, whose most recent position at Steamworks was lead clerk.

Similarly to Man’s Country’s efforts in the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Rawls says that when Steamworks was open before the pandemic, the bathhouse worked with LGBTQ+ organizations Center on Halsted and Howard Brown Health to conduct STI testing on site. 

And if that’s not enough to dispel preconceived notions that bathhouses are petri dishes of STIs and other diseases, Dr. Gregory Phillips II of Northwestern University says he observed robust sexual health practices among bathhouse patrons when he was part of a CDC-funded study in the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance program back in 2011. 

The NHBS program, founded in 2003, studies behaviors of populations at high risk for HIV infection, such as men who have sex with men, and is conducted in 22 cities around the country—including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Phillips, who directs the Evaluation, Data Integration and Technical Assistance program at Northwestern’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, says that as part of that study, he recruited participants at bathhouses, observing that their safe-sex practices were nothing out of the ordinary.

“We had lots of questions about number of partners, condom use, types of sex they were engaging in, and we didn’t really find anything that stood out in terms of like, ‘Oh, yeah, these people are using less condoms, or they’re having more partners.’ It was just people engaging in the same level of behavior,” Phillips says. “There’s a difference between the ease of finding a sex partner versus the riskiness of the behavior.”

But a shuttered bathhouse or play space isn’t just a lost venue for sex; for those without robust queer communities around them, bathhouses and places like them can be a lifeline to crucial community and intimacy.

Northwest Indiana resident Harvey Quinn, 31, says Steamworks was an escape from what he called the “cultural wasteland” around him. Quinn says that before the pandemic, he had only been a handful of times but plans to go back, as he put it, “the moment it’s open.”

And Rawls says she saw a lot of Steamworks patrons there just to socialize. For them, she says, sex felt like a bonus. 

“A lot of clients came in there just for the social interaction of it all and just to like, use our facility, use the jacuzzi, and just chill out,” Rawls says. “A lot of these people, they’re running 24/7, running all types of hours throughout the day, and they just want to go there to relax.”

One Steamworks patron, a 29-year-old Latino male who says he went to Steamworks roughly once a month before the pandemic, is one of such folks. 

Through Twitter DMs, he says he would go to Steamworks, as he put it, to relax.

“I mainly go for the jacuzzi and sauna, relax, and if someone starts chatting or wants to have fun then I let it happen,” he says. 

But the advent of social networking apps, and the ability for queer people to meet in public without as pronounced a fear of arrest, assault, or worse, has undoubtedly impacted bathhouses’ finances, causing many to shutter across the country. That trend reached Chicago just three years ago, when Man’s Country closed at the end of 2017. 

In addition to its gym, whirlpool, and glory holes, Man’s Country had retail shops and a music hall.
In addition to its gym, whirlpool, and glory holes, Man’s Country had retail shops and a music hall.Credit: Adam M. Rhodes

Gary Chichester was the first manager at Man’s Country when it opened in 1973.

“A lot of times there were customers that didn’t particularly like to go out to the bar scene,” Chichester says. “Man’s Country was a little more comfortable; bathhouses are more comfortable. There was more space between people, you didn’t have to push and shove, and the intensity of the cruising, etcetera. But then we also had some of the best talent, you know, in what was then called the K-Y Circuit.”

During its 44 years in Chicago, Man’s Country evolved into a complex of repeatedly changing spaces. Local gay historian Owen Keehnen, who co-wrote with Reader publisher Tracy Baim a biography of Chuck Renslow, says Man’s Country at one point boasted a leather shop and a shop selling western wear, alongside its gym, whirlpool, glory holes, and music hall. 

“I think one of the things that [Renslow] really focused on was that it was much more than a place to go just for sex; it was also a communal area,” Keehnen says. “It was very important to him to have the music hall, and that the music hall, you know, would have entertainment. And it could be a place to socialize.”

Renslow also founded the International Mr. Leather contest that draws thousands to Chicago every year.

In an essay on his website, “Brotherhood of the White Towel,” Keehnen also described how Man’s Country brought in popular performers with a gay cult following, including Boy George, the Village People, and Divine.

And as a testament to the love for Man’s Country, a 13-hour New Year’s Eve party closed the storied space, with some patrons taking a literal piece of it with them. Adam and Skye Rust, the owners of Andersonville’s Woolly Mammoth Antiques & Oddities, removed a handful of the glory holes in the days after the space closed, selling all but one. The remaining glory hole now hangs proudly in their shop.

But despite the historic good these spaces have done, for some gay people like Michael Gifford, who loaned a salvaged Man’s Country glory hole to the Leather Archives & Museum in June 2019, bathhouses are in some ways a microcosm of some of the most serious problems facing the community, namely chemsex—or sex under the influence of drugs—and blurred lines of consent. 

“Even though there need to be safe sexual spaces for different people, we really have to be open and honest with ourselves that there are serious problems going on in Boystown whenever it comes to taking advantage of young people of color,” Gifford says. “And within our own community, there needs to be a serious reconciliation with drugs and alcohol abuse.”

Chemsex isn’t a problem exclusive to bathhouses, and Wasdin says that in his experience, bathhouses’ typically robust check-in policies weed out most drug use before it makes it into the space. And he says bathhouses are no less safe than anywhere else people illicitly use drugs — bars, clubs, and their own homes. 

He acknowledged there are typically two or three drug-related deaths at Steamworks every year that are often labeled as heart failure or something similar. 

The importance of these quasi-public spaces doesn’t just stop at a bathhouse or the back room of a bar, however. Sophia Chase owns and operates Chicago Dungeon Rentals, which offers BDSM dungeons for sex workers and the casual kinkster alike. She says a space that allows even just two people to be sexually free is an important lifeline that the pandemic has cut off from many.

“For a lot of people, a very important part of not only their identity, but their self-care is their sexuality,” Chase says. “And then people cannot play at home, if they have kids, [or] they have roommates, you know, if their elderly parents live with them.”

Kink, in particular, can be important for her clients’ mental health, Chase says. 

“Kink, whether it includes sexual activity or it doesn’t, is such a stress reliever for people,” Chase says. “A lot of clients come to see me, and come to see other mistresses because it is like a steam valve for the pressure cooker of life, and all of a sudden you don’t have that. And now, we have even that much more stress on us with everything happening. And that normal place where people would have that outlet, all of a sudden isn’t there. And so people’s mental health suffers.”

But even in the world of bathhouses and rentable dungeons, impacts of the pandemic are not created equal. 

Smaller, locally-owned spaces like Chicago Dungeon Rentals are under greater threat than corporate-owned chains like Steamworks, which has locations in Seattle, Berkeley, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Chase says she had to shut down her dungeons completely during the Chicago stay-at-home order, and since the gradual reopening, her business is roughly half of what it was before the pandemic. As someone who is immunocompromised, Chase says she will not be able to safely work until there is a vaccine available. 

And though it might go without saying, corporate-owned chains are much more likely to weather the economic fallout from 2020’s compounding crises than your average mom-and-pop bathhouse.

“Smaller local organizations just don’t have the resources to go a year with no income, you know, while you’re still paying rent bills and things like that,” Wasdin says. “So yeah, I think there’s a huge likelihood that some of them will close.” 

If there is a silver lining to any of this—and it would be a microscopically thin lining at that—it’s that the pandemic has illuminated among many queer folk and queer adjacents just how important these safe spaces are to the community. 

And hopefully, Wasdin says, that translates to visitors and financial support for these spaces once the pandemic is over. 

“Our gathering spaces are dwindling, but at the same time, I feel like during the pandemic, at least we’re reminded about how important those spaces are,” Wasdin says. “It’s human nature, we take things for granted, we expect they’ll always be there. So it feels like at least many of us have maybe developed a greater understanding and appreciation that those spaces are still open.”   v

This coverage has been made possible by a Media & Storytelling grant from the Field Foundation.