From Issue 3.2 - December 1996/January 1997

San Francisco Sex Clubs Under Fire Again

Mayor Puts Legislation on Hold -- Power Exchange Club Restricted

By Liz Highleyman

The two year process of developing new regulations for San Francisco's sex clubs came to a climax in mid-October. Supervisor Tom Ammiano proposed the legislation, which was drafted by the Coalition for Healthy Sex (CHS) -- a group of club and party operators, Department of Public Health (DPH) representatives, and AIDS prevention eductors.

The Board of Supervisors was due to consider the legislation in late November, but plans were changed after a flurry of media attention emphasizing the shock value of queer public sex. A November 15 editorial in the SF Examiner called for the closure of all sex clubs.

Mayor Willie Brown, who had previously expressed support for the legislation, backtracked in the face of public controversy. In early November, Brown, DPH director Sandra Hernandez, and AIDS Office chief Mitch Katz decided that in lieu of formal legislation, sex clubs would be regulated by DPH guidelines, which will likely be similar to the proposed legislation.

Katz stated that the "vast majority" of sex clubs already operate in an appropriate manner and it doesn't make sense to institute legislation to deal with the few that do not. The DPH will conduct "more frequent monitoring" and "more rigorous enforcement," Katz said, and will have the authority to close clubs that do not comply with the guidelines.

The proposed legislation would have created a special permit for commercial sex clubs, which are currently operated under general business licenses. Unprotected anal and vaginal intercourse and fisting would be prohibited; SM activity is not specifically mentioned. The regulations also include provisions concerning safer sex supplies, HIV/AIDS education, staff training, lighting levels, monitoring, and accessibility of private spaces.

New Law Would Impose Fees, Limits on Sex Parties

Under the proposed legislation, occasional parties that use various venues -- including Queen of Heaven, LINKS, and the Society of Janus -- would have to pay an annual fee of $1238 (as would permanent clubs) plus a per-event permit fee of $130, and would be limited to 12 days of operation per year. Presumably under the DPH guidelines neither fees -- nor the fingerprinting and background checks required by the proposed law -- will be required, since no specific sex club license will exist. Ammiano has not yet decided whether to pursue the legislation in the face of opposition by the mayor and the DPH.

Issue Harks Back to '80s Bathhouse Closures

Many in the gay community seek to give their input on sex club regulation, as indicated by a flurry of letters in the gay press. The issue is fraught with controversy between those who want to protect public health and those who want to promote sexual freedom -- a legacy of the closure of gay bathhouses in the early 1980s. Several letter writers -- including former porn actor Scott O'Hara and former Mr. SF Leather Wolf Mirasol -- oppose regulations that restrict patrons' activities, believing that adults should be free to engage in consensual public sex in venues established for that purpose.

Activist Michael Petrelis called for reopening bathhouses with private rooms, stating that "gay men do not need more governmental interference in our sex lives." Paul Cotten of the Steamworks bathhouse in Berkeley claimed that "closed rooms don't cause unprotected sex," and there are no data to show that monitoring promotes safer sex. Katz stated that he considers unobservable closed rooms to be unsafe and would not allow them. While the DPH has no jurisdiction over private sexual activity in people's homes, Katz claimed that it does have a right to regulate sexual activity in "congregate sex environments."

Many who support formal legislation believe a law is needed to put the clubs on a "level playing field." Currently club inspections are irregular and unpredictable; in the recent past, police and fire department raids have been conducted following complaints from rival club operators. In the absence of formal legislation, clubs would be at the mercy of politicians and city officials, and would have no recourse if a more conservative city administration came into power. Sex educator Carol Queen reminded attendees that part of the initial motivation for sex club legislation was to protect club owners and party operators from city harassment.

Such harassment was allegedly behind a recent attempt to close the Power Exchange Main Station at 74 Otis Street. On October 26 the club was visited by the Fire Department and cited for having more than 49 patrons in a 30,000 square foot space. That visit was followed by a full inspection on November 14.

During the inspection, according to club operator Mike Powers and building owner Jimmy Jen, Fire Captain Edward De Cossio made several derogatory homophobic comments; De Cossio denied the allegations. At a hearing the following day, De Cossio, senior building inspector Rafael Torres-Gil, and Deputy City Attorney Jeanine Marie-Victoire claimed that the club had several safety violations, including improper stairwell doors, exposed wiring, and unsafe partitions. Marie-Victoire sought a temporary restraining order, calling the club "a disaster waiting to happen."

Powers countered that after a previous inspection by the fire department, he was given preliminary approval in January for an occupancy limit of 820 patrons on 3 floors, and that final approval is being held up by the city. Although the city has been aware of the state of the premises since January, it was not until the recent media attention that a move was made to close the club.

Judge Sides with Homphobic Inspector

The city offered Powers a compromise whereby instead of closing the club, he would be allowed to operate on one floor with a maximum of 49 patrons. Powers rejected the deal, noting that other floors of his club were perfectly safe and that this was a "morality question." Powers believes his club is being subject to "selective enforcement" because it is a venue for gay sexual activity, and claimed that if held to the standards being imposed on his club, "every nightclub in the city would be closed."

Judge William Cahill handed down a judgment that the Power Exchange must operate within the limits sought by the city. Powers stated that he is willing to put himself and his club on the line to prevent the city from harassing sex clubs. He noted that a lawsuit is possible and that he is "willing to spend a lot of money to make sure we're left alone." A full hearing on the status of the club is scheduled for December 5.

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