Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: The filthiest bath

The last death of 2017 hit me the hardest: the closure of Man’s Country in Chicago, which took my bathhouse virginity in 1999. The news wasn’t entirely unexpected; based on my last visits, it was as shocking as the death of 99-year-old celebrity, and the gay institution is being predictably razed for condos.

Nor is the end all too undeserved, as it was truly one of the skankiest venues I have ever braved. I was less concerned about contracting a sexually transmitted infection at Man’s Country than being exposed to staph or some airborne illness that evaporated from the club’s carpet, matted and moist with four decades of bodily fluids.

Caution tape cordoned off the hot tub during 90 percent of my visits, and the few times it was operational, I had no faith the bubbling water was hot enough to kill the innumerable bacteria I imagined caked into its tiles. At the top of the stairs from the sauna was a floor-to-ceiling mirror and the most uniquely pungent scent – a sharp, spoiled sweetness in the family of odors that includes a pissy diaper sprayed with cologne – that could spark devastating introspection if you looked at your towel-clad reflection for too long.

Even with that, even though the vast majority of my trips to Man’s Country included no sex, it hurts knowing it will not be there the next time I return home. Chicago author and historian Owen Keehnen told the Chicago Tribune that Man’s Country’s closing was, “a gay version of seeing the house you grew up in torn down.”

I was reared in some gritty households, which might be why my nostalgia for Man’s Country is incomparable. It was often a place to sleep when visiting home in my twenties, when I didn’t have enough money for a hotel or enough emotional reserves to stay with family.

The exhilaration I felt when I walked through the door that first night was briefly quenched when I recognized the guy behind the counter as a graduate from my high school. I was still intensely closeted, but realized my former classmate was more embarrassed by his job than concerned with my secrets.

On that visit, I watched guys having sex in the masturbation room and orgy area, in the steam room and the stairwells. Any shame I felt about being there was annihilated by satisfaction, and the knowledge that finding ass around every corner was but a dream for most 19-year-old boys.

However, just a few years later, I saw a teenager in Man’s Country, and it hurt thinking this was one of his earliest exposures to gay life: methed-out zombies racing down halls to drug dealers posted in darkened corners, a suitor making pooting noises with his lips whenever he walks by and guys who aggressively ignore cues of disinterest.

Making that disinterest clear often required total dehumanization: what clearer way to show my lack of attraction than to ignore you completely every time we cross paths, to refuse to recognize your mere existence. Sadly, Man’s Country helped erase the actual existence of plenty of its customers, particularly during its earliest years.

I was once researching an article on a piece of gay Atlanta history, and while flipping through a retro nightlife magazine saw an article and picture from the opening night of Man’s County in 1973. It was heartbreaking knowing that within a decade, every man in that picture would be impacted by a vicious epidemic, and a majority, if not all, of them were likely dead.

But gay bathhouses like Man’s Country also played a vital role in normalizing safer sex among gay men, and by the time I arrived, gay sex no longer equaled death. For me, Man’s Country is comfort lust, prompting soothing memories of when my sex life and sense of self stopped warring with each other.