As their wives carpool the kids to soccer, closeted suburban men troll the city’s bathhouses for anonymous gay sex
ZIPPERING HIS COAT, John leaves the nondescript office building where he works as a computer systems specialist and begins the walk of shame toward 13th Street, his hands shoved deep inside his pockets. His wife doesn’t expect him yet. He has time.
The walk takes 10 minutes, but feels a lot longer to him given what he’s about to do. He crosses Broad Street with long strides, follows Locust to 13th, then takes a left. It’s busy at rush hour, so he cocks his head away from the street, to conceal his face from the drivers sailing by.
At Chancellor, he turns abruptly and — ascending a couple of stairs — pulls open the door to Club Body Center, one of Philadelphia’s two bathhouses. Inside he’ll find other men, preferably other married men, with whom to have sex. His head feels like it’s on fire, swirling with a toxic brew of guilt and longing. He’s fought the urge for a few weeks now. But today, it wins.
The process at the front desk fills him with a kind of primal fear: the first glance from the man who takes his money and looks at his ID, the waiting for change, the presentation of a towel, room key and condom. Gathering them in his hands, he darts quickly out of the light of the front entrance, into the dim corridors of the bathhouse.
His eyes adjust. He can make out the forms of men loitering in the halls, naked to the waist, clad only in snug bath towels. They pad along in bare feet, flitting through the shadows like figures in a barely remembered dream. Their faces are obscured, but their presence registers in the tremors of blood pounding through John’s veins. By now he’s so wired, so shot through with the electric current of his desire, that it’s almost as if he has stepped outside of himself. This sensation caught hold of him the moment he decided to come here, and it’s only when he attains this state of consciousness — in which he has no more sentience than a robot — that he can come here at all.
He checks the room number on his key chain and starts down the hall, feeling like the last to arrive at a party, all eyes appraising his plain looks and middle-aged gut. The bathhouse is a big place, a maze with large tiled areas reminiscent of a spa and a series of hallways with private “rooms” — really just stalls — lining either side. Finding and unlocking the door to his room, he quickly switches on the light, illuminating a space no larger than a prison cell. Its cheap wooden walls don’t even reach the ceiling. He tosses his things on a narrow wooden platform that holds a thin rubber mattress, quickly strips naked, wraps his towel tightly around his waist, and steps back into the hall.
The men are discernible now, so he begins the ritual of the bathhouse: If he sees a man who appeals to him, he’ll attempt to catch and hold his gaze. If the man doesn’t look away, a bargain has been struck — a silent pact to have sex.
He glances around, looking for a man like those he grew up with. After 10 minutes, such a figure — thickly built, with cabled working-man forearms and a tough, stubbled face — sluices through the dark into view. John has fought these desires his entire life. He has prayed, over and over, not to be gay. But this man is what he wants. When they make eye contact, John holds his breath. Two seconds pass. Three. The man doesn’t look away. John backs toward his room.
In a few seconds, they’re inside. John is more than six feet tall, with thick fists and hard eyes. Outside these walls, most people — including his wife of 18 years — would consider him macho. But here, he wants to be submissive. He drops his towel to the floor and follows it down until he’s kneeling. The other man hovers over him, then removes his own towel, the fabric brushing past John’s mouth. And then John begins, his head bobbing up and down, his tight right hand pleasing himself furiously until the groans of the stranger allow him the freedom to feel his own release. And just like that, it’s over. Without a word, the man picks up his towel and leaves.
John pulls his pants and shirt on, transforming himself back into the married father and computer professional.
He is past thinking he’ll ever stop coming here. But he has earned himself some time, putting the cap back on the genie in the bottle until the pressure mounts again. On the 20-minute drive home to his two-story suburban home, he thinks of his teenage son. Sometimes he overhears the boy telling gay jokes or making gay slurs. John never reacts.
He fits his key in the front-door lock to find his wife inside. He loves her. He really does. But when she unleashes a torrent of talk — asking about his day, announcing what dinner is — he doesn’t answer. He busies himself with the rituals of arriving home. Takes off his coat. Pulls his car keys out of his pocket. Her voice trails off.
He can almost feel the earth shifting between them, like a continent splitting in two, water rushing in to fill the space. He knows he appears cold and distant. But he feels too dirty, too unworthy, to respond. Later, when he sees her curled beneath the blankets in their bed — her sleeping form so innocent, his deceit so great — he can only pass back down the stairs and pretend to fall asleep watching TV.
He lies down heavily on the couch, exiling himself from his wife for transgressions of which she is wholly unaware. He mulls over the impossibility of his life, the irreconcilable difference between what his heart wants and the circumstances in which he passes his days. And in time, he drifts into sleep — a state of being far easier to face than his waking life.
IT’S DIFFICULT TO ascertain how many men are in John’s position, gay men hiding in “straight” lives of suburban split-levels, SUVs and parent/teacher nights. The number is almost certainly higher than most people would imagine. The William Way Community Center, a Center City-based service organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, reports that each year it receives more than a call a week to its support line from gay men trapped in heterosexual relationships. The center also hosts biweekly meetings of the local chapter of the Gay and Married Men’s Association, a peer support group for men like John. Googling “gay married men” on the Internet yields some 25,000 hits. This shouldn’t be surprising. In 2006, during America’s brief fascination with Brokeback Mountain, the New York Times reported that an estimated 1.6 percent of the country’s married men — more than 400,000 in all — identified themselves as gay or bisexual.
John was one of 81 men who made contact with me through a Craigslist personals ad I placed, trolling for married guys who attend Philadelphia’s bathhouses. Getting these men to talk was difficult; few were willing to move the conversation past e-mail. Many had trouble recalling specific incidents — the stress of their sexual lives perhaps leading them to repress their memories. Some of these men look primarily for same-sex partners on the Internet. Others, fearful of leaving an electronic trail of their activity, instead meet in dark, clandestine spaces.
Adult bookstores have long been a venue of choice for closeted men. Amidst the copies of Hustler and Club, they retreat into video booths, which as often as not include gay porn among the viewing selections. For some, this is the only milieu in which they feel comfortable exploring their desire. The hookups tend to be fast and wordless.
Bathhouses, however, demand a greater commitment from participants — and dangle the possibility of more intimacy. While men can enter a bookstore, do the deed and leave without removing a single article of clothing, bathhouses require patrons to wear no more than a towel. The private rooms also create the opportunity for actual lovemaking, on a bed, rather than a video-booth quickie.
JOHN AND I sit in a Center City coffee shop. He says he’s come here today because he values a rare opportunity to speak openly. He wears a blue, zippered winter coat and jeans, orders a latte, and alternates between nervous laughter and out-and-out crying. Rugged and masculine, he’s a middle-aged guy with a laborer’s stolidity about him. He relays his history of sexual conflict in fragments, a pastiche of Grimm’s Closeted Fairy Tales. The narrative is a hodgepodge of sad dalliances and frustrated desire, the furtiveness of one encounter blurring into the pain of the next. “It’s hard,” he says, his eyes welling with tears. “I’ve never lived the life I want.”
In this post-Will & Grace age, the question is: Why not? Last April, Philadelphia became the fifth North American city to declare an entire neighborhood gay-friendly; the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation turned heads nationally with its award-winning ad campaign, “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay,” sounding a clarion call nationwide that Philadelphia is indeed the City of Brotherly Love.
Tourism campaigns are nice. But they don’t reflect what it takes to throw a Molotov cocktail into a comfortable heterosexual life by coming out.
Being gay in the luxe condo at 13th and Locust is one thing. Trying to fit your gayness inside the American dream of a center-hall colonial in Bryn Mawr is quite another. For many men who scout the bathhouses for sex while their wives carpool the kids to soccer, “coming out” and living openly as gay men — accepted by their families, churches, co-workers — has never been an option. It’s easy to forget, but seeing gay men in public life is a relatively new phenomenon, something that rarely occurred 20 and 30 years ago, when many of the men now living double lives were coming of age. Men like John, who couldn’t face who they really were, saw living a “gay life” as an impossibility, and tragically elected to take the straight and narrow road.
So they made their choices. And McMansions full of wives, children and pets became prisons with picket fences. While researching this story, I got this e-mail from a closeted attorney in his mid-30s: “I know I’m gay, but can’t express it. I have never had a ‘healthy relationship’ with a man. I’ve only seen escorts and random people. … I truly do love my wife and children. But I would be lying if I said the only reason I’m in the closet is for them and their protection from humiliation. I am so afraid to admit [to being gay] that I forget sometimes myself. I have gotten so used to the double life that it seems like I couldn’t have it any other way.”
Many openly gay men have leapt successfully into the suburbs, but many more still cluster together in “gay friendly” towns, like Collingswood and New Hope. The archetypal suburban experience of barbecue invites and friendly waves from lawn to lawn, so banal and ordinary for the gay couple on Desperate Housewives, is still rare in most Philly ’burbs. All of which suggests that a “John” lives in most every neighborhood, experiencing his home and family less as something beautiful he created for himself — and more as a trap from which he can’t escape.
INSIDE THE SANSOM Street Gym, in the video room, three massive TV screens broadcast the same gay porn in unison, dimly illuminating a series of low-slung wooden benches and platforms below. A small, dark room crammed with fitness equipment gives the “gym” its name. People often question if bathhouses are legal, but the fact is, nothing illegal happens in the normal course of business. Money is exchanged between the proprietor and each individual customer — not between the men who are there having sex. They wander the halls in bare feet, offering unsmiling stares. The smell is almost too clean, the hint of disinfectant reminiscent of a hospital corridor.
Though the men onscreen moan and talk dirty, and the gym pipes club music through speakers, the almost total absence of speech among patrons creates a unique, deafening silence. When the habitués do talk, it’s in mournful whispers that in this context still seem too loud.
One day on the street outside, I watched men enter and leave for more than an hour; I spotted wedding rings on more than a third of the patrons. Now inside, I enter the massive video room and see one middle-aged married man — his ring momentarily catching the dim light before winking out like a dying star — kneel down in front of a much younger man to give him head.
In the two days I spend roaming the bathhouse, I see no one smile, and very little evidence of what bathhouses once symbolized. The bathhouse has roots that go back to Roman times, when bisexuality among men was not only accepted, but expected. In America, bathhouses have been romanticized, evoking images of Bette Midler (with Barry Manilow on piano, no less) serenading the terry-clothed masses in New York, a USO girl entertaining the sexually hidden troops. In the early ’70s, the bathhouse was a beacon of gay freedom, a place to literally shed one’s inhibitions and secrets.
While in one key way the bathhouse still serves this purpose — as a venue for men to have sex with other men — today an openly gay man doesn’t necessarily need, or want, the bathhouse’s anonymity. So such establishments, especially in Philadelphia, have taken on a different physical expression, befitting the shameful feelings of the closeted and married men who make up a large portion of their clientele: They are vast, dark spaces full of booths, stalls and partitioning walls, offering lots of places to hide.
In this regard, the 2000 block of Sansom Street is a kind of industrial complex of sex. There’s the Sansom Street Gym, a bathhouse that opened last year, catering to the corporate crowd from Market Street by offering $5 lockers as a “businessman’s lunch” special. A few doors down at the Adonis Cinema, 12 bucks gets a condom and admittance behind a big steel door. Beyond it lies a sort of Night of the Gay Living Dead, much more gritty and nasty than the bathhouses, where men with the blank stares of zombies mill in the dark, waiting for someone to signal his willingness for an assignation by staring back.
Many men wander the street outside for long minutes before gathering the courage to dart into one of these establishments; some can’t bring themselves to go in. Center City psychotherapist Michael LoBianco sees such men in his practice, all telling similar stories: An average Joe is at a cocktail party with co-workers. Then Joe is in his car, driving toward 13th Street. He sees a young guy on the corner. They exchange nods. The next thing Joe knows, this dude — poof! Like magic — is in his car. He even shows Joe where to park. So Joe parks. Joe gets out. Joe rents a room at a small local hotel. Then Joe goes upstairs to the room, the guy trailing behind him like a piece of luggage. The guy cuts Joe a look, smiles, says “Fifty dollars.” Joe hands it over. Suddenly, Joe is naked. This dude he picked up on the corner is naked, too. Now Joe and this nude guy are smoking crack and having sex. Doc, Joe wants to know, what the hell happened?
“They think I’m going to fix them,” says LoBianco. “They don’t realize they have to stop repressing their sexuality.”
As the old saw goes, there are a million stories in the (quite literally) naked city. One married man and father of two I met, Robert, told me he developed a crack addiction in his late 40s to medicate the shame he felt over his hidden homosexuality. Roger, 45, brazenly e-mailed me a full-face photo of himself and revealed that while he remains married, he favors hooking up with men. Doug is 40 and riding high in the entertainment industry, happily married with no children. He makes trips to city bathhouses, gets a private room, strips, and kneels on the floor with the door open — ready to perform oral sex on any man who walks in. “I’ve figured it out,” he says. “The humiliation is what gets me off.”
What Doug hasn’t figured out, like so many others, is that his sense of shame influences his every action. These men go to the bathhouses precisely because they feel that they belong in a dark, unsmiling place. It’s no wonder local psychologist Dennis Debiak refers to the baths as “the closet of our times.”
WHEN JOHN MEETS me for coffee after work, he keeps his head low, as if the passivity and shame of his sexual life influence even his posture. When a young girl, bookbag over her shoulder, stops momentarily behind his chair, he falls into silence until she moves on. “I’m thinking of my wife and son,” he says. “I don’t want to do this to them.”
Women and children are the collateral damage of the war men like John fight every time they go trolling for strangers. “Spousal betrayal on this scale is difficult to process,” says Robert Weiss, managing director for sexual integrity services at the Life Healing Center of Santa Fe, who works with many closeted men. “All she can say is, ‘I’ve based my whole life on you, my whole course and direction on you, and you’ve had this whole secret thing going on?’”
Psychologists believe men in this situation genuinely want to stay hidden, to keep their secret from wives and families. But they usually get caught in the most obvious manner: They leave an inappropriate e-mail or a gay video site up on a computer screen. John almost got caught that way at work. One night he was alone in the office, so he switched online connections to keep from leaving a trail and pulled up the Craigslist personals, under the “Men for Men” category. Just looking at the sexually explicit ads and photographs soothes him. But after a while he got up to use the bathroom, leaving his computer unattended. The voices of returning colleagues wafting down the hall filled him with panic. Trying to appear calm, he walked quickly back to his desk and zapped the screen from view. “They didn’t find out,” he says, “but they could have if they’d just looked over at my computer.”
Hearing stories like this, Weiss urges a more empathetic view of these troubled men and their deception. Human sexuality is more varied than most people know or care to admit, he says. Clients who come to him for treatment aren’t asked if they’re gay, straight or bisexual. Instead, he presents them with a horizontal line stretching between the figures zero (representing complete heterosexuality) and five (total homosexuality). “People fall along every point of that continuum,” says Weiss. “But society doesn’t understand that.”
Sitting across from John in the coffee shop, I slide him a piece of paper containing Weiss’s horizontal line. His eyes brimming with tears, John picks up a pen and makes his mark near total homosexuality with the flourish of a man signing his own declaration of independence. “There was a time when I really enjoyed sex with my wife,” he says. “I love her. I really do. But I’m mostly gay. I’d like to tell her about me. I just can’t.”
By now, complete darkness has fallen outside the coffee-shop windows. Pop music plays on the speakers; some college students tap at their laptops. Life goes on all around him, but John continues to hold himself down. He has started giving a co-worker rides home. The obligation, carried out at least a few times a week, forces him to drive beyond the city limits, away from the bathhouses and bookshops. Once he unloads his passenger, he only has time to drive home.
He knows this scheme won’t work for long. Someday soon, when the desire is too great to suppress, he’ll find a man in some darkened room. But for now, the arrangement helps him keep up appearances, maintain his pretense that he’s a regular husband and father. It’s an arrangement that makes it possible for him to eat his dinner, go upstairs at the end of the night, and sleep beside his wife.