Bathhouses became a popular hangout for gay men in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when homosexual acts were still illegal. They saw their heyday in the late 1970s, with nearly 200 located in cities across the country. But by 1990, that number had been cut in half — the AIDS epidemic caused major cities to force the baths closed over health concerns. Today, less than 70 bathhouses remain nationwide, and the patrons tend to skew older. Now apps like Grindr and Scruff are only making them less popular among younger guys.
But that isn’t stopping the North American Bathhouse Association’s (NABA, yep that’s a thing) 75-year-old president Dennis Holding from giving up hope.
In a recent interview with Vice, Dennis discussed bathhouses of past, present and future. Here’s some of what he said:
On the atmosphere of clubs back in the ’70s:
It was a social place then. That’s what I believe our function is even today. Yeah, there was sex, of course, but the clubs we were building had swimming pools, gyms—they had a lot to offer. We have people who have been going to one of our clubs for 20 years, 30 years. It’s part of their social thing. There are plenty of people I know just by there being there so much. It’s part of their routine.
Why a bathhouse makes more sense than Grindr:
Let’s say you’ve met Sam Stranger online. That’s cool. You want to bring a stranger into your apartment? Maybe not. You want to go to his place, which is far out in Queens or wherever? Maybe not. But if you had a place to go on the East Side or West Side that you thought was clean and pleasant and welcoming, why not meet there?
What’s keeping the bath’s from reaching their full potential?
You can’t have sex on the premises where food and beverage are served.
Hmm. We can’t say we’re entirely convinced by Dennis’ arguments. To say nothing of the fact that most bathhouses are dingy, mildewy and smell like cheap lube.
You can read Dennis’ full interview, including the time he felt around in the dark and recognized an old friend via an unconventional handshake, on Vice.