Bleak House

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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