On Friday, March 2, 2018, 65 people gathered into a small room in upstairs Commons to listen to a talk with a rather provocative title. Timothy Lyle, an Assistant English Professor at Iona College, and Bates College’s own Stephen Engel, an Associate Politics Professor, gave the talk as part of the “Angels in America” Bates series. The two have been in collaboration for two years, conducting archival research in the New York Public Library and the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village. If all goes to plan, their article will be published this month in the Chicago-Kent Law Review.
“Our paper’s title is called ‘F*cking with Dignity,’ and we thought we should start by explaining the title,” humored Engel. Their full title, “F*cking with Dignity: Public Sex, Queer Intimate Kinship, and how the AIDS Epidemic Bathhouse Closures Constituted a Dignity Taking” can be interpreted three ways. The first being that f*ck is a synonym for play, “and we’re playing with the idea of dignity as a theoretical concept since our objective is to destabilize normative notions of dignity,” said Engel. The second interpretation of the title‚ “messing with,” conveys how the New York City municipal authorities dealt with the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1980’s.
“And third, we’re discussing queer sex; I mean, we should be pretty blatant about that,” said Engel. This third notion contends how queer individuals can have sex with dignity, despite efforts lead by political authorities to dehumanize and infantilize them. “Our paper explores dynamics of what legal scholars increasingly refer to as something called a ‘dignity taking,’ and we’re looking at one episode of HIV/AIDS history, when, in the name of public health, municipal authorities in New York City pursued the closure of gay bathhouses in ’85.”
During the AIDS epidemic, these bathhouses were primary targets for closure. Fearing government intervention, the community formed organizations such as The Gay Men’s Health Crisis which produced educational materials that recommended safer sex practices within the gay bathhouses. Engel described some of the posters featuring messages such as “Sex is wonderful…but don’t let it kill you” and “Affection is our best protection.”
In addition to the efforts lead by organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility (CSR) organized a schedule of three inspections to be carried out by volunteers throughout 1985. Said Lyle, “Now, these volunteers would enter into these bathhouses armed with clipboards, check lists, and go looking for these 19 recommendations.” Despite the community’s best efforts, elected officials continued to infantilize and dehumanize gay men. In 1985, the state continued to close these long-run establishments of community building and kinship.
“If the bathhouse closures continue to be a dignity taking,” began Engel, “then we must ask if dignity restoration is possible and what it might entail. Dignity as a legal concept has been the foundation of much U.S. pro-gay rights jurisprudence. While the supreme court’s decisions… could be understood as dignity restorative, these rulings, Timothy and I contend, ultimately fail to compensate dignity takings embodied in the bathhouse closures.”
Another example of recent dignity taking can be seen in the government’s recent measures for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, a type of prevention known as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). In 2012, the FDA approved Truvada, a once-a-day anti-HIV medicine as PrEP. While Truvada has proven powerful in curbing HIV infection, this approach to health regulated by the state are clear efforts to monitor and make decisions for gay men. To get a prescription, individuals must consult their physician—a complicated process as those conversations are typically surrounded by stigma. However, these are the fortunate ones. Many doctors refuse to prescribe PrEP, since they understand it as a party drug that encourages “reckless and hedonistic abandon” as Lyle put it.
Said Lyle, “Now in an ironic, disturbing turn of events, the institution that had long ignored the HIV crisis, that had dragged their feet or erected bureaucratic red tape that prevented access to resources and research, and that eventually profited from expensive treatments in HIV-infected bodies, become the same institutions that seemingly come to the rescue with PrEP.”
He continued saying, “So thus, gay men must participate in a system entangled with surveillance, policing, and big pharma profits in order to appeal to the state—one that failed them miserably during the bathhouse debate years—for protection and a sexual life less haunted by HIV.” The two argue that the ideal way to administer PrEP and restore dignity to the gay community would be to invest in community-based anonymous testing sites, seen historically in the bathhouses.