An underground sex club is raided, and Minneapolis is forced to face the times

Illustration by Chris Larson

Illustration by Chris Larson

There is a nondescript building in north Minneapolis, hidden amid a forgotten cove of ramshackle bungalows, where three nights a week gay men of all ages gather to have anonymous sex.

They’re single and searching, married with kids, sick of the downtown bar scene. Others are small-town guys from across the Midwest who have never known what it’s like to be part of a gay community. Warned not to hog the neighbors’ street parking, they leave their cars a block away and circle to the back door, where a man peering through a square window beckons them in from the cold.

Scott Delage, the jovial 52-year-old owner, instructs patrons to undress to whatever extent they’re comfortable. A $15 suggested donation supports a coat check guarded by an eagle-eyed octogenarian, bottomless condoms and lube, and bottled water.

Club music pulses from the belly of the building. Porn plays on wall-mounted TVs alongside muscular male mannequins refurbished as lamps. A get-to-know-you lounge lit by the glow of a large aquarium narrows to a series of themed rooms.

There’s an Andy Warhol room where a sex swing sways under the benevolent gaze of the famous Marilyn Monroe diptych, a “Cell Block 69” room equipped with prison bars and orange jumpsuits, a stunning basement maze of glory holes, and a balcony overlooking an annex furnished with rococo sofas and mirrored candelabra, where people can see and be seen.

Everywhere there are dark corners for quiet talk.

Photo by Emily Utne. Special thanks to Tom Smith of Flair! Mannequins.

Photo by Emily Utne. Special thanks to Tom Smith of Flair! Mannequins.

At about 7 p.m., a couple arrives at the door. They each pay $15, but prefer not to undress. It’s their first time. They just want to look around at the moment.

They wander for about 15 minutes — “probably got a good eyeful,” Delage recalls — before excusing themselves to get a drink at a nearby bar.

Ten minutes later, uniformed police officers bust in. They handcuff Delage, along with the man running the coat check and the quasi-security guard who patrols the building. 

Patrons, most of whom are naked, are interrupted mid-intercourse by blinding flashlights. They’re told to dress and clear out.

“Then officers came in, and they could not have been more cool about it,” recalls Mark N., 59, who asked not to be named because he considers the parties a private part of his life.

“I mean, some of them were way more freaked out than the patrons. It was super ordered, nobody got thrown out in the night without their clothes on or anything like that, so kudos to the city for that.”

The police, as it turns out, are working on behalf of the city’s housing and fire inspectors, who believe that Delage is running an unlicensed sex club.

Inspectors cite him and post placards over the warehouse’s windows declaring it unfit for commercial activity. When everyone is gone, police uncuff Delage, and fish out the $30 they paid at entry from his cache of $716.

That was last January. The Warehouse, as the legendary institution had come to be known, was no more. Minneapolis’ star on the national map of gay cruising flickered and dimmed. The city had been tipped off, courtesy of another gay man who could not tolerate what Delage had done.

The Interventionist

John Mehring, 64, is a single man who recently moved to Minneapolis from San Francisco, where he spent most of his adult life. He works at an elementary school and dedicates much of his spare time to researching the history of the 1980s HIV epidemic. He’s also living with AIDS.

Built small, his winter jacket an oversized husk on a wiry frame, he navigates the city by bus, toting his important papers in a plastic bag.

An intellectual by nature, with an exhaustive grasp of local laws and codes, Mehring is proud to often be the most informed person in the room. He speaks in rapid stream-of-consciousness, delivering his thoughts with meticulous hyper-rationality.

As he extrapolates why he fought so hard to shutter the Warehouse, he peels back layers of circumscribed logical and ethical considerations with a clear thirst for complex problems, even if they’re of his own making.It was over winter break in 2015 that Mehring found himself spending time at the Aliveness Project, a wellness center in southwest Minneapolis that provides hot meals and a gathering place for the HIV-positive. While he was discussing his research on 1980s laws that banned bathhouses and other places gay men frequented for sex, another man interjected.

There was one such institution that still existed in Minneapolis, he told Mehring. The Warehouse.

Mehring insisted it was impossible that such a place could operate under the radar of a government as squeaky clean as Minneapolis’. At the same time, he was intrigued, even alarmed.

More apt to homework than groundwork, Mehring put off going to see the Warehouse for as long as he could. Instead, he investigated everything he could about it through conversations with other gay men, Freedom of Information Act requests, and internet reviews, which described the place interchangeably as a bathhouse and a sex club. He never approached Delage directly, though by and by, he formed his judgement of the man, his politics, and his work.

Mehring found out that the Warehouse operated in a commercial building with established weekly hours, and that Delage asked for $15 donations — factors that Mehring thought qualified it as an unlicensed business.

He learned that condoms, though abundantly available, were not mandatory as they were in San Francisco’s commercial sex clubs. He was certain that Delage did not pay business income taxes, though he did benefit from government services by hosting Hennepin County health workers once a month to provide free HIV testing. 

Then there was the issue of the building’s structural safety. Because it was not a registered business, the fire marshal did not inspect the Warehouse to ensure it met code. Though a seemingly finicky requirement, noncompliance could lead to devastating consequences, as in the notorious case of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last year.

The Ghost Ship was a warehouse converted into an artists’ commune. When an electrical spark set off a fire in the middle of a concert, flames hastily swallowed combustible art materials, wooden mannequins, instruments, and the building’s only stairway, which had been built precariously out of a stack of wooden pallets. Thirty-six people died.

Subsequent investigations found that Oakland officials were well aware of the conditions of the Ghost Ship, and that people were living, working, and hosting events there, when none of it was legal.

Mehring draws a parallel between the Ghost Ship and the Warehouse because both belonged to marginalized people — artists in a gentrifying neighborhood, and gay men whose edgier sexual preferences are still looked upon with discomfort.

“So they say it’s our right to have this place and if we’re in danger, then it would be better to have a place in danger than no place. That’s what I got out of that,” Mehring says. “I’m the type who would rather be safe than sorry. Other people might not be that way, but where is government going to be? My dilemma was I have this information. Would I just stand by and let it happen?”

Mehring concluded that Delage, based on some libertarian-style Facebook posts he’d shared that were critical of welfare and big government, must have intentionally shirked the law in order to avoid the costs of regulation, taxation, and consumer protection.

He was convinced that the Warehouse should be licensed. So he set out to make it so by outing it to every governmental agency he could. 

The county health department said business licensing was none of its concern. Minneapolis city attorney Susan Segal verified that although she was aware of the Warehouse, and had “concerns” about it, she was not ready to share her legal opinion of whether it truly was an unlicensed sex club. State health commissioner Ed Ehlinger, who had been head of the city’s health department when sexually oriented gay businesses were banned in 1988, did not respond at all.

Their inaction infuriated Mehring, so he pushed harder, sending rapid-fire letters of complaint to the Minneapolis DFL, Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis, various gay bars, gay advocacy organizations, radio stations, and magazines. No one seemed to much care that there was an underground club running in a residential neighborhood of north Minneapolis, as Mehring insisted. And if they did, no one wanted to be the first to bring the hammer of enforcement.

“It was a mindfuck because I felt like literally I was in the Twilight Zone,” he says. “Hennepin is not speaking to Minneapolis. Minneapolis is not talking to Hennepin. There was this comedy of errors where nothing got followed up. The message sent to Scott was, ‘Hey, I can get away with this.’”

Mehring finally dropped by the Warehouse one night. He was anxious, he says, because he knew he was there to bust up the party. He saw Delage for a moment as he entered, his glasses fogged over. Essentially blinded, heart palpitating furiously, sweating through layers of winter clothes, he stumbled around for a few minutes only to gather as much information as he needed to feed police.

The Master of Ceremonies

Scott Delage bought the Warehouse building about five years ago. He envisioned converting the upstairs into a penthouse where he could live, the downstairs into an artist studio.

Then he began hosting his own sex parties. There were others scattered throughout the Twin Cities, private get-togethers hosted in houses and hotels by small networks of friends and swingers clubs. Delage saw potential in besting them all.

In the beginning, his events were intimate affairs attended by people he knew. He found he enjoyed hosting so much they became monthly, then weekly, then three times a week. Friends brought friends who told friends. Soon hundreds of people were showing up at his door.

“When we started this, word just spread like wildfire,” Delage says. “It’s like that old saying, ‘Telephone, telegraph, tell-a-gay.’”

In many ways, he and Mehring are perfect foils. Delage is a big, vivacious man who drives a big truck. A Minnesotan for life, he is married and surrounded by friends who have only multiplied since he created the Warehouse.

And the Warehouse was his magnum opus, the outpouring of all his creative powers of design, building rehab, and the conversion of eclectic garage-sale treasures into novel furnishings and playthings.

To the people who attended his parties, the Warehouse was a safer alternative to the gay bars that crowd an increasingly dicey downtown.

Nick, 48, recalls walking down Hennepin Avenue one year during Pride, and being approached by a younger man who asked if he was a fag. He answered yes, indeed he was. The kid sucker punched him.

“I’ve had friends who had just gotten beat into the hospital coming out of the [Gay] 90’s,” Nick says. “You could get picked up and get rolled on at the bars. When you’re at the Warehouse, you don’t have that fear.”

It wasn’t always about the sex. A recovering alcoholic, Nick couldn’t go to bars to meet other men. But Delage had decreed that no alcohol or drugs were ever allowed in the Warehouse. The people Nick met there became friends. 

The Warehouse also kept people out of the mall bathrooms, parks, and beaches that had been the traditional hookup sites for gay men in the days before Grindr.

James McMurray, 46, says he never liked cruising spaces he knew he shouldn’t be cruising.

“If you don’t invite me to a bar or to your house, I have no desire to see you and go to jail. I can’t do the park, no truck stops. It’s where people go and still frequent if you can’t go to Scott’s private party.”

The Warehouse was a revival of the private places gay men built for themselves before the AIDS scare, and long before mainstream acceptance of gay rights. Back in the days when police busted up bars and bashed skulls, it was imperative that gay men create hidden worlds for themselves.

Those who didn’t cruise the parks had bathhouses, bookstores, and theaters, paying a fare to private rooms and curtained crannies where they could find whatever they were looking for. There is a small family sauna in Duluth that still follows this model, but it’s sparsely trafficked and serves a much smaller gay population than Minneapolis’.

The Warehouse meant something to men of a certain age, where they could be free to be who they were and do what they pleased. The younger patrons, of whom there were a few, realized how liberating a semi-private party could feel. How shameless, how normal.

As it became more popular, it attracted the attention of Hennepin County’s Red Door Clinic, the state’s largest HIV prevention center. Health workers were hearing of more and more clients meeting their partners at the Warehouse, so they asked Delage if they could drop by with literature and talk to patrons about getting regular checkups and trying Truvada, a daily medication that decreases the risk of transmitting and contracting HIV.

“When I learned about the place, I thought it was the best place that we could have for testing,” says Javier Bucher, who in his decade working for the Red Door Clinic is used to trying to connect with men in all sorts of situations.

He would go to detention centers, bars, porn shops, toy shops, and smaller scale private sex parties where people were happy to take the condoms and literature, but did not often want him testing on their property, thus reminding merry customers of the sobering risks of HIV. Teams of health workers would stake out the cruising sites as well, including Bare Ass Beach on the Mississippi River, where former Minnesota Sen. John Chenoweth was shot to death by a psychopathic homophobe in 1991.

Delage raised the stakes, offering the health workers a spacious corner to set up a monthly table strewn with twinkling fairy lights and banners, condoms, and lubes. They made a spectacle of it. And in a quiet room, they could draw blood and test for HIV within 20 minutes, counseling patients individually. 

The Warehouse “is not the only place in town where there are events with suggested donations,” Mark N. points out. “But none of them have the longevity, the respect, the following, and the organizing that Scott’s does.”

But where John Mehring grapples to guess what he believes to be Delage’s motives, Delage’s take on the man who took it all away is a blunt and angry verdict: “He’s just mad because he got AIDS in San Francisco, and he’s taking it out on me.”

Picking a Fight

The city nevertheless thought Mehring had a point. Its departments of health, fire, zoning, and housing each believed, in their own way, that they had a regulatory responsibility to close the Warehouse.

Delage was cited for a dozen violations and fined for doing business without a license.

The crackdown culminated in extensive personal losses. He could no longer host parties in the Warehouse, and he wasn’t allowed to renovate it into a private residence either. A glaring orange fire marshal’s notice on the window was a constant insult as the fallow building depreciated in value.

A couple of Delage’s closest friends, including McMurray, called OutFront Minnesota, the state’s umbrella gay rights advocate, for help. Others migrated away amid unflattering rumors that Delage had been jailed the night of the police raid, the Warehouse condemned.

“People didn’t want to get involved because they didn’t want to put their name out there or cause some type of shame to themselves,” McMurray says. “I was constantly trying to tell people if it were San Francisco, they would have been complaining and picking a fight about it. They would have made it happen.”

Delage resolved to fight back, but a broken hip incurred in the process of renovating another property slowed him.

In January, he taped a piece of poster board over the orange placard that the fire marshal had left on the Warehouse door. Mehring, who had come by the area to see whether anything was happening with the building, was instantly irritated with the cover job. He began to tear it down.

Delage heard rustlings outside and rushed to investigate. Suddenly he and Mehring came face to face, staring at each other through the front door window.

Mehring bolted with the poster in hand, running across the street toward a nearby bus stop. Delage hobbled after him on crutches. He climbed into his car and eventually caught up to Mehring as he attempted to cross the street.

“I’m going to call the police!” Mehring threatened. He says he uttered the words impulsively, unsure what Delage would do.

As Delage kept asking him, “Why?” Mehring walked away without looking back.

“In retrospect, that might have been a good moment to engage with him,” Mehring says.

The two men ultimately have a common goal. Though Delage has always maintained that his events were private sex parties improperly interpreted, he has fully embraced the idea of turning it into a legitimate, commercial sex club that is taxed and regulated if it means he could have the Warehouse back.

But he is as furious with Mehring as a gentle giant can be. Mehring also recognizes that there’s no chance the two of them could ever work together to bring about the Warehouse’s rebirth.

Yet there are others in the middle who do not view the outing of the Warehouse so personally. For them, this could be an opportunity in disguise in the long arc of progress for gay people.

Mark N., who also lived in San Francisco, says he sympathizes with Mehring’s obsession with licensing.

“At any rate it was a clean, good facility, but the lack of emergency exits in the basement was indeed an issue,” he says. “Noticed that on the first trip. Being from earthquake-prone country, you know, I’m aware of my surroundings that way.”

He didn’t view the city’s crackdown as good or bad, right or wrong. The city was being the city, cracking down the same way it would on a dance club without a license. 

“But like a path to citizenship, maybe we can have a path to licensure?”

Minneapolis Lumbers into Action

When Minneapolis banned all gay bathhouses in 1988, it was the deathbed wish of the beloved city councilman Brian Coyle, who died that same year from complications of AIDS.

This was a different time with different science, and the prohibition had been the brave thing to do. AIDS was ravaging the gay community. There were no treatments.

Coyle’s “bathhouse ordinance” characterized HIV and AIDS as incurable, a death sentence visited primarily on high-risk gay men.

“It felt like the angel of death. The grim reaper was walking behind just waiting for me to make a slip,” recalls 67-year-old Mike C., a Warehouse patron. “I lost many friends. They died of AIDS. I was pallbearer at their funerals. At first people would get it and they would drop in like six weeks.”

A cure was never found, but innovations changed what it meant to live with AIDS. These days, people can live for decades with proper care. AIDS is no longer the exclusive gay male disease it was once billed to be, and medications like Truvada liberated gay men to have sex with peace of mind.

The world has changed enough now, Mike C. believes, that it’s time to resurrect the businesses where gay men gathered.

Minneapolis, as it turns out, is far behind the times on this matter. Other cities have revisited their laws and reopened the bathhouses, says Gary Schiff, a former 9th Ward councilman who is running for his old seat this year.

Schiff, who is gay, says he attempted to rewrite the Brian Coyle bathhouse ordinance sometime in the early 2000s, but couldn’t convince other council members to expend the political capital. 

Meanwhile, there are bathhouses and sex clubs in San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, and most other cities that purport to be progressive — and even ones with much more conservative reputations than Minneapolis.

If he is reelected this year, Schiff promises to champion a revocation of the bathhouse ordinance, even if fellow council members require heavy persuasion.

“I would, because it sickens me to hear about the amount of public resources that went into raiding this business, instead of putting those resources into updating our code of ordinances to reflect best practices in 2017,” he says. “Why are we spending limited police resources on a weekend evening sending in 15 squad cars? It’s just completely backwards.”

The bathhouse ordinance, which prohibits businesses catering to “high-risk sexual conduct,” does not extend to straight sex establishments. In March, the Minneapolis Health Department conducted a sweep of the Warehouse District’s strip clubs and found semen in 11 locations, including Dream Girls, Deja Vu, Spearmint Rhino, and Sex World.

Delage, on hearing the news, found it a bitter irony. The findings were proof, he thought, that it’s futile for authorities to meddle in the lives of consenting adults.

The Warehouse raid prompted OutFront Minnesota and the Minnesota AIDS Project to reach out to the city’s health department with offers to help rewrite the bathhouse ordinance. All agree that the language is clearly outdated.

“The Warehouse situation, it’s interpreted a lot of different ways by different people,” says Phil Duran of OutFront Minnesota. “There are some people that look at is as private parties. Other people look at it like it’s commercial activity. And at the very least we would certainly acknowledge that there’s some gray area. So how do we clarify that? What can the city regulate? And what does the city really have no business regulating?”

City health department staff have begun the long slog of internal research and gathering of community input that foreshadows any change that is recommended to the council.

“Obviously, it’s completely up to council as to whether they amend the ordinances. But I think this one makes a lot of sense because it’s antiquated,” says Dan Huff, the city’s director of environmental health. “It’s also a clunky ordinance. We look at it as our goal is to protect public health and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, and the ordinance currently is not a tool for that.”

As for Hennepin County’s health workers, who are passionate about treatment and passive on regulation, they can only hope that Minneapolis will assist their cause.

“This is about progress and making sure we move,” says an excited Bucher. “Instead of being illegal or underground, [the Warehouse] can move into a better place, which means it moves into a better place for safety and a better place for health.”

The Party Goes On

On a slow Saturday evening in March, Delage is hosting another sex party, the 150th or so since the Warehouse raid. The parties never ended, in fact. They just moved to a second property, a home in a blighted pocket of the city where Delage’s renovations have made it the nicest house on the block.

“We stopped having parties at that address because we’re being law-abiding citizens. But it’s never stopped. It’s never gonna stop,” he chuckles. “You know what I mean? There’s a need. There’s an absolute need.”

The new place is much smaller, attracting groups of about 20 men at a time. Many regular patrons shied away after the raid, but have slowly found the house. But this time, Delage is much more guarded about who he admits. Anyone he doesn’t recognize better come with a friend he does.

There is music and porn, a coat check and a private bedroom for private things. But most of the toys are locked up in the Warehouse, collecting dust like a museum of eccentricities frozen in time.

The health workers have not been back. The new space is simply too small.

On this Saturday, most of the patrons are middle-aged men who look as though they’ve just gotten off work as accountants somewhere buttoned up. There are also younger men in their early 30s, mid-20s, diverse men, reflections of an outside world that is slowly, clearly changing.

“I would absolutely love to bring them back to the Warehouse because I don’t want it to end,” Delage says. “It’s a pure need. It just is. Gay men are just gay men. They like to have anonymous sex here and there or would like to have lots of anonymous sex with lots of partners, and some men are just the opposite. We need the Warehouse.”