Longform

THE END OF THE LINE

Page 2 of 5

The Seventies ushered in a new era for homosexuals, particularly in big cities with large gay and lesbian populations, such as New York, Chicago and Denver. Not every homosexual came out of the closet, and many who did preferred to live quietly monogamous lives. But for thousands of young men, the shock troops of the gay rights movement, it was a time to test the boundaries of their freedom.

Their licentiousness was epitomized by the soaring popularity of gay bathhouses, a $100 million sex industry by the end of the decade in the United States and Canada. Customers were mostly white, well educated, upper-middle-class gays who had the money to travel and whose lifestyle often included coast-to-coast bathhouse parties with stopovers in Denver.

After college Ric moved to Grand Junction, where in 1973 he took a job in a local institution for the mentally retarded. He hated it that his clients were often treated as less than human--as a homosexual, he was all too familiar with that--and he soon earned a reputation as a vocal advocate for their rights.

When he discovered that his supervisor was beating clients with belts, he turned her in and was subsequently fired. But Ric fought for his job and was reinstated after a hearing where he was exonerated and his supervisor was issued a warning. His victory didn't ease Ric's testy relationship with some members of the staff.

It was a difficult time, both professionally and personally. While gays were pushing the boundaries in large urban areas, Ric had to explore his sexuality in Grand Junction's parks and truck stops, resenting the secrecy and guilt that went with these hurried trysts.

Then a lover told him about Denver's bathhouses. It was hard to believe there were places where men were encouraged to have sex with other men; Ric made up his mind to give them a try.

On a Friday night in 1974 Ric walked through the doors of Empire Tubs, on East Colfax. He asked the attendant at the front desk for a room and paid $6 for a twelve-hour pass. Once in his room, he removed his clothing, wrapped himself in a towel...and stayed put.

For half an hour he lay on the bed trying to summon the nerve to leave. Above the piped-in disco music, he could hear moans, groans and other sexual sounds coming through the thin walls. This is silly, he told himself. I paid the money. I should at least take a walk and see what's going on.

Once outside his room, he found himself in a maze of walls, rooms and male bodies. Everywhere he looked, everywhere he tried to walk, men were having sex. One on one. Two on one. Foursomes and more. Ric ended up staying for two days, happily paying for each additional twelve-hour period. He ate his meals from vending machines and plugged his ears with Kleenex when he needed to sleep.

He was hooked. He visited Denver's bathhouses whenever he got the chance--sometimes two or three times a month for several days at a time.

In 1980 he got a job at a state institution for the mentally retarded in Wheat Ridge and moved to Denver. It wasn't San Francisco, but the Queen City of the Plains had become a place where men could hold hands and kiss in public--daring the public to react.

Occasionally Ric cruised Cheesman Park and the malls. But he would also spend several nights a week and entire weekends in the bathhouses, tripping on LSD, experimenting with all the latest sexual crazes. There was the Empire, and the Zuni in northwest Denver. And he especially loved the Ballpark on Broadway, which had a thirty-foot waterfall that poured into an indoor swimming pool. In the Ballpark's tubs and beds, Ric could find sex any time of the day or night with men from all over the country--even the world--as the establishment's reputation grew.

Several times a year Ric made his own pilgrimages to the bathhouses in San Francisco or New York. Not even repeated doses of syphilis and gonorrhea slowed him down.

By the mid-Seventies the combination of multiple partners and coast-to-coast mobility had created an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in the community of self-proclaimed "fast-lane" gays. Anal intercourse and rimming (oral/anal contact) led to gastrointestinal diseases. Active gay men had a 20 percent chance of contracting hepatitis B--passed through sexual contact or shared needles--within a year, and a virtual certainty of infection within five years. A survey conducted by Denver public-health officials in the late Seventies found that the average bathhouse patron had 2.7 sexual contacts a night and stood a 33 percent chance of leaving the establishment with syphilis or gonorrhea.

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Steve Jackson