From Cubicles to Constellations

One of my favourite movies ever is Muriel’s Wedding. Following the socially awkward Muriel as she leaves her hometown Porpoise Spit on a quest for her ideal groom and perfect wedding in sunny Sydney, what makes PJ Hogan’s 1995 comedy-drama so memorable to me is how specific it is to Australia. Beyond Toni Collette’s award-sweeping performance as Muriel or even Hogan’s genius crafting of the perfect anti-romcom, Muriel’s Wedding has always stuck out due to its uniquely Australian sensibilities: from its opening vignettes of Australiana to its lurid representation of Williams and Oxford Street in the mid 90s.

So when I was asked to send something in for Woroni’s historical edition I decided to send in a cut-down version of my paper for a modern Australian history class that focused on the significance of gay saunas to the cultural development of Sydney for the same reasons I liked Muriel’s Wedding. I started writing the paper because it was the question my lecturer was clearly most interested in, but what I think I ultimately got from it was how beneficial it was to actually hear from people who lived in the same city as me, alive in the 1970s-90s, discussing their own experiences on streets and in buildings I’ve grown up around. 

Anyway, here’s an edited version of that paper:


Prior to the advent of gay bathhouse culture in Sydney, there were two general ways through which gay men would meet each other socially: secret networks or “beats”. These private networks were sustained by large groups of closeted gay men hosting events at inconspicuous locations like hotel bars and churches. “Beats” were any public space with confidentiality, ranging from public toilets to nature walks to Turkish baths. Also known as cruising spots, beats worked to some extent as the sauna before the sauna. The more cunning and connected beat patrons often employed “cockatoos”: men they’d previously hooked up with that were down to keep a look-out in case an unsympathetic passerby were to catch wind of what was going on in the “beat”.

Bathhouse culture in Sydney was born in 1967 with the opening of the Bondi Junction Steam Baths. Opened with the explicit purpose of facilitating discrete encounters, some sources go as far as to report that the Bondi Junction Steam Baths alone had 120 guests at any one time and lines of prospective patrons going around the block. From 1971 to 1977, another six bathhouses were opened to capitalise on the growing demand for more saunas. Furthermore, whilst the Bondi Junction Steam Baths were open from twelve to twelve, six days a week, by the late 1970s many of these baths had 24/7 access to meet the massive demand within Sydney’s gay community and a growing consumer base of men who would stay over the weekends. 

The socio-sexual significance of bathhouse culture was ensured by the provision of a variety of creative security devices. The gym equipment at many of these bathhouses provided a cover in times of police incursion (rife especially in the 1960s). The excuse of believing that the bathhouse was just a gym rendered buggery offences near impossible to charge. The bathhouse attendant would work as a professional cockatoo, raising the alarm either verbally or by pressing an actual alarm button which would send off an alert to the bathhouse attendees to stop what they were doing and start lifting those weights. Visitors of the baths had to have a connection to a prior patron to be let in. If that wasn’t enough, the attendant would also add another level of security by interrogating the patron at the door about who had referred them, whether they knew what type of gym this was and whether they’d been here before (and so on and so forth). In addition, visitors also had the opportunity to sign in with a pseudonym or in illegible scrawl so as to ensure anonymity if the sign in sheets fell into the wrong hands. 

Beyond the sexual, bathhouse culture was also critical to facilitating romantic and platonic connections within Sydney’s gay and greater queer community. It was not uncommon for many men to meet through the saunas, no different to a gay bar or club. For many, the baths were a vital part of the nightlife, a ritual lynchpin for the Sydney gay community. They would start their Friday night at a gay bar like Chez Ivy or the Purple Onion before ending up at either the Bondi Junction Steam Baths or Ken’s. During the 1970s, as more and more bathhouses opened up, proprietors began to employ interconnected floor plans that provided for far greater availability of non-sexual social interaction. Sauna life was key to influencing the ways gay men understood their own sexuality and others, providing activities to a marginalised community which ultimately resulted in improved political awareness and solidarity. 

Before discussing the direct political impact of gay bathhouses in greater detail, it’s important to recognise how apolitical gay Sydney life was prior to 1967. In the 1950s and 60s, Australia saw a considerable rise in homophobic legislation and general negative sentiment towards Sydney’s queer subculture, reflected in the dramatic rise in SMH/Star articles publicising police stings in drag shows and brothels that employed trans women. It should be noted that during this period Australia had no substantial gay political activism until 1971. 

Going back to the direct political impact of gay bathhouses, it the new gay identity that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s must also be noted, culminating in the formation of CAMP Ink, the vanguard of Sydney’s gay scene through the 70s led by Germaine Greer and Dennis Altman (best known for its 1971 Christmas campaign, refer above). This identity was one defined by pride and openness about one’s own sexuality, and invested in collective direct action towards sexual equality. By providing an unprecedentedly private and safe arena for gay men to meet each other and oftentimes have anonymous, kinky sex, bathhouses meaningfully shaped a different way for these men to understand themselves and others in this burgeoning community. 

Bathhouse culture was deeply connected to the rise in gay men “coming out” and being openly gay in the 1970s. Beyond the confines of the home, places like the Kens and King Steam were unique in allowing for gay men to simply be themselves and witness that they were still accepted (and in fact adored by others) when openly queer. Many of the patrons interviewed (mainly for Jason Prior’s dissertation on gay saunas in 1900s Sydney) discuss how these places allowed for this early form of gay pride. Far from the crude environment of the bygone “beat” or even the more brutalist, minimal designs of the Bondi Junction Steam Baths, the plush and ornate venues (refer above) both internationally (the Continental Baths and Club Baths in NYC) and in Sydney (the Roman Baths, No. 253 and King Steam) had fresco and felt fitted features which allowed gay men to feel respectable when frequenting these venues.  

These radical spaces for erotic encounters allowed for many of its patrons to not only have private pride in their sexuality by also start to consider whether mainstream society was right about sexual relations at all. A growing opposition to monogamy and other traditional understandings of sex started to take hold in the sauna scene. John Steel recalls, “There was an understanding that one should not hold one’s body back from another, that one should give one’s body freely to others”.

Beyond the implicit impacts of saunas on the formation of the political character of Sydney’s gay community, gay saunas also had a crucial role in providing actual explicit opportunities for organising. Bathhouses, especially Kens’ and the Roman, became sites for regular political meetings and fundraisers, book launches for activist academics like Dennis Altman and subversive cultural events like drag shows and Mr Leather — deeply political given the impact such subcultures had on understandings of gender.

Apart from the social and political, gay saunas had a huge role in direct public health-related action. After the first diagnosis of HIV in an Australian man in 1982, Sydney’s gay community was wracked by paranoia and misinformation about the disease. This paranoia was promptly met by the deliberate escalation of homophobic attitudes in mainstream society by conservative groups and Christian fundamentalists. This homophobia went as far as MP Fred Nile demanding the quarantining of all Australian homosexuals and the Medical Journal of Australia’s June 1983 edition boasting a cover with bold white text screaming: “Depravity kills!”(refer above).  

In the midst of this chaos, bathhouses like Kens and King Steam provided resources on AIDS awareness, new medical information on the disease and encouraged safe sex through the provision of condoms. Pamphlets were installed and stocked by the Aids Council of NSW (ACON) to correct common misconceptions like amyl nitrate being the source of HIV/AIDS, and video screens showed continuous-reel safe sex videos in social rooms. In addition, many bathhouses brightened their lights and closed bathhouse darkrooms to improve contract tracing if necessary. Bodyline, in conjunction with an initiative launched by Sydney Sexual Health Centre, provided a room in the sauna that ran a clinic providing patrons with HIV testing, counselling and general medical advice. In ACON’s 1995 Code of Conduct, bathhouses were recognised for their role in public health, providing education, supplies and modifications to prevent the rapid spread of HIV seen in cities like San Francisco and New York. 

Following the turn of the millennia and the rise of the internet, bathhouses have certainly become less popular. Research suggests that this is due to the impact of online dating apps such as Grindr/Scruff, growing gay acceptance both legally and socially allowing for gay men to easily meet each other without needing to consult their local Sydney Sauna and the gentrification of the Eastern Suburbs meaning that many of gay bathhouse’s historic working class clients now no longer live nearby.

Nevertheless, bathhouse culture was undoubtedly integral to fostering gay community in Sydney on a variety of levels, from the medicinal to the political to the socio-sexual. Against Sydney’s backdrop of the limited social avenues available for gay men to meet each other in the early to mid-20th century, gay bathhouses provided safe spaces for gay men to connect with each other. They pushed for gay men to become more politically conscious and to advocate for themselves on a collective level and provided a variety of medical services during the AIDS epidemic, which contributed to the community’s survival in such trying times. 


So yeah, that’s my paper. Overall, I do believe that exploring the world of Sydney saunas unveils something more than just that: namely how history is shaped by not just major events and significant figures but also the everyday experiences of ordinary people. These bathhouses were spaces where individuals sought connection and companionship, where friendships were forged, and where personal journeys of self-discovery unfolded against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society. Thus, by delving into these local histories, we’re provided with a deeper connection to the rich complexities that make up queer history, Australian history and all of its messy overlaps.

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