In the name of public health, authorities in San Francisco and New York City pursued the closure of gay bathhouses in 1984 and 1985, respectively. We challenge the dominant historical narrative that justified these closings, and through that challenge, we argue that these closures constituted a dignity taking against gay and queer-identified men. Bathhouses were not simply dens of impersonal anonymous sex. They were critical sites of community development and queer kinship. Many governing authorities neither considered the value of these institutions nor grappled with queer understandings of space, contact, intimacy, and belonging. The debates and the closures that followed did substantial cultural and political work to render gay men culpable for their own community’s sudden and relentless demise. As such, these closures were part of a larger anti-gay and anti-HIV cultural discourse that dehumanized and infantilized men who have sex with other men. The bathhouse closings fostered and perpetuated a narrative of culpability, ignited intense divisions within the gay and lesbian communities, and produced within gay men a deep distrust and even fear of governing institutions and of one another. We suggest that this failure to engage with queer logic is ongoing and limits contemporary efforts of dignity restoration that include same-sex marriage recognition. Given the limits of dignity, we conclude by offering some thoughts on what queer dignity restoration might entail.
Stephen M. Engel & Timothy S. Lyle,
Fucking With Dignity: Public Sex, Queer Intimate Kinship, and How the AIDS Epidemic Bathhouse Closures Constituted a Dignity Taking,
Chi.-Kent L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/cklawreview/vol92/iss3/13