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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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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