I am writing this piece from the perspective of a gay man in his 70’s and what the word cruising means to me primarily in a sexual context. I look forward to hearing how the women in the group approach this subject from a lesbian world view.
The Midtowne Spa, Denver’s last gay bath house, closed earlier this month. There remain several spas and steam baths in the nearby suburbs, but none bill themselves as gay. A fair amount of rather clandestine gay hookups occurs in these establishments, but it is often very surreptitious with cruising for a partner being much too circuitous for my taste. I always preferred an establishment where sex was more likely to generate applause rather than get you kicked out. I exaggerate obviously since none of my exploits ever solicited applause but didn’t get me booted out on the street either.
I only frequented the Midtowne a few times with the Denver Swim Club formally known as the Empire Baths being my establishment of preference primarily in the mid to late 1970’s. One of my first bathhouse experiences was at a place called Gentleman’s Quarters located downtown if memory serves me correctly on Court Place. Once I discovered the Empire Baths though I was hooked. I never engaged in public cruising, or as notoriously known as the Tea Room Trade H/T to Laud Humphries.
My first sexual encounter was in 1967 with a much older man and did not involve cruising but rather more like stalking on my part. Until I discovered the bathes in Denver in the mid 1970’s sex for me was rather sparse but there was the occasional hookup usually in a group shower. The clientele showering was most often straight and gay so there was a real art form required with this cruising so as not to get tossed out or worse.
By the mid 70’s there were certainly many opportunities for the out or partially out gay man to find fruitful hookups with the bars being a main one along with many social, cultural and political organizations coming on the scene. The Center for example in its early years was certainly fertile ground for hookups, and quite frankly remains so to this day and might I say also this Story Telling Group. I suppose we can still call this cruising though much more civilized since we can usually go home to consummate.
I am sad the baths of days gone by no longer exist though I am not sure how realistically accessible they would be for me at my age and current body morphology. There are three issues that I think did them in. The first was the arrival of HIV in the early 1980’s. Though I think the baths were a significant form of quarantine many in the queer community and various Public Health and societal forces did not share that view. There was considerable pressure to regulate if not outright close these venues.
The baths never really recovered to their glory days from the tremendous and deadly havoc of AIDS. A second major blow came in the form of the Internet. All that was needed for potentially fast and satisfying hookups was a cell phone and zip code. And thirdly especially in large urban areas was the tremendous growth in gay space and community which allowed for many avenues to meet and greet in safety. Public cruising has never completely disappeared with the thrill and inherent danger involved still being attractive to a subset of gay men. I also think there is still a significant market for bathhouse sex and one day perhaps there will be a diverse blossoming of new venues.