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

staying afloat

Bruce Mailman made a number of changes to the Saint in order to keep it afloat in its sea of controversy. In 1985, Mailman began to sell liquor at the club; though he later opened the disco to heterosexual people on Fridays, attendance at the club still waned dramatically (McEwan, 42). The “ghosts of friends” haunted many members of the New York City gay community (Rist, 18). Most of the crowd that had frequented the Saint were older gay men who had either died from HIV/AIDS or were grappling with the grief of knowing those who had (Rist, 18). Many people avoided the Saint.

The younger crowd that began to populate the Saint didn’t come as often as older members once did because they didn’t have as much money; financial troubles swiftly appeared on the horizon, and Bruce Mailman began to feel that he could only own the Saint “for so long” (Rist, 18). Soon thereafter, the Fillmore East Village Associates Ltd. offered to buy the Saint from Mailman for 6.5 million dollars; by the Saint’s 1987 Halloween Party, the sale of the building had already “passed the point of no return” (qtd. in McEwan).

In 1988, the Saint’s surviving DJs and lighting technicians enlivened the club for the last time. The “Last Party” spanned “three days and three nights,” with Saint regulars attending 30 of the 36 hours (McEwan, 42). Jimmy Ruffin’s song “Hold On To My Love” played near the end of the Last Party; appropriately, the words HOLD ON TO MY LOVE have been stitched onto the bottom of the Saint’s memorial quilt. The words’ ash-colored lettering overlay a thick strip of the same shiny, silver material found elsewhere in the panel.

Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hold On To My Love”

reincarnation

Gay nightlife was “quiet” without the Saint (McEwan, 42). The Paradise Garage and Flamingo dance club had already closed when the Last Party took place, so, when Halloween came around after the Saint’s official closing in April of 1988, Bruce Mailman decided to host a party (McEwan, 42-44). This Halloween Party commenced a series of parties that became known as Saint-at-Large events (McEwan, 44).

Saint-at-Large parties now annually commemorate the four holiest celebrations of the original Saint: Halloween, New Years Eve, the White Party, and Black Party; the White and Black parties are the most popular events of the year (McEwan, 44). This annotation describes the Saint-at-Large’s 2016 Black Party trailer, whose wicked marine imagery elicits awe from the viewer. Further showcasing the living legacy of Bruce Mailman’s inventive artistry is the 1998 poster advertising the Saint-at-Large’s White Party.

Though the Saint-at-Large seeks to “keep the spirit of the original [Saint] alive,” many people have noted that the Saint-at-Large celebrations are mere “shadows” of what the Saint’s parties used to be (Peters, 142). The permanent loss of the euphoric disposition of the Saint’s heyday emphasizes the irretrievable nature of the past. Memories can never be replicated; the Saint will always maintain a “mystique” that is impenetrable even by vigorous research (Peters, 141). Generations now will never learn the liveliness of the original Saint; young gay men will never enjoy the “wonderful playground” that was Bruce Mailman’s very own haven of vices (Peters, 141). Though men still dance beneath dazzling lights and kiss in rhythm with Hi-NRG melodies, they cannot relish the gratification of the hours upon hours men their age spent in the original Saint (Peters, 142). They cannot travel back in time. To Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint, this restraint on any true comprehension of the Saint is lamentable (McEwan, 44). Younger gay generations who never experienced the original Saint “don’t know what it was [or] what they’ve missed” (qtd. in McEwan, 44). The naivete of this generation is astonishing to him given that they are grossly unfamiliar with the brilliant spark of their antecedents (Peters, 143). 

The disconnect that exists between the disco generation and the grunge youngsters saddened Bruce Mailman (Peters, 143). Mailman worried that his generation would not get to share its “collective wisdom” with the next generation of queer youth because of the devastation of AIDS (qtd. in Peters, 143). The sense that the “young [gay population] arrived newly born and can’t benefit from anything that went before them” is upsetting to Mailman (qtd. in Peters, 143). For the men and women who emerged out of the disco era and the sexual revolution, it seems the Saint is best appraised in recollection rather than revival (McEwan, 44). For them, nothing can compare to the original Saint and the original high of liberation (McEwan, 44). The freedom of the 70s never included the burden of AIDS now attached to gay identity; Mailman feels that the epidemic has darkened an otherwise beautiful expression of gay sexuality and identity (Peters, 143). He hopes that future gay generations will find the “same freedom [his generation] once had,” otherwise the community will continuously struggle to recover its historical vitality (qtd. in Peters, 143). 

Even if the Saint cannot be relived, its narrative must still be retold. The Saint is not irrelevant, even if, as Frank Courson acknolwedges, there “are entire portions of the city where [the gay community] can be comfortable” (McEwan, 44) The magnetizing majesty of the Saint comforted young gay men and offered them a “safe place” to be themselves and to love their significant others and lovers (McEwan, 44). The Saint shone like a beacon within the gay community, offering shelter and a supportive celebration of patrons’ self-hood that may seem unfit for the currently saturated generation (McEwan, 44). However, even despite the progress of civil rights within the LGBTQ+ community, the dissemination of the Saint’s story is still necessary.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate the club’s extraordinary impact on New York’s gay history. The quilt’s size symbolizes both the magnificent breadth of the physical Saint as well as its metaphorical significance in history. 

The Saint was a sinfully sexual disco that manifested the spiritual realization of an unapologetic existence (Peters). Serenading its customers with the rapturous anthems of a liberated generation, the Saint dance club was emblematic of the entire disco generation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). Primarily, the Saint bestowed a jubilant embrace of unrestrained, open desire upon its gay patrons (“Chapter 4: The Era“). In the Saint, desires and dreams were set free as a hot revolution of self-respect unfastened the binds of closeted men and women and turned them towards self-acceptance and sexual liberation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). The lifetime of the Saint embodies the rise and fall of the gay generation during the 1980s due to the AIDS epidemic by encapsulating both the heroism and vulnerability of New York’s gay community. The Saint’s memorial block fails to communicate the tremendous culture of the Saint, however its archival materials convey the club’s life span well.

As Carol Cooper acknowledges, the lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). However, quite a few of the materials cited in this essay involve direct quotations from the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman. Darrell Yates Rist, Brooks Peters, and Jonathan McEwan are authors whose invaluable articles contain interviews with Bruce Mailman himself as well as interviews of other close associates of the Saint. Though direct experience is the only way one can truly understand disco clubs or feel the true impact of disco music, written narratives still provide a crucial glimpse of the nature of the disco revolution. Without the circulation of firsthand documentation on the Saint, Mailman’s concern that there is no “continuity in the gay population” will come true (Peters, 143). To communicate across generational lines the struggle, liberation, and resilience of the gay community (particularly in New York, U.S.A.), the story of the Saint must be shared, as it both explains the importance of discos to the gay community as well as the role of uninhibited sexuality in the community’s freedom from oppression.

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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: 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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