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On a recent summer afternoon, the Toronto Police LGBTQ Community Consultative Committee held an open house at Second Cup on Church, just around the corner from Steamworks.
Officers sat on the sunny patio and fielded questions from passersby.
As the novelist Garth Greenwell writes, “the circulation of bodies in physical space allows for a greater possibility of being surprised by desire, of having an unexpected response to the presence of another.” At Steamworks, there are all manner of men—men of colour, men from other countries and from poorer parts of town, men that I would otherwise never have encountered.
There was the fellow from Niagara who worked in a chicken slaughterhouse; the personal-injury lawyer who was smoking meth; the hormonal 18-year-old from rural Ontario who seemed astounded that such a place of casual sex could actually exist.
The baths have endured despite repeated predictions of their imminent demise, prompted first by the HIV-AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, and then by hook-up apps like Grindr in the 2000s.
Yet visit one of the city’s gay baths on a Friday or Saturday night and you will find that these establishments still do a brisk business.
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In addition to its space in Toronto, Steamworks has locations in Vancouver, Chicago, Seattle, and Berkeley, California.
Far from operating as havens for the closeted or ashamed, bathhouses seem to thrive in places where the gay community has by and large already been liberated.
Towelled guests paused their hedonism and gathered around to eat and banter in the early-morning light.
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