Bathhouse Queens: Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility in the 1970s (Jason James)

Mister D: Last week we had a BLB reader win the school talent competition (Brandon), and just recently a BetteHead sent me his final term paper for a course in Gay and Lesbian Studies. This paper went on to win honors and the author, “Jason James, ” will be giving a presentation on the subject towards the end of the month. You will find more informtion about this below, in the words of Jason. I will have a link up to his article tonight for your perusal over the weekend. It’s interesting and provocative, and I’d like to thank Jason for taking the time to share it with all of us. As Jason said to me, please keep in mind that ” the focus of the course was on social constructionist theory, which holds that homosexuality is not innate but rather constructed by society. It is with that in mind that I had to structure my paper, regardless of my personal views on the matter.” So here goes:

Photo Layout/Scan: Jason James

The 28 th Annual Honors Colloquium will take place at the Marymount Manhattan College on Thursday, March 31, 2005 as part of Honors Day. Students are invited to submit any outstanding scholarly or creative work, in any medium, from any discipline. Eligible work must have been completed by the student for coursework during Spring, Summer, or Fall semesters in 2004. The professor responsible for the course must sign off on the application.

The Faculty Standards and Honors Committee will evaluate submissions and make selections to be presented by the student at the Colloquium. An honorarium will be given to the top (1 to 3) projects. Evaluations are made based on the originality of thought, imaginative rendering, and the substance and rigor of the research involved.

Each application must be accompanied by a clear and concise abstract or artist’s statement indicating the student’s intent and significance of the project to a general audience.

Here is Jason’s artistic statement:

Professor Manolo Guzmán’s Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies course centered on the writings of sociologists/historians such as Mary McIntosh, Barry Adam, and John D’Emilio, who attest that erotic desires are not innate in humans but rather the product of the social arrangement of bodily phenomena and experience. The term paper for Professor Guzmán’s course was to focus on a topic of each student’s own choice, yet it was to relate in some way to the social constructionist arguments being discussed in class.

Intrigued by entertainer Bette Midler and her infamous start at a gay bathhouse in New York, I chose to focus my paper on these institutions and how they, as a social force, contributed to the formation of a gay identity in the 1970s. While the archetypical gay baths were spaces where men could convene for anonymous sexual encounters with other men, they were actually much more than that. They became what Richard Tewksbury described as “erotic oases”-entirely different worlds where gay men were relieved of oppression from the dominant heterosexual society. Therefore, baths started featuring a slew of different services that catered exclusively to both the sexual and social needs of gay men.

And it was out of the capitalistic endeavors of bathhouse owners that Bette Midler’s career flourished. In a sense the baths created Midler, for she had to tailor her act to satisfy an audience comprised entirely of gay men. When she started receiving national attention for her work, she didn’t re-invent herself for heterosexual audiences. Rather, she brought the world of the baths onto the stage, into the recording studio, and onto the television set. In doing so, she herself became a social force by bringing gay sensibilities into the American conscious and making a place for gay culture in straight society.

Both the baths and Midler helped further the success of the gay liberation movement. It’s likely that without them homosexuality may still be deemed a psychological disorder. The baths allowed gay people to find solace in the knowledge that they weren’t alone in the world and Midler, as a product of the baths, paved the way for future popular entertainments (i.e. television shows) that featured (either directly or indirectly) gay sensibilities.

The event is open to everyone, although it is not publicized throughout New York. It’s designed mostly for our students, however, since classes are cancelled for the day and they are encouraged to attend the day’s events. But if anyone feels adamantly that they would like to attend, here is the information:

Marymount Manhattan College
221 East 71st Street (b/w 2nd and 3rd Aves.)
New York, NY 10021

My presentation will be at 5 PM Thursday, March 31 in room 461 of the Nugent Building.

If people want more information on my presentation or the Honors Colloquium, they may email me at

Thank you Jason!!! Everybody check back for a link to his term paper…I’ll have it posted mid-evening tonight. Hopefully, some of you in the New York area can attend his lecture….

To read Bathhouse Queens: Bathhouses, Bette Midler, and the Construction of a Gay Sensibility in the 1970s : Click Here

Love, Mister D

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