Remembering Pleasure in a Pandemic

Brian Coyle was also a co-founder of Hundred Flowers and a frequent contributor. He later became the first openly gay Minneapolis City Council member // Photo by Warrenhanson, Creative Commons 3.0

The decisions to close bathhouses during the AIDS epidemic were not always easy or right. But these past decisions can guide us into a more empathetic and inclusive queer future.

Brian Coyle, an openly gay Minneapolis council member, was elected in 1983, having been out since 1971 and a gay rights and anti-war activist prior to being on the city council. Once elected, he confronted the vice squad on their entrapment of gay men in adult bookstores, confronted the police chief on why anti-gay hate crimes and murders were not thoroughly investigated, and fought to increase funding for the Minnesota AIDS Project. 

Coyle was a champion that the LGBTQ+ community looked to for representation and leadership. But not all decisions are easy, especially in the middle of a plague

In 1987 and 1988, St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively, passed ordinances banning the operation and existence of establishments that facilitated “high-risk sexual conduct.” This meant the closure of viewing booths, sex-oriented movie theatres, and mainly bathhouses. The Twin Cities were not alone; many major metropolitan cities closed their bathhouses (SF in 1984, NYC in 1985) as the AIDS epidemic tore through communities of men who have sex with men, transgender women, and IV drug users.

Bathhouses still fall under the designation of banned “hazardous sites” named in Minneapolis City Ordinance Chapter 219.5, though experts in the 1980s debated whether closures would actually prevent HIV/AIDS. The ordinance itself is overtly discriminatory, defining “high-risk sexual conduct” as: (a) Fellatio (b) Anal intercourse (c) Vaginal intercourse with persons who engage in sexual acts in exchange for money. These are not the only types of sexual acts that can spread HIV, just the ones that are most associated with queer people and sex workers. 

Coyle had a track record of fighting for the rights of queer people in the Twin Cities. He demonstrated commitment to the public health of his people: their right to be safe outside, their right to have sex, their right to privacy, their right to be protected by the state, and their right to gather together. 

So if the ordinance was discriminatory and it may not have worked in preventing HIV/AIDS, why did Coyle support it?

Coyle himself was tested positive for HIV in 1986, which was not public knowledge until 1991, the year he died from AIDs-related complications. This, combined with the entire weight of Minneapolis’s gay community, was on his shoulders as he considered his decision. Though Coyle initially did not support the ordinance, he later changed his mind.

His scrawled meeting notes on a yellow legal pad read: “But this issue, the so-called ‘bathhouse’ issue is the most frightening because it is so divisive and I risk rejection by many people I respect.” And he was right. After the vote on the ordinance passed, one gay constituent wrote to him comparing Coyle to Judas: “How many straight votes have you sold us out for?” 

His personal papers at the Minnesota Historical Society flitter with pink slips of paper containing the summaries of phone calls from his constituents and their opinions about closing the bathhouses. One reads, “Greg and Bob support your stance on the…ordinance, and they support the ordinance if it’s truly enforced in straight as well as gay establishments.” 

Another comment reads, “Brian Coyle! Had the above [ordinance] been put into place in 82-83-84-85-86, thousands of men’s lives would have been saved—why? The gay community would have gotten a strong message of urgency to change and FAST…”

The Minnesota Alliance Against AIDS came out against closing the bathhouses. Citing a study from the American Journal of Public Health, April 1987—having sex in a bathhouse was not one of the riskier factors in whether or not one would contract HIV. The Minnesota Alliance argued that the aforementioned study failed to recognize that bathhouses serve as a community space for education and accountability.

Poet Essex Hemphill noted bathhouses signaled something different to men of color, specifically Black men:

At the baths, certain bars, in bookstores and cruising zones, Black men were welcome because these constructions of pleasure allowed the races to mutually explore sexual fantasies…The sites of pleasure were more tolerant of Black men because they enhanced the sexual ambiance, but that same tolerance did not always continue once the sun began to rise…

–“Brother to Brother,” Introduction, p.xxxviii

The Minnesota AIDS Project also had concerns, “…The closing of the bathhouse would not serve a useful public health purpose […] and that for the time being, the bathhouse may serve as a useful and effective venue for reaching some gay and bisexual males who might be initiating high risk sexual activities which transmit the HIV.” They argued closing bathhouses would not eliminate sexual encounters, anonymous or otherwise. Instead, it would scatter the sexual encounters from the bathhouses into parks and public bathrooms where education and health resources were lower and anonymity and risk were higher.

There was also fear closing bathhouses would infringe upon rights of the LGBTQ+ community beyond just bathhouses. 

For years prior to the AIDS epidemic, groups like the Minnesota Clearinghouse to Eliminate Pornography were trying to “clean up” Minneapolis. These groups used HIV/AIDS as an opportunity to scare and pressure elected officials into meeting their demands of eliminating queer gathering sites. 

Additionally, the police and vice squad had been conducting raids on LGBTQ+ gathering spaces and brutalizing queer and transgender patrons that frequented them. LGBTQ+ groups and activists feared that this ordinance would lead to closures of gay bars, social groups, and other community resources that educated about LGBTQ+ public health initiatives.

When Minneapolis and St. Paul lost bathhouses, they lost democratic sexual spaces that provided opportunity for HIV/AIDS education and testing. This likely adversely affected the most marginalized people in the queer communities in the Twin Cities: men of color, those living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, and people who use drugs. 

Despite these unintended consequences of bathhouse closures, Coyle deserves some grace. He is only one of many council members who supported it. As the sole gay person on the city council, making a decision that affected his community so greatly one way or the other, is nearly an impossible one to make. His decision does not merely reflect his political beliefs but his experiences as a public servant, gay man, member of the LGBTQ+ community, and as a person living with AIDS. 

Inevitably, all queer spaces in the 1980s (and after) were viewed as hazardous to public health, because they were queer. In reality, they are sites of potential education and healing for those living with, and who were affected by, HIV/AIDS and other public harms like police brutality, hate crimes, and homophobia. 

Because of COVID-19, we are on the precipice of potentially losing more queer spaces in the Twin Cities. As we begin to slowly return to bars, our sports leagues, our restaurants, or other queer sites, we must ask ourselves: how can these spaces be sites of healing, education, and empowerment? And can we reach such an empathetic understanding of each other if these spaces are not dedicated to eliminating all of the public health crises that face our community like transphobia, racism, misogyny, and police violence?