Tales of the early ’90s underground gay sex club scene
By Marke B.
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Thousands of fantastically perverse revelers (most of them gay) will flood San Francisco for the Folsom Street Leather Fair on Sept. 23, ensuring that every cranny of the city brims with wanton copulation — which really is the way it should always be in our famously lewd burg, no? Too bad that for the other 364 days of the year, good ol' slutty San Francisco is considered by erotic tourists to be one of the most prudish cities in the world.
Unlike other civic dens of iniquity, San Francisco has no gay bathhouses, no sleazy back rooms in bars (well, none that the cops have sniffed out yet), and a dwindling amount of mischief in the bushes. This sorry state of affairs is due partly to the advent of Internet hookup sites in 1996 (thanks, AOL) and partly to the break in gay traditions caused by the loss of a generation to AIDS. But mostly it's due to the "sex panic" of 1984, when well-meaning gay activists looking to protect gay men from their supposedly unsafe urges convinced the city to ban all bathhouses and enforce rules that separated public sex from any sort of alcohol consumption and unmonitorable activity. Gay folks would just have to go to Berkeley to get wet and have sex. That may have made BART more fun, but for many it seemed like a forced expulsion from SF's sexual garden by Big Brother.
In 1996, gay city supervisor Tom Ammiano tried to get the baths reopened by proposing a set of HIV-risk-reducing regulations that included no private rooms, no alcohol consumption, safer-sex education materials and condoms on-site, brighter lighting levels, and the presence of staff monitors to ensure against unsafe activity. Pretty oddly, the city adopted most of his proposed regulations — leading to the rise of today's slick, commercially licensed sex clubs — but kept the bathhouse ban. This means that it's now OK to pay to have sex with strangers in a public setting, but if there's any kind of water running other than from a broken toilet, you're in trouble.
Whether or not gay men in San Francisco should be left to their own sexual devices is still a matter of polemical debate. Or is it? Not many people seem to talk about it anymore. But you can't stop the party. From 1989, when the last bathhouse was closed by a city lawsuit, to 1997, when San Francisco began using commercial licenses to approve sex clubs, a vibrant sexual underground ruled. Often subject to raids by police, the underground included anonymous-encounter mainstays like Blow Buddies and Eros, both of which opened on a members-only basis in hopes of circumventing any legal trouble. It also included less formal play spaces like the Church of Phallic Worship and Orgasm, naughty nooks that live on only in legend.
This dark period — or golden age — of underground sex clubs (and with the lights off, it was probably both) has largely been forgotten. But exciting tales of the past still issue forth from it, and with the current revival of ’70s bathhouse nostalgia, it's interesting to note that bathhouse culture extended well into the ’80s — yep, folks were dropping towel to Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted Snake" — and poured out into the underground sex clubs of the early ’90s before being sucked toward the Ethernet of now. We asked a few of the scene's regular, anonymous players for their memories of some clubs of the time.
NIGHT GALLERY, A.K.A. MIKE'S PARTY
"You'd ring a little bell at this house a few doors down from the Powerhouse — tingaling-aling — and they'd open the door, and at the top of this long flight of thickly carpeted stairs, there'd be this guy sitting in a chair who would say in this flat, uncommitted voice, 'Welcome to my party. Friends tend to chip in $5 to help cover costs. My roommate's in the kitchen if you want to check your stuff.' That was Mike, and it was funny he said roommate, because you know no one really lived there.
"At the top of the stairs was this long hallway full of amateur erotic art — not like Tom of Finland, more like a horny Grandma Moses. I stole a drawing that I think was supposed to be of an S-M twink but more resembled a Christmas pixie in irons. I don't remember much about the sex rooms, except there was a shoddy maze in the back and a sign that said 'No talking in the fun zone.'
"In the kitchen there was a beer keg and a big aluminum bowl of shiny-looking Cheez-Its that I could just never bring myself to snack on. I knew where those Cheez-Its had been. There was also this kind of 'Your Own Carnival Hot Dog' maker that was more like a filthy aquarium with gray franks in tepid hot dog water that no queen would touch — despite the metal tongs provided 'for your protection.’”
"Conga-line dance-floor fucking was what I remember most about this place. Which is pretty darn difficult if you take varying heights into consideration. Trouble was a totally anything goes kind of club — after-hours alcohol served, a big dance floor with professional-looking lighting, out-in-the-open nasty sex. Like Studio 54 if Liza was a go-go whore and, you know, a sexy guy. It was in SoMa around Folsom and, I think, First.
"There were dark rooms and a maze upstairs — it was in a big warehouse space with a high ceiling. It got raided three or four times before they finally shut it down. It only lasted like eight months. During the raids the cops weren't all, like, 'Let's get the faggots,' they were more, like, bored, flashing their lights around and saying in a polite voice, 'Please leave — you have to go now,' like they were ushers and we had overstayed our welcome at the opera."
THE BLACK HOUSE
"The Black House was freakin' scary. It was this old Victorian off Castro painted completely black. I had just moved here — in 1994. I was 23 and thought the Black House was where Anton LaVey used to live and they had Satanic rituals there, but really it was just a bunch of naked guys fooling around in the basement. I don't remember exactly where it was, but somehow my drunk feet took me there after the bars closed.
"Mostly the guys were cute in a hustler sort of way — this was when tweakers left the house to get laid. But there would be some letches. One guy followed me around telling everyone I looked like an Etruscan statue. I got really embarrassed and had to leave and go look up Etruscan. One time the hot young guy doing coat check took out his teeth to blow some other guy. I wonder whatever happened to him."
"Orgasm was across the street from Endup on Sixth, so you could just stumble there and have sex at any time of the day or night, it seemed. There was this huge stage, 10 feet deep, where they had live sex shows and some really crusty Goodwill couches. One time I tricked with a guy who asked me to drop him off at Orgasm, and the minute he got there, he shed his clothes and got up onstage for a show. Where did he get the energy?
"Like most other clubs, it was in a warehouselike space, very minimal. There was a door guy and another guy inside with a clipboard, but that was just to look official — there was never anything on the clipboard. The space was divided by curtains for ‘privacy’ and had a long overhead shelf with candles on it, which added atmosphere to the ‘lovemaking.’ There were turntables, and I remember it was around the time that Boy George came out with ‘Generations of Love,’ which was a surprisingly good record."
CHURCH OF PHALLIC WORSHIP
"I think the Church in SoMa used to have ads in the back of the Bay Area Reporter, but everyone just seemed to know about it. It had a real rough, underground feel. I don't know if it was officially religiously affiliated, but maybe they got free parking out of it. They served beer after hours — it was like a one-stop shopping hub of gay socializing: backyard barbecue, glory holes, music, the works.
"It was run by a Santa Claus–type character called Father Frank, and every time you called the info line, he'd answer the phone by reciting a homoerotic limerick in this hilariously effeminate voice, like Rona Barrett on 33 1/3. It was a cross between a house and a warehouse — pretty big, but it could get way too overcrowded. What was so great was that it went all night, yet no one seemed like they were on speed. Everyone was just drunk and having a great time."
"This was a big house down by Guerrero and Market near where the LGBT Center is now. I remember this huge door with a tiny window you had to knock on, like it was a speakeasy in Communist Czechoslovakia. This totally hot bald guy would answer, and I'd kind of be intimidated because he was so muscular. Years later he became my personal trainer at Gold's Gym.
"The place was painted all black on the inside and was on two levels, one overlooking the other. Balconesque, as the French would put it. There were these little cubbyholes all over the place that two people could fit in, and maybe you could squeeze in three on occasion. On weekends it was packed. It was cheap too: $5 for the whole night, and they'd stamp your hand so you could get in and out. I didn't go too much, because it was in my neighborhood and I like being a little incognito. That's a little more classy." SFBG