Bruce Mailman was an entrepreneur based in New York City, U.S.A. who was integral in providing sensual havens for the gay community during the 1970s and 1980s. In the eras of the Sexual Revolution and of disco culture, Mailman endeavored to engineer an oasis of open desire and free expression in which gay men could engage. To do this, Mailman first created the St. Marks Baths, a bathhouse described by author Jonathan McEwan as an “exciting place in which to enjoy the pleasures of the then unhindered sexual revolution” (36). Later, Bruce Mailman founded the Saint disco club, which, to many, came to represent the culmination of the disco era.
Erotic social scenes, such as the Saint and the St. Marks Baths, facilitated the development of honest sexual expression among its gay patrons; however, Mailman’s institutions soon became infamous “epicenters” of an emerging disease later known as AIDS (Peters, 82). During the onset of this deadly health crisis, figures of the media accused Mailman of acting as an exploitative, “merciless profiteer” when he “resisted shutting down the baths early in the AIDS crisis” (Peters, 82). Many people, including Larry Kramer and other vocal writers and leaders in the gay community believed that Mailman took too long to close the St. Marks Baths and even the Saint in the wake of the mounting evidence that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease.
Mailman, however, considered the civil rights of gay men when he failed to close his businesses as early as critics wanted him to. Gay men had fought valiantly to achieve the liberation that marked the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. Still, Mailman was dominated by public controversy. The media’s scrutiny of Mailman presented a stark moral dichotomy.
Portrayed as either a guiding light to the gay community or an exploitative businessman who condoned the spread of AIDS in order to continue collecting profits, Mailman wrestled with an onslaught of disputes.
Neither a ruthless villain nor a sinless business owner, Bruce Mailman is a man who believed that he was doing the right thing.