Bleak House

Sex, Drugs, Love, and War -- the Long, Lost History of a Hundred-Year-Old Building

| April 13, 2006

Club Z, a gay bathhouse on a busy street in Seattle, has been the site of countless sexual encounters since the 1980s. Many patrons view the club as a safe place to escape the sexual norms of the larger culture. Christopher Frizzelle, in a piece for the alternative weekly The Stranger, suggests otherwise. Taking us through the history of the club -- which is slated for demolition -- Frizzelle tells a sometimes personal tale of sex, AIDS, and meth in this corner of the gay community.

'My obsession with it is personal. It haunts me,' writes Frizzelle, who left a boyfriend whom he loved because the man couldn't stay away from the club. Housed in a hundred-year-old building, Club Z provides showers, rooms, harnesses, slings, privacy, and condoms (rarely used) for its patrons. Women are not allowed, and one must have membership in order to go there, making the place something of a mystery to the neighborhood.

It is no mystery to Frizzelle, however, who went there twice with his (ex-)boyfriend and also on a number of occasions while reporting the piece. His conclusion: 'It is a building that has destroyed people.' The club, he maintains, did little to avert the devastating effects AIDS had on the community that it aimed to serve. In fact, it did just the opposite: '[T]he rise of the 'AIDS problem' coincided with increasingly tantalizing advertisements for Club Z,' Frizzelle reports. In other words, as AIDS got its legs, so did the club -- to disastrous consequences.

Moreover, meth has become a drug of choice for men who go on sex-binges at places like Club Z. Able to stay hyper-alert and sexually active for long stretches of time, bathhouse patrons who use meth find themselves at extremely high risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Frizzelle quotes Hunter Hansfield, a University of Washington professor of medicine, as saying that the rate of contraction gay meth-users face is matched by 'subsets of commercial sex workers in Africa.'

So why would anyone put themselves in that much danger? Frizzelle tries to address this, pondering 'what it would be like to be gay and HIV-positive in this country right now, in other words to be in the margins of a margin, and how that might change your feelings about 'community.'' At the edge of marginalization, the men who go to the bathhouse find their thrills where they can, leaving the rest to ruin, if only to be able to say, as one patron reports: 'Had a great time while I was there.'
-- Nick Rose

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