Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: The Fall of a Saint

his moral character

Erotic social scenes, such as the Saint and the St. Marks Baths, facilitated the development of honest sexual expression among its gay patrons; however, these institutions later became infamous “epicenters” of an emerging disease known as AIDS (Peters, 82). During the onset of the deadly health crisis of HIV/AIDS, 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 in the wake of the mounting evidence that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease (Peters). Mailman, however, considered the civil rights of gay men when he failed to close his businesses as early as critics wanted him to (Rist, 18). Gay men had fought valiantly to achieve the sexual liberation that marked the decades of the 1970s and 1980s; he did not regret the sex that occurred in his establishments – it was necessary – even though many of the men who were members of his businesses were dying (Rist, 18).

Portrayed as either a guiding light to the gay community or a ruthless businessman who condoned the spread of AIDS in order to continue collecting profits, Mailman wrestled with a torrent of public disputes over his moral character throughout the 1980s (Rist, 18). To Mailman, the St. Marks Baths were a “hard-won symbol of fraternity, equality, and liberty;” the bathhouse had released men from the psychological turmoil of unrealized desire (Peters, 82). Author Brooks Peters explains that the “right to be a homosexual man without harassment from society was closely linked to the right to have promiscuous sex” (Peters, 82). This quote shows the close link between sexual expression and the vanquishing of oppression. Mailman did not wish to discontinue an institution that had allowed men to live and love uninhibited by shame or fear, even if shame and fear were intervening into the consciences of gay and queer residents once more (Rist, 18).

In Mailman’s opinion, closing the Baths when critics wanted him to would not have made any impact on the spread of or obstruction of AIDS (Peters, 82). Closing the St. Marks Baths during the germination period of HIV/AIDS in 1980 would have been done more to “control the epidemic,” but no one knew of the impending public health crisis back then (qtd. in Peters, 82). To Mailman, accusations against him presented an argument based on hindsight bias. Critics falsely believed that Mailman should have been able to better protect his customers against a disease that only seems predictable in hindsight. In reality, AIDS descended without warning, and by the time it arrived, many members of the St. Marks Baths, and the Saint, had already fallen ill (Peters, 82).

laying the blame

AIDS decimated the Saint disco’s community. Many members of the Saint became sick. Others were dying. At least 700 membership renewal forms were sent back through the mail bearing the message “Return to Sender. Occupant Deceased” (McEwan, 42). Once the AIDS epidemic swept through the country, Saturdays at the Saint drew in at most 500 people, though the club had a capacity of 5400 (McEwan, 42).

People accused Mailman of condoning the transmission of HIV and AIDS. Others said he was liable for his members’ deaths due to his inaction. It was a known fact that sexual acts took place in the Saint’s viewing balcony. In his interview with Darrell Yates Rist, Mailman insists that the balcony was never intended to be used for sex. He swears that he wrote to members of the Saint and tried time and time again to get people to stop using the balcony for sex; however, Mailman certainly did not want to police people’s behavior (Rist, 18). Mailman is “not happy” if “someone was harmed” in his club by contracting HIV/AIDS, but he has “no regrets” (Rist, 18). Mailman does not believe that people should look back and feel that they shouldn’t have engaged in sexual activity in clubs like the Saint; he feels that gay men had “fought hard to be at that level of liberalization,” and that their free expression was neither inappropriate nor foolish (Rist, 18). It was emancipating. Mailman wondered why members of the gay community would blame him or themselves for a disease that was unpredictable and, thus, uncontrollable (Rist, 18). To Mailman, revision of the past is a problematic and pervasive attitude within the gay community (Rist, 18).

 

citizen and country

The AIDS crisis was exacerbated, not only by what some consider to be the failures of individuals, but also by governmental neglect. The Reagan administration witnessed the devastation of the gay community due to AIDS silently. Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch of the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, felt afraid that the gay community would “disappear” because of AIDS, but the government proved its ugliness through gross inaction (qtd. in La Ganga). To what extent would Mailman, as an individual, have been able to alleviate the severity of AIDS when the federal government itself refused to acknowledge the thousands of sick and dying men and women? Research into AIDS was not being funded. Healthcare provisions were abysmal. It appeared to many people that the gay community had been forsaken (La Ganga). The binary that persisted throughout the crisis described AIDS as a gay cancer. AIDS affected the gay community, not anyone else. This blatant segregation of consciousness stated that AIDS has nothing to do with the government, and everything to do with those people (La Ganga). The government felt no responsibility for gay men and women, so is it just to fault one man for the trauma that resulted from a complex network of inaction and ignorance?

To Mailman, it is clear that the media hoped to scapegoat a distinguished gay businessman in New York City in order to “appease people’s hysteria” (Peters, 82). In 1985, Mailman was forced to close the St. Marks Baths due to increased political and legal pressure. Mailman states that he spent $300,000 U.S. dollars defending his right to keep the St. Marks Baths open, but, eventually, he lost (Peters, 82). Some writers in the gay community did defend Mailman’s desire to keep the St. Marks Baths open. Bruce Mailman never “sat there with a shotgun and forced people to have sex” says Marc Berkeley, a club promoter in New York who later worked at the Saint during its closing years (qtd. in Peters, 82). Not everyone could so easily remove Mailman from the list of blame. 

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Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: A Beacon and a Boycott, Pt. I

profiteer, or promoter of civil rights?

In the early 1980s, the St. Marks Baths became known as the “epicenter” of a deadly disease later known as AIDS (Peters, 82).

During this time, Bruce Mailman was accused of being an exploitative, “merciless profiteer” when he “resisted shutting down the baths early in the AIDS crisis” (Peters, 82).

To Mailman, the St. Marks Baths were a “hard-won symbol of fraternity, equality, and liberty.” Author Brooks Peters explains that the “right to be a homosexual man without harassment from society was closely linked to the right to have promiscuous sex.”

Civil rights was on Mailman’s mind when he failed to close the Baths as early as critics wanted him to. Anyway, Mailman believes that more would have been done to “control the epidemic” during the virus’s germination period in 1980, but no one knew of the impending public health crisis back then (qtd. in Peters, 82).

To Mailman, accusations against him presented an argument based on hindsight bias. Critics falsely believed that Mailman should have been better able to protect his customers against a disease that only seems predictable in hindsight. In reality, AIDS descended without warning.

Additionally, the AIDS crisis was exacerbated, not only by what some consider to be the failures of individuals, but also by governmental neglect. The Reagan administration remained silent whilst AIDS devastated the gay community. Kenneth Bunch, or Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch of the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, felt afraid that the gay community would “disappear” because of AIDS, but the government proved its ugliness through gross inaction (qtd. in La Ganga).

To what extent would Mailman, as an individual, have been able to alleviate the severity of the AIDS when the federal government itself refused to acknowledge the thousands of sick and dying men and women?

Research into AIDS was not being funded. Healthcare provisions were abysmal. The gay community was forsaken.

The government had abandoned its responsibility for its citizenry because of homophobia, ignorance, spite, and indifference.

A binary that persisted throughout the crisis described AIDS as a gay cancer. AIDS affected the gay community, not anyone else, not anyone normal. A blatant segregation of consciousness stated that AIDS has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with them. The government felt no responsibility for heathens.

a conservative manipulation

Tom Steele wrote that AIDS was like a “shark attack” (qtd. in Peters, 82).

For a while, New York experienced a “dreadfully grim” period of despair in which a “sexual shutdown” created an emotional “black hole” (qtd. in Peters, 82).

Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley, two conservative commentators at the time, began to advocate for “quarantine camps,” and “tattooing,” in response to the AIDS crisis, procedures reminiscent of the protocols of Nazi concentration camps. By condemning him and “not supporting the [St. Marks] baths,” Mailman believes the gay community was “really feeding into the hands of the right wing” (qtd. in Peters, 82).

Bruce Mailman insists that in 1983 the Baths were doing more good than harm in the gay community. His bathhouse offered counseling and distributed condoms in packages that read: “The contents of this envelope can save your life” (qtd. in Peters, 82). Still, he continued to be villainized.

To Mailman, it is clear that the media hoped to scapegoat a distinguished gay businessman in New York City in order to “appease people’s hysteria” (Peters, 82).

But is it just to fault one man for the devastation that resulted from a complex network of inaction and ignorance? Mailman wondered why members of the gay community would blame him or themselves for a disease that was unpredictable and, thus, uncontrollable.

His next business venture similarly entered a cloud of contention, just as the St. Marks Baths did.

Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: An Introduction

Block 1087 of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is a quilt block that memorializes the staff members, DJs, and associates of the New York City Saint disco club.

According to Janece Shaffer, the Communications Director at the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the size of the Saint disco club’s singular memorial panel is much larger than the average panel submitted to the quilt. Typically, panels are 3×6 feet (0.9×1.8 meter); however, the size of this quilt is that of an entire 12×12 foot (3.7×3.7 meter) “block” (“AIDS Memorial Quilt”). Blocks are usually composed of eight individual 3×6 foot (0.9×1.8 meter) panels, yet this block is its own individual dedication (“FAQs”).

The primary colors featured in the quilt are black, burgundy, and silver, though there are exceptions; the quilt’s inky colors evoke a funereal quiet. Many of the objects on the block have been stitched onto an expanse of either black or burgundy felt material, which raises them from the quilt’s flat surface. Three prominent features of block 1087 are its moon-like mirror ball, its expanse of golden five-pointed stars, and its colorful light structure (read more about this block).

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

In this essay, I intend to address how disco clubs liberated the gay and queer community in New York City by offering a historical account of the disco movement as well as a narrative of its seeming culmination in the creation of the Saint dance club. This paper will examine the effect of AIDS on the gay disco generation by honing in on remembrances and discussions of the Saint and other disco clubs in New York City.

My position on this topic will address the complexity of the influence of erotic social scenes, such as the Saint or founder Bruce Mailman’s other creation, the St. Marks Baths, on the spread of AIDS. I will attempt to answer the question that dominates Bruce Mailman’s controversy: did he condone the spread of AIDS through his refusal to close down his businesses? Was Mailman really a “merciless profiteer” who continued to ruthlessly benefit from the sex that took place in his establishments, despite growing awareness that HIV/AIDS was sexually transmitted (Peters, 82)? Neither a ruthless villain nor a sinless business owner, Bruce Mailman is a man who believed that he was protecting and affirming the civil rights of his customers.

My essay will first begin with a description of Bruce Mailman’s biography as well as a discussion of his philosophy towards gay male identity. Then, I will detail Bruce Mailman’s inspirations for the Saint dance club and examine the evolution of the extraordinary discotheque. I will conclude with an analysis of the impact of Mailman’s creation, as well as reactions to the onslaught of AIDS in the gay community and what that meant for the reputation of the Saint.

By describing the lifetime of the Saint, I will expand upon the current general knowledge of the disco era and make the details of disco’s presence in the 80s known. I will display the interaction between the gay community and the disco community by demonstrating the formation of the gay community around gay clubs that embraced the sexual liberation of the disco era (“Chapter 4: The Era”). As discos became cultural emblems of the gay community, their musical, physical, and emotional embrace liberated both young men and women by providing the space for their self-determination and youthful exploration (“Chapter 3: The Trip”).

I hope to increase awareness of the different ways that AIDS destroyed disco culture and the continuation of gay history. Once the disease disseminated throughout disco clubs and the larger gay community, AIDS ruptured the vitality of gay oral history. Death, sickness, and the isolation of the epidemic’s survivors disrupted the narrative of the gay disco generation (Peters, 143). Block 1087 captures only a fragment of the Saint’s significance.

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Annotated Bibliography Two – Annotation Two

Rist, Darrell Yates. “A Scaffold To the Sky And No Regrets.” New York Native, 2 May 1988, pp. 17-18. 

controversy at the new york native

The New York Native is responsible for publishing the first public report on AIDS, with an article headlined “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” In this May 1981 article, the Native’s medical correspondent, Lawrence D. Mass, wrote that the rare cancer that had struck some gay men was “ubiquitous.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had denied the rumors of a “gay cancer” on a phone call with Mass, after which Mass wrote that most people have an immunity to the viral subject of the rumors. How wrong Lawrence D. Mass was proven to be later on. Nevertheless, the Native’s article, which dismissed the severity of HIV and AIDS, stands as the first published report on what became a horrific epidemic.

However, Larry Kramer, a playwright and distinguished activist during the AIDS epidemic and onward, wrote in the New York Native in March 1983. His piece, entitled “1, 112, and Counting,” was a fierce criticism of the contemptible inaction of healthcare organizations in the United States in response to AIDS. Thus, the Native once expressed rally cries for the queer community being afflicted by the violent, deadly disease. The newspaper was historic in its coverage of AIDS, and possessed a circulation of 20,000 in the early 1980’s, meaning that the Native distributed 20,000 copies on an average day. However, the newspaper’s circulation dropped to 8,000 as time went on.

Though the newspaper once hoped to increase awareness of the AIDS epidemic by writing on the injustice of the government and national media’s silence on the public health crisis, the New York Native later descended into an ugly mire of controversial theories. Hosting conspiracy theories about the real cause of AIDS, which was apparently not HIV but the African Swine Fever Virus (or was it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?), the newspaper officially closed in 1997 due to “financial difficulties” (Pogrebin). Founder Charles Orteb oversaw the newspaper as a publisher and editor for over sixteen years, yet even he could not deny that the paper’s controversy contributed to its financial decline. The paper’s “insane tangent” even denied that AIDS existed (Pogrebin). ACT UP, the now international action advocacy group that serves and advocates for people living with HIV and AIDS, boycotted the New York Native in the mid-1980’s.

goodbye to the saint

Written in 1988, the following article by Darrell Yates Rist belonged to a newspaper that had by then descended into troubling, controversial conspiracies surrounding AIDS. While this article deals directly with the founder of The Saint dance club and the St. Mark’s Baths, Bruce Mailman, it is important to note the controversy surrounding not only the article’s subject, but also the article’s place of publication. However, this article is still valuable despite its controversial container paper. The article was written on May 2nd, 1988, a mere two days after The Saint officially closed. May 2nd, however, is also the day that the Saint’s last celebration ended, during that Monday’s “early afternoon” (Dunlap). The interview is a primary source given right at the moment of The Saint’s closing, when Mailman’s emotions were fresh.

Issue 263 of the New York Native, which Rist’s article is a part of, features an extended spread of articles categorized by the header GOODBYE TO THE SAINT. Darrell Yates Rist wrote about an interview with The Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman. Other “remembrances” were written by Andrew Holleran, Jan Carl Park, R.J. Markson, and J.P.David.

In all caps, the words GOODBYE TO THE SAINT have been printed in a non-serif white font over a 9.75 inch (24.8 centimeter) narrow black strip. Underneath this header is a blueprint of The Saint dance club, which has the article’s title in white serif font in the top row of the map.  At the bottom, the words An Interview With Bruce Mailman On the Occasion of the Closing of the Saint appear in smaller, italicized font similar to the font of the article’s title.

The blueprint of The Saint is dominated by a plan for its central sky-like dome and light platform, beneath which is the dance floor. The Saint itself contained a “4800 square-foot oak surface” as a dance floor, and “a lighting tower with about 1,500 fixtures, topped by a planetarium-style star projector.” A mirror ball could be lowered from the ceiling, and The Saint’s dome acted as a “theatrical scrim” (Dunlap).

a dreamer’s beginning

Around 1980, Bruce Mailman decided that he no longer wanted to spend money on his vices. Mailman “loved dancing,” and would often haunt the Flamingo dance club to do so. To Mailman, Flamingo represented the “zenith” of dance’s physicality. The club’s “hard-driving, sexual” beat fueled Mailman’s romance with his disco dancing vice.

Studio 54, a famous nightclub and discotheque, possessed “imagination and theatricality.” Together, these combined elements provided a formative experience to Mailman and prompted him to create his own haven of vices that he could go to for free. Mailman wanted to build a home for his vices so he could indulge them “for nothing.” He says that the urge to create his own space always occurs if he has a particular vice or desire; he never wants to continue paying money for something he could design or engineer himself.

Bruce Mailman’s desires were elevated by his intention to add a new dimension to the disco scene.

Mimicry was unacceptable; Mailman wanted to devise something new, but, at first, he could not figure out what to do. One night, Mailman went to sleep pondering ideas for his new club of vices. The next morning, Mailman awoke with the image of a planetarium in his mind.

The club he envisioned wouldn’t be “limited to a stage.” What would become The Saint would be “completely round,” with a large dome sky. To Mailman, this feature would make it seem like club-goers were dancing outside. Mailman immediately began calling planetarium companies to see if his fantasy could become a practical and affordable reality. Was there any place big enough to hold a starry dome?

Fortunately, there was. Mailman revolutionized the Loew’s Commodore Theater for nearly $5,000,000 US dollars in 1980. Located on Second Avenue and East Sixth Street, the Commodore Theater underwent a truly heavenly transformation for The Saint’s opening. A modeled hemisphere of earth and the Milky Way contributed to the The Saint’s otherworldly allure, whilst sophisticated lighting platforms and hydraulic floors advanced the club experience to an enlightened level.

The Saint’s eventual opening is an unforgettable story. In order to spread awareness about his new club, Bruce Mailman asked ten people he knew went out regularly to ask ten people they knew who went out regularly to come to the Saint. Open only to gays, The Saint attracted many gorgeous gay men on its opening night who all shared a love for dancing and having a good time. At midnight on a 1980 September morning, nearly 3500 men lined almost an entire square block hoping to get into The Saint. The fire lieutenant came to shut down the commotion, but Mailman’s lawyer defended his club by stating that it cost a lot of money and would surely “be around [for] eight seasons.”

So The Saint was born. Mailman stated that the appeal of The Saint was that “it was a place where you were special if you came.” Other discotheques attracted the stars and celebrities as famed, esteemed guests. Yet at The Saint, “no one looked at other people.” The people themselves “were the stars,” and their “anonymity” made their experience all the more exciting. The Saint was a place of drugs, sex, and “decadent” sin. Darrell Yates Rist, this article’s author, remembers “a perpetually euphoric storm of orgies in the balcony above the planetarium dome” as well as the “endless fountain of drugs from […] men who themselves were intoxicating.” Yet soon controversy began to swirl around the Saint’s owner, Bruce Mailman.

accusations against mailman

People began to accuse Mailman of condoning the transmission of HIV and AIDS. Some said Mailman was liable for his inaction. Others called him a “killer” because of the known sexual acts that took place in the balcony of his club’s haven. No one was safe once the “Saint’s disease” struck; people accused Mailman of not doing enough to stop HIV and AIDS from devastating the community of clubgoers and other persons associated with the Saint (Dunlap).

In his interview with Rist, Mailman insists that the balcony was never intended to be used for sex. He swears that he tried time and time again to get people to stop using the balcony for sex by writing to members; however, Mailman certainly did not desire to police people’s behavior by metaphorically “hosing [them] down.”

Mailman is “not happy” if “someone was harmed” in his club by contracting HIV, but he has “no regrets.” Mailman does not believe that people should look back and say that they shouldn’t have engaged in sexual activity in the clubs or elsewhere; he feels that gay men “fought hard to be at that level of liberalization,” and that such free expression was not inappropriate or foolish, but delivering.

Mailman does not feel that gay men should be sorry for what they did when they engaged in sex at clubs like The Saint. He states that “we [gay people] needed to be there,” declaring that he does not think that “we can look at [our behavior] with what’s happened to us, with this thing that’s marched into our lives and say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t have done that. We were what we were for very good reasons, and we’ve changed – for equally good reasons.'”

the saint was revered

There is no denying that Bruce Mailman created a phenomenal institution.

According to author Darrell Yates Rist, the club’s “divine” DJs “transformed” the souls of dancers. Bruce Mailman notes that the DJs at the Saint all had a unique style and flavor, and often were allowed to “experiment with the crowd.” The DJs “had something special that was their own.” The way they dealt with different currents of music was electric. Some of the DJs Mailman lists as “big DJs” are Terry Sherman, Robbie Leslie, and Michael Fierman. Shawn Buchanan is another DJ from the club, who “to some extent,” was also a big-name act. Buchanan has been memorialized on the AIDS Quilt on Block 1087. Read a description of this panel here.

To Mailman, music at The Saint was “much more important than at the other places.” People came to The Saint to dance, and would remain there for six to eight hours. Unlike Studio 54, where people “had a drink,” or Palladium, where people “danced two dances and talked,” The Saint was where people came to dance. There was a “group energy” that connected people to each other and to the lights and to the sound. There was a “euphoric” atmosphere in The Saint when things were “really connecting.” Though euphoric escapades did not embrace The Saint’s dancers every night, the rapture of the club’s energy happened often enough for people to continue coming back. Yet rapidly, the excitement of clubbing turned to a dreadful misery.

fear

With the sudden onslaught of HIV and AIDS, many people who went to The Saint, began dying in mass numbers. Many others had friends who had fallen ill or worse to the disease, including author Darrell Yates Rist.

The “ghosts of friends” haunted the lives of many people in the gay community of New York City. People stopped coming to the Saint because of the fear of AIDS. Most of the crowd that had frequented the Saint were older gay men who had either died from AIDS or were grappling with the devastating grief of knowing those who had died from AIDS.

Though a younger crowd began to populate the Saint, they didn’t come as often to the club as older members once did because they didn’t have as much money. Financial troubles began to appear on the horizon. Bruce Mailman began to feel that he could only own the club “for so long.” The stigma attached to The Saint did not help its case either, which repelled people away from The Saint with the knowledge that the members who had “made such an impression” on the club were now dead because of AIDS.

In the article, Mailman acknowledges that he no longer has “[his] finger on the pulse of what [the] market is” for the disco lovers now dispirited and demoralized by the ruins AIDS spread across the country. Both with his raunchy bathhouse, St. Mark’s Baths, and his discotheque, the Saint, Bruce Mailman has been wrapped in the controversy of whether or not he acted morally as the descent of AIDS began to devastate his establishments. In response to his known controversy, Mailman states the following:

“Revision [..] is a big problem in gay life. People want to say ‘Oh, it shouldn’t have been this way.’ I think they should say, ‘What we had was wonderful. Then something walked in and disrupted it and we’re building something else. And we’re going to make that wonderful, too. No one asked for this. […] Of all the things that happened in the Saint, maybe the number of membership letters that came back stamped ‘deceased’ got to me. I mean, maybe that is responsible for my overload or for the fact I’m so fed up, and maybe if that hadn’t happened, I would have gone on and on doing it-and loved it.”

And you do get tired of being in the center of all the controversy with it, too. I mean, you know-the baths and whether or not my positions were right or wrong. There’s that whole things that’s disheartening and eventually wears you away and eventually, you just…you don’t want to do it any more. It’s not that you don’t believe in it or you don’t believe it was good. You just know it’s over.”

See photos of The Saint

These are other photographs from the newspaper that date it to the 80s (aged paper, dated photographic quality) as well as inform the observer that the New York Native is a gay newspaper (it features many ads of hot hunks waiting for a call).