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 One

“SAFER SEX GUIDELINES FOR GAY MEN (& EVERYONE).” New York Native, 2 May 1988, p. 45. 

safe sex is sexy!

The New York Native is a bi-weekly newspaper that ran from 1980 to 1997, which began its publication in December of 1980. Gay men and lesbians comprised the newspaper’s audience, whose home-base was in New York City, New York. Over time, this NYC newspaper grew in influence, eventually becoming one of the United States of America’s most prominent gay publications of its time. In 1984, the New York Native claimed a readership of 80,000 people, though it later suffered great controversy and public disdain. 

Issue 263 of the New York Native, published on May 2nd, 1988, features guidelines to safer sex presented by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in small font under its LOVERS ONLY header. Copyrighted in 1986, GMHC’s guidelines offer informed instructions on safe sex towards readers without shyness or imprecise expression. Hoping to impress upon readers the importance of safe sex, GMHC assures readers that safe sex can also be “fun, exciting-hot, horny-and completely satisfying.” Condoms or other barrier methods of birth control and STI prevention have sometimes been stigmatized or portrayed as unattractive or burdensome, yet the GMHC promises that even with condoms and other forms of protection, “it is absolutely possible to continue having great sex!”

Additionally, GMHC acknowledges that great sex comes in many forms. Though this column’s title, “Safer Sex Guidelines for Gay Men (& Everyone),” seems to include persons not fitting the description of “gay men” as an afterthought, the column’s content provides a range of safe sex practices for partners of multiple genders. Safe sex should be employed by “everyone” and in every sexual encounter, unless you are a member of a couple that has been “exclusively sexually monogamous since 1978.”

DISPROVEN myths

First, the column article dispels myths surrounding the transmission of AIDS and HIV, one of the most devastating myths being that only gay men contract HIV. The GMHC states that “Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of exposure to the AIDS virus.” Additionally, it only takes one sexual partner carrying the virus to infect his or her lover, so reducing one’s number of sexual partners does not guarantee safety from its transmission. The article then lists that AIDS can be transmitted “through the exchange of certain bodily fluids,” but not through hugging, kissing, or sharing bathrooms or kitchens. Frottage (rubbing against another person’s clothed body), cuddling, showering together, massaging, and mutual masturbation are similarly not considered to be modes of transmission, and are safe forms of contact.

However, the exchange of cum and pre-cum should be avoided during oral sex and sexual intercourse. A condom should always be worn during vaginal and anal sex, and should only be used with water-soluble lubricants such as KY jelly. For instance, Vaseline is a petroleum-based jelly that will degrade a latex condom and render it ineffective, thus it should not be used.

At the time, using spermicidal jelly containing Nonoxydol-9 was also encouraged by some experts. Now, spermicide usage is heavily encouraged. Spermicides kill sperm specimens and now are often manufactured with the lubricant on condoms nowadays. Sometimes, separately-sold lubricants contain spermicide in them, however this is not always the case. One can find spermicides at drug stores in the United States and apply them to condoms. Spermicides do not protect against sexually transmitted infections.

The following are some of the specific instructions given for activities one might engage in during sex:

“…avoid putting the head of the penis into your mouth.

…never allow anyone to ejaculate in your mouth.

…withdrawing before ejaculation, even with a condom, is safest, since a condom can break.

Fisting is dangerous!

…and carries the risk of AIDS transmission through the exchange of blood. If you do it, always use a rubber glove.

-if you are bisexual, avoid contact with menstrual flow. Use a condom.

Oral contact with fecal material (rimming) should be avoided to reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases. One should use a condom, finger cot or rubber glove if giving a rectal massage. Avoid oral contact with fingers after this.”

do the guidelines give sound guidance?

Though this information is decades old, it is not entirely inaccurate. We now know that HIV (human deficiency virus) is contracted first before AIDS is able to develop in the body, which the GMHC guidelines were intermittently expressive of. The known modes of transmission of HIV/AIDS and other types of STDs is through exposure to infected blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, breastmilk, and vaginal secretion. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these fluids must come in direct contact with a mucous membrane, such as those found in the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth. Infected fluids that are injected directly into the bloodstream, or come into contact with damaged tissue or open wounds can also transmit the HIV virus.

GMHC was correct in stating that saliva alone does not have the potential to infect people with the HIV virus. Saliva has to be mixed with the blood of an HIV positive partner for transmission to occur during kissing or other oral activities. Even oral sex is not considered to be a high-risk activity for HIV transmission. The CDC acknowledges that oral sex (putting one’s mouth on the penis, vagina, or anus) could transmit the HIV virus, but generally there is “little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex” (CDC). If oral ulcers, bleeding gums, genital sores, or other sexually transmitted diseases (which may or may not be visible) are present in the mouth, then the risk of HIV transmission through oral sex will increase. Though seminal ejaculation of an HIV-positive person into another’s mouth could technically transmit the virus, this is an “extremely rare” occurrence according to the CDC.

The GMHC stressed that oral sex performed on a penis was dangerous, and asserted that one should “never” let someone ejaculate into one’s mouth. Now, the paranoia surrounding oral sex and HIV transmission has quieted due to increased scientific knowledge. GMHC’s guidelines are still valuable, however, because they show the state of knowledge at the time of their release and the focal points of HIV protection among the queer community written for the queer community.

GMHC was correct in stating that “oral contact with fecal material (rimming) should be avoided” due to the probability of contracting other sexually transmitted diseases. The CDC states that if feces enters one’s mouth during anilingus, rimming, or oral sex on the anus, one can contract hepatitis A, hepatitis B, parasites such as Giardia, or bacteria such as Salmonella or E. coli.

Still, we now know the main activities that often spread HIV. Vaginal or anal sex with an HIV positive partner without a condom or the consumption of HIV preventative or treatment medication is one such activity that spreads HIV most often in the United States. Receptive anal sex, or bottoming, is considered by the CDC to be the highest-risk behavior for an HIV negative person. However, topping, or insertive anal sex, may also transmit the virus. Partners engaging in vaginal sex are less likely to get HIV than if they engaged in anal sex. The sharing of equipment (such as needles, rinse water, or syringes) used to inject drugs with someone who is HIV positive is another risky behavior associated with the transmission of HIV in the United States.

The GMHC also claimed the following:

“-Poppers (inhalents) have been linked to Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer associated with AIDS. DON’T USE POPPERS.”

Poppers create a “high” or euphoric feeling in consumers, while also relaxing the throat and anal muscles. In the 1980’s, poppers were popularly used during sex in the gay community, and still are used today. Poppers have not been found to lead to the development of Kaposi’s sarcoma with significant scientific consensus, however, likewise stated by the GMHC, alcohol and drugs can impair a person’s judgement. According to the CDC, alcohol consumption as well as the use of drugs such as GHB, ecstasy, and poppers, lower one’s inhibitions and impair one’s ability to make informed, safe decisions regarding sex and other drug use. While poppers do not cause Kaposi’s sarcoma, they might cause users to engage in unsafe sex, which could lead to their contraction of an STD like HIV/AIDS.

then vs. now

The CDC’s informational page on HIV transmission was last updated on June 6th, 2017. Today is October 20th, 2017. GMHC’s guidelines appear to have been released in 1986, given the copyright date found at the bottom of the article. Scientific research has expanded and improved remarkably since 1986, so one knows that the credibility of the CDC has also risen with time.

The following video gives an overview of the current information known about HIV/AIDS, prevention and protection against HIV/AIDS, as well as how to live with them.

Even though some parts of the GMHC’s guidelines are incorrect, they still promote accurate methods of engaging in safe sex. Information about HIV transmission was not predominantly incorrect or misleading, which shows that these guidelines would have been trustworthy then, and to an extent, even now.