Bleach Man to the Rescue: Fighting AIDS with Comics, Posters, and Spatial Restrictions

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lindsey Passenger Wieck, University of Notre Dame
Throughout the 20th century, San Franciscans attempted to limit gay sexual practices in public and semi-public spaces by closing down locations of gay association. This paper studies San Franciscans’ initial responses to the AIDS crisis that eventually led to the city’s 1984 shutdown of fourteen gay bathhouses, movie theaters, and bookstores. To document unsafe sex practices, the city hired private investigators to track behaviors within these businesses. These reports detailed the distribution (or the lack of distribution) of AIDS and safe sex educational literature and condoms, the types of sexual practices that occurred, and the spatial arrangements that facilitated sex. In this paper, I pair these secret reports with AIDS educational materials, including official public health brochures, posters, and ads produced by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I also draw upon other visual sources, including colloquial comic books, Bleach Man ads, and guides for hosting safe-sex parties.  Taken together, these sources reveal San Franciscans’ competing solutions for the AIDS crisis. While many gay individuals and organizations argued that bathhouses could be used to educate gay men on safe sex practices, city departments manipulated spatial arrangements within these establishments to eliminate spaces of unsafe sexual exchange. I argue that spatial arrangements became central to the city’s battle over bathhouses, as San Franciscans fought over details like the height of doors and the size of video viewing cubbies, and the display of AIDS educational materials like posters and comics. The city finally solved the problem by closing these businesses, furthering its redevelopment goals.  City leaders thus not only hoped to stop the spread of a dangerous disease, but they also hoped to reappropriate these businesses for purposes more in line with city policies, furthering city goals of controlling and patrolling city spaces.