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: And So Disco Begins

black RADIO BECOMES BLACK DISCO

In the 1930’s and 1940’s of the United States, white broadcasters owned black radio, and white announcers stifled black music (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). By failing to hire black announcers, white broadcasters deprived black musicality of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159). Radio refused autonomy over the black community’s own musical history. The struggle for authentic space and expression driven by members of the black community 

speak for yourself, be yourself, and create your own context and community, find a space that is your own, embrace your rights to be loud, open, and honest about your identity and your

Image credit: iHeartRadio

Yet, when the WDIA station of Memphis, Tennessee became the first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers,” black DJs began to thrive.

Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music. They became “community leaders” around the nation (Cooper, 159); along with black entrepreneurs, black DJs helped to engender a new culture of music: disco.

diverse disco cults

According to Carol Cooper, the author of “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground,” the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160).

New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). Black entrepreneurs began to transform college frat fundraisers and town rent parties into professional entertainment platforms.

The Manhattan clubs of Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (Cooper, 160). And though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (Cooper, 160). They were diverse.

Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homogeneous in attitude and composition” (Cooper, 160). Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular communities.

Disco “cults” fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161).

The Saint Dance Club is seen by many as the culmination of gay disco.

setting the stage for the saint

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era

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, Bruce 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 apotheosis of the disco era.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate its 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.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 5: The Clubs