What the loss of London’s gay saunas means for us

The city’s capitalist desire to eat itself out from the inside is strangling London’s gay haunts – Chariots Shoreditch is the latest to fall victim to London’s luxurification

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Chariots vauxhall
Courtesy of Chariots

As an activity, gay sex has been through the wars. In the UK, it was only decriminalised in 1967. Some commentators posing as academics bizarrely link being gay to paedophillia. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, just being gay was terrifying and it terrified those who didn’t understand it. Even in the heady liberal days of 2016, Michigan state has passed an intolerably archaic law criminalising sodomy for reasons literally no other than homophobia.

And it’s a sad day when it’s no longer a shock that the regular haunts of London’s gay community keep on shutting up shop. Candy Bar, Man Bar, The Black Cap, The George and Dragon, The Joiners Arms, Madame Jojo’s, Escape, Area — it’s as if we’re being kept underground or at home, watching Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. With 25 per cent of gay spaces in London closing over the past couple of years, it is a real feat that Chariots Shoreditch — the 20,000 square foot Roman bathhouse, and the biggest of its kind in the UK — has managed to live on until 2016, especially in the heartland of Shoreditch.

But, alas, anal is seemingly a losing game and it was through the tweeting of a cry-face emoji that Chariots Shoreditch confirmed their closure, in replacement for a 30,000 square foot luxury hotel and office complex, with shops too! You couldn't write it. A spokesperson from the gay men’s luxury spa told Dazed that “Chariots is closing, but we don’t know exactly when”.

Now, there are plenty of arguments that claim that the reason queer and gay spaces are closing their doors is because we, as LGBTQI people, feel safe ‘mixing’ with heterosexual people in heterosexual places now and are, thus, taking our custom elsewhere. But assimilation is most definitely not liberation, and it’s a fair claim that this is not popular belief among the LGBTQI community. We are decades away from safety in public space, and this kind of homoconservativism is the exact enemy of the progress of the queer movement.

“It could be true that gay spaces are closing because of greater acceptance,” says Cliff Joannou, deputy editor of Attitude Mag. “But it’s also true that London’s gold rush on property and the continuing swell of gentrification has a huge role to play in erasing independent businesses, gay and straight. It’s more noticeable in the LGBT community because we have fewer spaces. The loss of just one venue is a painful blow when you only have them in their dozens. Who cares if you never went to a sauna? Plenty of men enjoyed them. And they have enjoyed them as places for socialising and sex for thousands of years, even before the puritanical masses decided they were to be frowned upon.

“Because god forbid sex should be available outside of the bedroom. Saunas may not be to the taste of some, but losing another of our less reputable establishments takes us another step towards the sanitisation of our nation, and a step closer to the old fashioned way of thinking about sexuality: what they get up to behind closed doors is up to them. The gay rights movement started as a struggle for sexual liberation. When did we decide it was enough to just become part of the establishment?”

It’s a compelling argument – through the elimination of our bars and clubs we are losing our spaces to meet, be gay, be convivial, be comfortable, and socially free. By literally deleting our saunas, the vicious roar of capitalism now wishes to dismantle our sexual freedom too.

Saunas, or bath houses, are emblematic of a time that exists nowhere else in gay culture today. The famed bath houses of the 70s are where people would go to escape the day’s monotony, its regularity. Here you could meet with people who were like you, you could have sex with them, and then grab a nicoise salad while watching the city’s best drag queen do her repeat set. It was in the sauna Bette Midler began her career, and received her subsequent big break no less. Saunas are a space of community, where people go to explore the far-reaching aspects of their sexuality anonymously, away from the prying ears and eyes of flatmates or parents.

Not to mention they are a site for on the spot HIV testing — unlike private sex parties and chill outs, which often forgo, or even forget, the importance of sexual health. “What saunas provide that virtual apps like Grindr are destroying is the sense of spontaneity and collectivity of physical space. At a sauna you can meet lots of different kinds of men, and the whole experience is embedded in the physical, present experience,” a regular Chariots user told Dazed. “Grindr annihilates this sort of spontaneity, and also the sense of a collective space – in fact, such apps can make you feel incredibly alienated, whereas at a sauna, you are always surrounded by other gay men in an actual space.”

Philip Wragg, an HIV prevention and testing coordinator, GMI Partnership, told Dazed: “Chariots Shoreditch closing will be a great loss, they have always been very supportive of HIV prevention and testing work. We meet guys at our sauna testing sessions that, for whatever reason, might not regularly access sexual health clinics.”

“The gay rights movement started as a struggle for sexual liberation. When did we decide it was enough to just become part of the establishment?”

Perhaps saunas are a relic of a time gone-by, an era partly eradicated by the rise of online hookup apps, but mainly by the ever tightening chokehold of gentrification. What Grindr and the like brings, beyond its many positives, is a space where institutionalised racism, homophobia, and body shaming can run riot behind the guise of our blue screens, something that doesn’t happen as openly in public space, be it a sauna or not. The gay community continues to be fractured and privatised, and our lack of space to collectively convene sees less cohesion between an already outcast set. When we are being gentrified out, and have no money to fight back, what can we do?

By being forced to focus the fight on the little we have, we’re losing our queer-futurist aspirations. As queer people we have no option but to protest and pour all of our energies into maintaining what’s already there for us — gay bars and clubs, and spaces to practice our sex — leaving us with no energy to focus on progressing our scene. What we are left with are relics of a time, and a scene, that will soon have vanished because the mainstream wishes dispose of anything subversive whatsoever. Of course, as we has always happened, alternatives will arise. But how many fucking luxury spin-gyms and soulless flats for boring straight, rich, white people are going to remove my, and my community’s, existence from society before there’s not a single good thing about ‘the best place to be gay in the world’?

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