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: Bruce Mailman Emerges, An Entrepreneur of Ingenious Artistry

oasis of desire

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 (Peters). In the eras of the Sexual Revolution and of disco culture, Bruce Mailman endeavored to engineer an oasis of open desire and free expression in which gay men could engage (Peters). 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 apotheosis of the disco era.

Mailman’s inventiveness sculpted the Saint into a matchless, mammoth disco. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. to a family of merchants, Bruce Mailman first developed his creative spirit through thespian engagements. In high school, Mailman became involved in art, theater, and music. He went on to attend Temple University and the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later, after he graduated with a master’s degree from New York University in the early 1960s, Mailman met his long-time partner, John, a cardiologist. Together, Mailman and John began to invest in real estate, whilst Mailman started producing his own creative works and plays (Peters, 140).

Mailman’s enterprising attitude helped him succeed as both an entrepreneur and an investor; importantly, many of Mailman’s businesses were spaces that encouraged the gay community to live openly and freely (McEwan, 36). Several experiences in Mailman’s life inspired him to create such liberating environments. When he was four years old, Mailman observed a man wearing a “suede jacket without a shirt on underneath” walk into his father’s store. He remembers wanting the man to remove the jacket; he “knew it wasn’t right, [but] didn’t know why.” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Additionally, though he knew of other gay men in university, Mailman still “had to hide” his sexuality. He pronounces that, at the time, being gay was “mysterious, like being part of a private society. […] There was no openness” (qtd. In Peters, 140). Mailman despised this obligatory charade and desired to counter his lingering internalization of the country’s homophobia. For many, the 1969 Stonewall Riots realized Mailman’s aspiration for he and other gay men to be out and honest. Mailman hoped the fierce resilience that arose in the gay community during this time would create an unapologetic sentiment among gay men. It was time to be frank, and it was time to have pride (Peters, 140).

come as you are

At first, gay men did not seek familiarity from one another; most preferred to remain closeted by keeping their nightly escapades private and maintaining their anonymity, even in seemingly safe spaces. Mailman knew well that being gay was “dangerous,” but the shame of some of the men he saw was disheartening (qtd. in Peters, 140). Mailman found it strange, and sad, that “people wouldn’t sign their own names [at gay bars],” and that men were “very embarrassed to see someone they knew on the street” (qtd. in Peters). His observations demonstrate the stifled nature of gay identity during his youth in the 1960s, which Mailman yearned to combat. He intended to untie the fists of gay men bound to closetedness by creating a community where people could be “honest” with each other and with themselves (qtd. in Peters).

Mailman’s particular philosophy of honesty generally manifested itself as a type of sexual expression; at Mailman’s own St. Marks Baths, the physical rapture and release from oppressive confinement exhilarated many customers (Peters, 80). Attracting millions of dollars per year, the St. Marks Baths became synonymous with the 1970s gay and queer culture. Visitors and staff members indulged carnal pleasures on every one of the bathhouse’s five floors; the sexual revolution was truly ablaze (Peters). One visitor to the Baths states that “if you didn’t like the baths, you had to examine yourself. Maybe you had a serious case of self-loathing, or maybe you hadn’t gotten the message. It was part of the culture to have a lot of anonymous sex” (qtd. in Peters). This quote shows how Mailman’s equation of genuineness with uninhibited sexuality was a commonplace ideology in the 1970s.

However, the men who attended the Baths connected more than just their bodies. Mailman’s bathhouse was also a “gay social scene” that affirmed the identity and increased the fraternity and camaraderie among the young men there (McEwan, 36).

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era

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