Gay community struggles with safe-sex issue

The Associated Press

NEW YORK─ A decade after many of New York City's gay bathhouses and sex clubs were shut down to prevent AIDS, they're back, along with fierce arguments among gay men over what to do about them.

Some activists say the government should monitor sexual activity in such clubs because the survival of a new generation of gay men is at stake. They want to forbid all oral and anal sex, whether or not condoms are used.

Opponents of a crackdown say there's nothing wrong with men having sex in bars and clubs as long as they're using condoms. They say men are just as likely to have unsafe sex with a lover in a bedroom as with a stranger in a back room.

In the mid-1980s, New York, San Francisco and other cities closed bathhouses and other clubs where oral and anal intercourse without condoms had been common long before AIDS.

The action followed a bruising debate pitting club supporters, including many gay political leaders, against other prominent gay men, such as ''And the Band Played On'' author Randy Shilts. He felt the clubs had to be closed to slow the AIDS epidemic.

Now, while the city doesn't have an official count, activists estimate there are 30 to 50 clubs in New York where sex is occurring.

Many are a new type of club that emerged at the end of the 1980s, ''essentially mutual masturbation or group masturbation places,'' said Jim Eigo, a writer and AIDS activist who was one of 400 people at a community forum held to debate the issue last month.

''There's very little anal sex, and all the anal sex that I see in these clubs is protected,'' he said.

The debate flared in February, when the West Side Club opened in New York. It's a 1970s-style bathhouse with private cubicles where patrons' sexual practices can't be monitored.

Gabriel Rotello, former editor of the now-defunct gay magazine Outweek, wrote in New York Newsday that during a visit to another sex club, Zone DK, he had witnessed ''a murder-suicide'' ─ two men having unprotected sex.

Rotello and others are campaigning to force the clubs to comply with the state health code, which prohibits oral, anal or vaginal sex in commercial establishments.

Neither Paul Gallucio, who owns the West Side Club, nor Michael Fesco, promoter of Zone DK, returned repeated calls.

AIDS activists who oppose a crackdown complain that the state health code makes no distinction between sex with and without a condom.

''As long as the law remains unchanged,

to enforce it is to campaign against public sex, not unsafe sex,'' said Michael Warner, who wrote a Village Voice story called ''Why Gay Men Are Having Risky Sex.''

Opponents of a crackdown say that for gay men, having sex where and with whom one chooses is a hard-fought right.

''We do not believe that the government has a role in telling adults what they can do sexually,'' said Marc Elovitz, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's national AIDS project. ''To invite the government to do so is to bring the repressive forces of the state on us.''

The city said it has been enforcing the health code and has more than 30 sex-club inspectors.

The city's position was called into question by a Jan. 23 Daily News editorial quoting Health Department spokesman Steve Matthews as saying the city was treading lightly in cracking down on the clubs for fear of appearing homophobic.

Shortly after the editorial appeared, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani fired Matthews.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the city's health commissioner, denied that a fear of appearing homophobic had slowed the city's response. But Hamburg said the city must proceed cautiously to make sure that any club closings stand up to court challenges.

Whether because of the city's efforts or the activists' ─ or both ─ it seems that at least in the short term, sex clubs are changing their practices.

Daily News columnist Amy Pagnozzi donned a fake mustache to accompany two men to Zone DK and found it had ''cleaned up its act, for the time being.'' She reported that activity she witnessed ''never got hotter than a high school hooky party.''

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