Opinion: Bruce Mailman Was a Harm Reduction Activist

by Alexander Cheves

Bruce Mailman was many things: an off-Broadway impresario, a savvy real estate man, a gay man, a creative engine, a divisive figure, and one of many we lost to AIDS. The word “visionary” often gets mentioned when people discuss him; some even say “genius.” Former DJs, dancers, and New York nightlife figures evoke him the way some Catholics speak about the Virgin Mary or the Pope. Although he died in 1994, he has continued to make headlines.

He was the man behind The Saint, which was perhaps the last (and, to some, first) great gay nightclub, and he also owned the New St. Marks Baths, both located in the Lower East Side during the ’80s. Together, these businesses would, in different ways, define a generation of gay men — in great and terrible ways. Although AIDS had nothing to do with them, it also had everything to do with them. Their separate histories — the greatest bathhouse of its time, the club that hosted our most bacchanal parties, and a sexually-transmitted disease that, until somewhat recently, was a death sentence and remains so in many parts of the world — are closely intertwined. It is hard to speak of one and not the others.

Mailman incurred the wrath of gay men who campaigned ardently for bathhouses to close during the panic and terror of the plague years. New York City mandatorily shuttered New St. Marks in 1985 in response to public pressure, which prompted Mailman to write an eloquent and passionate op-ed in The New York Times that concludes with these excoriating words: “In the present crisis, it is the responsibility of the political leaders to cull the facts from the prejudice and hysteria and thus protect against an ignominious assault on the rights of an oppressed minority and, indeed, on the Constitution itself.”

Mailman argued that the closure was a publicity stunt, a gestural kowtowing to rising homophobia and antigay violence, that would only further harm gay men. “If there ever was a time for government intervention, it was in 1982 or before, not now. What’s more, the programs undertaken since 1982 by community groups and businesses, including spreading educational materials, are working,” he writes.

At New St. Marks, those efforts involved posting signs mandating safe sex, providing patrons with safe sex literature (produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis), disseminating packs of condoms printed with the bold declaration that that they “could save your life,” eliminating group sex rooms, patrolling hallways for unsafe sex practices, and requiring every patron to sign a statement affirming that they had read the provided safe sex guide and would adhere to its rules. It’s hard to imagine what more heavy-handed steps a business could do to promote healthy sexual behaviors and provide life-saving education. Ironically, in our present COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are encouraged to take similarly stringent measures — customers at nearly every restaurant and gym in Manhattan in 2020 are required to wear masks and many have their temperature taken upon entry. One wonders why measures deemed adequate today were insufficient then.

The bathhouses were closed. And many figures in gay history — Larry Kramer among them — portrayed Mailman as a villain for trying to keep them open. Mailman was a harm-reduction activist, perhaps without knowing it. “Harm reduction” has largely been formed and popularized as a response to public health crises in the years since Mailman passed. “Theoretically,” Mailman says in a 1985 Times article by Jane Gross, “you could have sex safely with 100 people or unsafely with one. I keep hearing, ‘I’ll cut back; I’ll just go out every six months.’ What good is that if the one time you go out you have unsafe sex? You’re better off in the baths.” Gross writes that Mailman “staunchly defends what many consider promiscuous behavior.”

There have always been moralistic oppositions to sex-positivity, but America’s censoring (and gentrifying) recent history — which has lasted for the better part of 50 years and led to rampant sex-phobia, pozphobia, and attacks on sex workers — started in America with the outbreak of AIDS. Mailman was therefore one of the first to call for reasoned, sex-positive education and harm reduction in a post-AIDS world and in opposition to mass panic. The ‘70s are considered America’s most decadent period only because of the chastening that followed, and after the party was over — even as it was being forced to end — Mailman espoused a strategy that is now the standard playbook for modern, progressive health advocates.

Harm reduction is utilized by present-day social workers, porn activists, sex work advocates, and those on the frontlines of addiction science and substance abuse as a more liberal, effective, and humane approach than traditional abstinence-based regimens. Harm-reduction activists push for safe needle exchange programs, monitored drug using sites, moderation coaching, sex worker support networks, accessible digital sex work platforms, sex education in schools, and the availability of contraceptives. The underlying philosophy is that censoring and shutdowns — closing a business, shuttering a website, and criminalizing behavior — only leads to greater harm.

Fair compensation was never given to bathhouse owners like Mailman (standard practice when the government closes private property for roads, airports, and so on). The closures deprived them of income and deprived their clients of safe space — a precious commodity in a climate of rising hostility against gay men that saw public violence against people living with AIDS. When the city adopted new penal codes in 1985 for “AIDS-related sex,” they included anal and oral sex but conveniently omitted vaginal sex; the city then used these codes to force Mineshaft — a BDSM sex club in the Meatpacking District — to close on November 7, 1985. The next month, on December 6, the city shuttered New St. Marks. Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, responded in the Times:

If the city or state really were concerned about being effective, we would see TV and radio spots, ads on trains and buses. There could be meetings through block and tenants’ associations and in mid-Manhattan buildings where a lot of people work, at lunchtime or after work, where the city and the state could send people in to do workshops.

And who knows what comes next? The specter of seeing sex cops, sex patrols, roaming the city and knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night while people are conducting sexual activity in a hotel room is something that troubles us tremendously. It’s extremely important for people to understand that the closing of a bathhouse is part and parcel of government cracking down on sexual freedom.

His words have resonance in a present-day New York devoid of sex shops, sex clubs, and street cruising. Want sex patrols? Look no further than the NYPD. Censorship exists widely online: today, stringent “Community Guidelines” on social media are part and parcel of a rising crackdown on sex content, which has disproportionately targeted the queer community. The sexual shutdown in the wake of AIDS led to a literal “cleaning up” of the city’s wilder pastimes under mayor Giuliani’s extensive urban cleanup missive in the late-‘90s . In 2020, there remains only one gay sex club in Manhattan.

Those who fought AIDS in its darkest years are still attacking harm reduction methods. In 2014, Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest HIV/AIDS service provider in the U.S., called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP — a daily pill that prevents HIV infection at 99% efficacy (better than condoms) — a “party drug.” In response, harm-reduction activists like Eric Paul Leue and others spoke out, and Leue even launched a petition to have Weinstein removed from the organization. Weinstein was a lauded AIDS activist in the ‘80s — he rallied against Lyndon H. LaRouche’s insidious Proposition 64, which qualified for the ballot in 1986 with 700,000 signatures and would have required all HIV-positive people to be forcibly quarantined, along with anyone potentially exposed to the virus. LaRouche had legions of followers and the initiative’s defeat was not a foregone conclusion. Weinstein helped defeat it.

In this context, Weinstein’s reaction to PrEP is the same as Larry Kramer’s campaign against bathhouses. Today, it’s not hard to find gay men of a certain age online who bash group sex and general promiscuity — a response to the trauma of AIDS. But a sex panic only puts individuals and at-risk communities in greater harm.

Kamala Harris, the running mate of Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, co-signed the legislation FOSTA/SESTA in 2018. Harris, who has a career-long history of anti-sex worker efforts, advocated in 2008 against an initiative that would have decriminalized sex work in San Francisco, saying, “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.” FOSTA/SESTA claimed to aid sex trafficking victims by holding websites criminally liable for content uploaded by their users, but long before these laws passed, sex workers and health advocates spoke against them, saying their terms were vague and overreaching and would decimate digital platforms that provide safe space for sex workers to meet and vet clients — spaces that were far safer than street work.

Their fears did materialize. The laws were quickly proven to actually worsen conditions for victims of sex trafficking by pushing them further underground — a reality that echoes Siegel’s dire warning in the Times that “if the bathhouses are closed, they’ll go underground; they’ll go to less safe places.”

The right way to respond to a sex panic is to reject moralism in favor of reason and realism. Doing so requires courage and a willingness to face public backlash, as Mailman did. During one of the greatest health crises in history, he argued that people will continue having sex in a pandemic — perhaps even more so — and therefore need safe sex information and safe space. His valiant — but ultimately failed — effort is striking as the world grapples with its second devastating pandemic that has seen similar attacks on sex and gay gatherings. Groups of gay men on Fire Island are being photographed and blasted on social media. People are being attacked — even killed — across the United States for either wearing face coverings or not wearing them. New York City’s bars, clubs, bathhouses, and dance venues have been mandatorily shuttered for almost a year — and many will not survive.

In San Francisco, bathhouses were outlawed in ‘84 and are still not allowed in the city. In the late ‘70s, the city had between 20 and 30 bathhouses catering to every possible tribe of gay men. (There’s a current effort to change the legislation banning them, but nothing has happened so far.) San Francisco historian Gayle Rubin credits the forced closure of the baths as one of the “nails in the coffin” of the city’s flourishing leather culture, which serves as an important reminder that sex panics and shutdowns do more than cause harm — they also destroy culture.

It’s perhaps inaccurate to say The Saint was shuttered by sex panic. Its members were wealthy, attractive, promiscuous men, and so many of them died that in the rising hysteria of AIDS, the mysterious disease was given a monicker that forever linked it to the club: “Saint’s Disease.” Although sex panic certainly contributed, the club’s membership dwindled principally because of AIDS itself. This is not the case for New St. Marks, which according to some reports was busy — even to capacity — until the day it was forced to close. Its closure was the result of the city’s failed and delayed response to AIDS and poor leadership, and resulted in one less space where gay men could access safe sex literature in a pandemic and at a time before such information was widely available on the internet. Its closure caused harm. Mailman did more than create beautiful experiences for gay men — he also tried to save them.

In honoring his legacy, we should re-examine our present response to the current COVID-19 crisis. The diseases are wildly different, of course, and in our Information Age, it’s hard to not see updates and information on the coronavirus. But with venues and businesses closed and many people forced into isolation, those suffering from substance abuse and depression have suffered alone and largely unsupported for nearly a year. The most vulnerable among us have, once again, been forced out of work, housing, and community. The pillory of the Internet has seen an uptick in public shaming of private gatherings. And our legacy queer businesses will likely not reopen. These measures may be necessary to prevent the spread of a global pandemic, but it’s also important to remember what we lose in them.

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