San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The head of the San Francisco Health Department closed fourteen gay bathhouses and other businesses, including bookstores, movie theaters, and sex clubs, after investigators saw at those businesses what they believed were sexual acts that were high risk for HIV transmission. The regulatory approach caused extensive debates as gay activists raised civil liberty issues.

Summary of Event

On April 9, 1984, Mervyn Silverman, San Francisco’s public health director, banned sexual activity in fourteen of the city’s bathhouses, bookstores, movie theaters, and sex clubs. He stated, “What we are doing today is taking steps to eliminate bathhouses as places of sexual encounters between individuals.…That doesn’t mean the elimination of such places. What we are trying to do is reduce the spread of AIDS.” [kw]San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses (Oct. 9, 1984) [kw]Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses, San Francisco Closes (Oct. 9, 1984) [kw]Bathhouses and Other Businesses, San Francisco Closes Gay (Oct. 9, 1984) Bathhouse closures Health and medicine;and closure of gay bathhouses[closure of gay bathhouses] HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];and closure of gay bathhouses[closure of gay bathhouses] [c]Civil rights;Oct. 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses[1590] [c]HIV-AIDS;Oct. 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses[1590] [c]Health and medicine;Oct. 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses[1590] Silverman, Mervyn Wonder, Roy L. Feinstein, Dianne

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, a fatal disease that in 1984 had been in the public eye for at most five years and was mainly affecting homosexual men, is primarily spread through sexual contact. By 1984, 477 San Franciscans had AIDS and 175 had died.

The reaction to the restrictions was divided. Some accepted the measure as a possible way to prevent the spread of the virus (human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV) believed to cause AIDS. Others feared that increased regulations meant increased discrimination against gay male communities. The question of civil liberties Civil rights;and HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS] versus public health regulations was debated among activists, politicians, and media.

Public health officials first began targeting bathhouses in 1983 as a way to control AIDS. Bathhouses and sex clubs were primarily designed for multiple sexual encounters; finding numerous contacts in a short amount of time meant more opportunities to become infected. While some considered closing the bathhouses completely, others felt that the activities within the baths would merely move outside to parks and public toilets, where access to condoms was nonexistent. Initial city efforts to curb high-risk sex at these establishments, however, had limited success.

To test the effectiveness of the ban, undercover private investigators inspected the establishments during the summer of 1984. They witnessed, according to Silverman, a “blatant disregard for the health of their patrons and of the community.” Bathhouses were profiting by permitting high-risk sexual contacts. Given the transmissible disease, sexually active men were at risk. Officials had hoped that gay men, knowing the health hazards, would voluntarily reduce anonymous sexual contacts. They also had believed bathhouse owners would take action to stop certain sex practices.

On October 9, 1984, Silverman ordered nine bathhouses and five bookstores and theaters to close. Sexual activity, which was not in compliance with the April ordinance, was still taking place. At that time, 723 San Franciscans had AIDS. San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein stated, “I am absolutely convinced that the public health would be better served by closure of the bathhouses.”

Owners of several of the bathhouses filed suit to block the authorities from carrying out the order, contending that it was unconstitutional. On October 15, 1984, Superior Court judge William E. Mullins ordered the bathhouses to close temporarily until a hearing could take place. Although First Amendment rights kept the bookstores and theaters open, the bathhouses became known as a health menace. Five bathhouses asked the state’s First District Court of Appeal to let them reopen pending a hearing with regard to permanent closure. The appeals court refused.

On November 28, Superior Court judge Roy L. Wonder lifted the temporary restraining order but imposed strict limitations on sexual behavior. Bathhouse operators who allowed their establishments to remain open were forced to hire employees to monitor sexual "Sex police," and AIDS epidemic[sex police and] activity and remove anyone who engaged in high-risk activity: sex acts that involve the exchange of bodily fluids, as defined by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Private rooms were banned, and the doors to cubicles and booths were to be removed. Establishments were under orders to assign monitors to patrol the premises and remove patrons who violated the regulations. The numbers had indicated that 817 San Franciscans had AIDS, and 358 had died from the disease.

Bathhouse owners, some hoping to maintain their highly profitable businesses, were willing to regulate sexual activity in public areas. Many did hire monitors and remove orgy rooms. Posters went up to inform patrons of what constituted safer versus high-risk sex. Most owners, however, refused to remove the doors from the rooms, saying that they would not spy on their patrons. They argued that activity in the cubicles was protected by privacy rights Privacy rights set forth in the California constitution. The creation of a “sex police” made many uncomfortable, and they had difficulty removing paying patrons. After Judge Wonder’s ruling, many bathhouses closed as business declined, but a few remained open.


Gay bathhouses were important in the emergence of a gay male community in the twentieth century, giving patrons the safety and freedom with which to explore multiple relations. These “legal” spaces played a significant role in gay liberation and the development of a gay identity.

To many gays, publicizing the activities at the baths meant airing dirty laundry in public. Some in the gay population were concerned about individual rights and confidentiality. To these men, the closing of the baths was an attack on a gay lifestyle, a political more than public health issue. Many argued that the gay community had the right to make its own decisions.

Silverman, who left his job in January of 1985, maintained that he had acted responsibly in the face of the serious threat presented by the disease. “As I read medical history,” he said, “there has been no modern disease with the deep social impact of AIDS. Polio was frightening and tragic, but even that disease did not carry all the social implications of AIDS.”

The conflict between some gay leaders and city authorities on how to contain AIDS, amid fears and anxieties, created heated debate and recriminations. Some still feel that the bathhouses should have been closed immediately. Others believe that a stronger educational approach would have been more effective, one that reached the portion of the gay population who sought and might well continue to seek multiple or communal sexual engagements. The latter group holds that, rather than focusing on the sites of sexual encounters, everyone would have benefited more from efforts to communicate the value of practicing safer sex.

Because of the long incubation period for the AIDS virus—years and sometimes decades—it is difficult to determine the impact of the efforts of the San Francisco authorities, as well as those in other cities with large gay populations who learned from San Francisco and followed its lead. However, by late 1985, instances of sexually transmitted diseases including rectal gonorrhea were down. AIDS began receiving mass media attention, and the use of condoms during sexual intercourse began to increase. Many gay men made major changes in their lives to slow the spread of AIDS. Bathhouse closures Health and medicine;and closure of gay bathhouses[closure of gay bathhouses] HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];and closure of gay bathhouses[closure of gay bathhouses]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dritz, Selma K., and Mervyn F. Silverman. The AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco: The Medical Response, 1981-1984. Vol. 1. Berkeley: Regents of the University of California, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fan, Hung, Ross F. Conner, and Luis P. Villarreal. AIDS: Science and Society. 4th ed. Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Kenneth H., and H. F. Pizer, eds. The AIDS Pandemic: Impact on Science and Society. San Diego, Calif.: Elsevier/Academic, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Emergence of AIDS: The Impact on Immunology, Microbiology, and Public Health. Washington, D.C.: American Public Health Association, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, William J., and Diane Binson, et al., eds. Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

September, 1986: AZT Treats People with AIDS

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

June 25, 1993: Clinton Appoints First AIDS Czar

Categories: History