Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest operates one of the largest AIDS clinics in San Diego County. On any given day, some of its patients can be seen milling about in green hospital gowns near the paths, fountain, and rose garden in front of the hospital, sometimes with IV racks in tow. Meanwhile, less than three blocks south, in the Club San Diego bathhouse at 3955 Fourth Avenue, some claim that the disease is being spread — intentionally and unintentionally — through anonymous, unprotected sex and intravenous drug use.
Though many large cities in the United States shut down their bathhouses, and though after on-site investigations in 1987, the military declared the city's three bathhouses to be off limits to all military personnel at all times because of "increased health risk of sexual diseases," San Diego has never banned bathhouses in the 22 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued a warning about a type of pneumonia — dubbed GRID for gay-related immune deficiency — occurring in the Los Angeles gay community. GRID later came to be called AIDS for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. And, as it became an international epidemic, many disease researchers concluded that it was being communicated in bathhouses. Still, it was only amid extreme controversy that San Francisco was able to shut down its bathhouses in 1984.
"I was in those San Francisco bathhouses in the late 1970s," says James Hartline, an HIV-positive Hillcrest man who is campaigning to get San Diego's three bathhouses shut down. "Those bathhouses were a big part of the generation of the gay scene in San Francisco. Bathhouses to the gay community are kind of what the Declaration of Independence is to the United States. They're part of the whole foundation from which these gay communities evolved because they represent everything that the gay community is about, which is sexual liberation with nobody telling you what you can and can't do. So when you attack the bathhouses, you're attacking the gay agenda."
Hartline is a tall, thin, energetic man who speaks and moves more quickly than the average person. His opposition to bathhouses is fueled by his Christian faith and by his belief that he was infected with HIV in a local bathhouse in 1997, a claim he says he can document. "I was having weekly blood tests at the time," he explains, "as part of a medical study I was participating in. So I could pinpoint, almost exactly, when I contracted the disease."
For than more 20 years, beginning as a 17-year-old in Reno, Nevada, Hartline was a frequent patron of bathhouses. As a youth, the State of Nevada had removed him from an abusive home and placed him in a halfway house. At night, Hartline says, "I was going to this park and these older men would cruise me...pick me up. Then one of them asked me if I liked to dance and I said, 'Yeah, I love to dance,' so he took me to a bar. For the first time in my life I had adults who said they liked me, who actually paid attention to me, and said they were attracted to me, and that seduced me and locked me right in. Well, one of these men told me about this place where you could have all the sex you wanted, which was a gay bathhouse. So I went there, and I was only 17, and this older person that worked there would just let me in for free. So I began to have constant sex."
Hartline spent the late '70s bouncing back and forth between Reno and San Francisco. "But, because I had no life skills, no job skills whatsoever, I started stealing to support myself. When I was 18, I got caught stealing, and they put me in the state penitentiary in Carson City. And the whole time that I was in prison, I was young, I was effeminate, and I didn't know anything so I got taken advantage of a lot sexually and got involved in homosexuality all the years I was locked in prison, which just fed this whole thing. So, what happened in 1982, when I had finished doing prison time in Nevada, I left the state and came to California and worked my way down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego."
When Hartline got here, the gay community was in the midst of a migration from downtown to Hillcrest, so he settled in the latter area. "For the first time," he recalls, "I was exposed to methamphetamine, which was all over the gay community in those days. And I was able to get all the meth I wanted at the bathhouses because drugs and sex are married in these places. Methamphetamine allows people to have sex for two, three, four days without stopping. It causes a complete release of all the sex hormones. That's why methamphetamine is oftentimes referred to as the gay drug. It's epidemic in the gay community. It allows people to live out, for days at a time, constant, nonstop sex."
Hartline says he earned the reputation in the bathhouses as being a "drug addict sex fiend" who would have passive anal sex in exchange for drugs. "If you are really young and attractive," he says, "they will give you all of the drugs you want for free to get you to have sex.
"Very seldom," he continues, "would a person use a condom with me before I was infected and even after I was infected. Their justification is that, if you're the recipient of anal intercourse, it's your responsibility to ask them to use a condom. And in my experience, the vast majority of people who have AIDS don't use condoms."
Hartline isn't alone in this view. In a June 2001 Washington Monthly article, San Diego freelance journalist (and professed homosexual) Andrew Webb blamed a resurgence in the rate of AIDS infection -- a resurgence that is still underway -- in part on a belief, in and out of the gay community, "that when a man has consensual sex with another man and gets infected, it's his own damn fault. (I admit I lean in this direction, and have long accepted that if I were to become infected, it would be no one's responsibility but my own.)"