The boys in the bathhouses


This article was originally published by Salon on November 3, 1997.

Six months ago I wrote in Salon that the AIDS crisis was“just beginning.” Despite — even because of — the development of anti-viral drug “cocktails” and a modestly declining death rate, the sexual promiscuity among gay males that fueled the epidemic, I wrote, was likely to increase. Now there has been an alarm bell suggesting exactly that.

According to a newly released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies at 26 VD clinics across the nation show a dramatic rise in gonorrhea among gay males — traditionally a marker for rising HIV infection rates. The cause? According to the Los Angeles Times: “Experts suggest that the increasing success of HIV treatment with triple-drug therapies has lulled gay men into a false sense of security that may lead to a disastrous recurrence of the AIDS increase observed in the early 1980s.”

Of course, neither the L.A. Times nor any of the other mainstream media reporting these statistics has focused on the real source of the problem: the re-emergence of a bathhouse-sex club culture that fosters large cohorts of promiscuous strangers spreading the infection in urban gay centers. San Francisco, the most developed of these subcultures, has the highest gonorrhea infection rates, currently, by a wide margin. Cowed by the politically correct activists who have crippled the battle against AIDS, the media have turned a blind eye to the rash of new sex clubs and refuse to make the connection that AIDS is as much a behavioral as a clinical disease.

About the time my Salon article appeared, a group of left-wing academics known as “queer theorists” met at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center at New York’s City Hall. Among those present were professors Michael Warner of NYU and Kendall Thomas of Columbia University, living examples of how the universities routinely provide a political platform for extremists, especially sexual extremists. The group gathered to found an organization called Sex Panic, whose agenda was twofold. First, to oppose any attempts by health authorities to curtail or restrict public anonymous sex and the institutions that support it; and second, to destroy the reputations of the handful of courageous gay activists — Gabriel Rotello, Michelangelo Signorile, Larry Kramer and Andrew Sullivan among them — who were fed up with the homicidal sex strategies of the gay left and had the guts to publicly say so.

Warner is Sex Panic’s best-known theorist. He declares himself (and all queer theorists) a militant opponent of “the regime of the normal” — a regime that includes standard public health methods for fighting epidemics. Here is Warner defending the death camps of the current contagion: “The phenomenology of a sex club encounter is an experience of world making. It’s an experience of being connected not just to this person but to potentially limitless numbers of people, and that is why it’s important that it be with a stranger. Sex with a stranger is like a metonym.” (Warner is a professor of English literature.)

The October Lingua Franca describes a recent public meeting of Sex Panic at which the assembled treated with respectful silence a convicted child molester and his declaration that he was one of them. Another gay man who said that he felt the gay community’s celebration of promiscuity made it more difficult for him to maintain a monogamous relationship was heckled. The flyer announcing the event was headlined “DANGER! ASSAULT! TURDZ!” The “turds” in question are Rotello, Signorile, Kramer andSullivan.

The author of the Lingua Franca article, a gay graduate student at Columbia University, could not find one queer theorist who defended the infamous four, or who believed that shutting down sex clubs or avoiding promiscuous, anonymous sex had anything to do with battling AIDS. Instead, Warner and his fellow queer theorists proudly declare, they are opponents of “not just the normal behavior of the social, but the idea of normal behavior.”

They couldn’t have it any other way. Any acknowledgment of “normality” would suggest that the promotion of promiscuous sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic is perverse at best and accessory to murder at worst. If heterosexuals were defending gay sex clubs in the face of the AIDS epidemic, their motives would be properly suspect. Still, their silence, whether in the groves of academe or the pages of the liberal mainstream press, lends a quiet support to this intellectual fascism and sexual fanaticism that diminishes the prospects of survival for America’s gay men.