Bathhouses in the San Fernando Valley that attract homosexuals will use all legal means to remain open, the head of the Los Angeles County Bath Owners said Friday, as county officials planned closer scrutiny of the spas and considered closing them in light of the spread of AIDS.
Managers of several local bathhouses said they had already taken several voluntary steps to discourage the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. These included providing their patrons with free condoms and eliminating so-called orgy rooms. All said that business was down and that bathhouse practices have changed drastically in recent months.
"We will continue taking whatever action is necessary to keep our clubs open," said the spa association's leader, Alan Wilfong, 55. He owns the Serpent 8 in Burbank, which has a predominantly homosexual clientele. He said the association, which has about a dozen members, was considering some kind of action but declined to elaborate.
The county Board of Supervisors is considering closing 16 bathhouses in Los Angeles, including five in the Valley. National and local health officials have expressed concern that spas frequented by homosexuals, many of which function as sex clubs, have accelerated the spread of AIDS.
As of Sept. 30, the county had 1,191 reported cases of the disease, more than 95% of them among homosexual and bisexual men. AIDS transmission has also been traced to blood transfusions and intravenous drug use. The Valley accounted for 154 of the local cases, the Glendale-Burbank area for 54.
Wilfong and others said that closing the baths would drive those who desired casual sex with other men into public parks and other places less safe and private than the gay clubs. They also questioned whether the courts would support the closure of the baths by public officials.
"Courts in San Francisco and Atlanta reopened the clubs in both those cities," Gerry Goulet, 41, secretary of the spa owners, said. "It's our position that closing the baths is both illegal and unwarranted."
Goulet, who owns the Compound in North Hollywood, and others said they are not opposed to reasonable enforcement of health and safety regulations. "I don't have a problem with some regulations, but I do have a problem with government regulation of adult behavior," Goulet said.
Several spa owners characterized the bathhouse issue as primarily a political rather than public-health one. "If they can get away with taking the bathhouses away, then the gay bars will be next," Wilfong said, "and then the adult bookstores. And then we'll be back into the dark ages of 1955. Wilfong and other owners said that they felt they were being singled out for special scrutiny because they serve homosexuals.
"The bathhouse has become the sacrificial lamb," Goulet said.
The spa owners' group was formed in March, partly in response to the dramatic decline in patronage of the baths since AIDS emerged as a major health concern of the homosexual community, Wilfong said. Business at his own establishment has fallen 27% recently. The biggest dip, he said, came after actor Rock Hudson died last month of complications of AIDS.
Other gay spas estimated declines in patronage of 20%, at the Roman Holiday in Van Nuys, to more than 50% at the Corral Club in Studio City. Wally Bidsbury, 61, manager of the Roman Holiday, speculated that his club has been affected less because it has no facilities for group sex and other high-risk activities. The Roman Holiday is open to the public, unlike most spas, which are private clubs.
The spa owners argue that properly run bathhouses function as important centers for obtaining information about AIDS. Materials urging patrons to avoid sex acts that involve the exchange of blood or semen are prominently displayed in most of the spas. The Serpent 8 and several other Valley spas offer patrons free blood tests each month to detect the virus implicated in AIDS.
Goulet, who also runs the Westside's Hollywood Spa, said he voluntarily redesigned both of his bathhouses last year to safeguard the health of his clients. Orgy rooms and equipment associated with high-risk acts were eliminated, although private rooms with cots remain.
He said his clubs have never had the bondage rooms reportedly available in some spas. "Whenever I hear that on the 6 o'clock news, I imagine a thousand ladies in Encino dropping their soup spoons," Goulet said. "If the issues weren't so serious, it would be hilarious."
He said his clubs provide free condoms for their patrons. At Serpent 8, condoms are sold at the front desk for a dime apiece.
The view that the party is over for bathhouse patrons because of AIDS was supported by a visit to the Corral Club, cited by several members of the local gay community as a former hot spot. On a recent afternoon, the Corral Club was one of the loneliest places in town.