There are sex parties and swingers meetups all over the Twin Cities, hosted in crowded houses and hotels. Gay men still cruise the parks and malls, taking risks to meet strangers.
About 50 people gathered at Lush bar Monday night to hear the case for reexamining Minneapolis' ban on bathhouses, the predominant hookup scene for gay men prior to the 1980s AIDS epidemic. OutFront Minnesota provided a legal analysis, the Red Door Clinic a health perspective.
Audience members made it clear that congregate sex is thriving in Minneapolis and St. Paul as innovative medications like PrEP, a once-a-day pill that virtually eliminates the risk of transmitting HIV, are freeing people to live full sexual lives without fear of contagion. Now they're hoping for a centralized, sanitary, controlled place for everyone to go, where shame-free testing is offered on a regular basis.
The problem is, Minneapolis is holding fast to 30-year-old scientific understanding of HIV. City laws still define it as an "irreversible and uniformly fatal" disease, which is why it shut down the city's bathhouses in 1986 and prevents any new ones from opening.
Minneapolis used this so-called "bathhouse ordinance" last year to raid and close down a popular, unlicensed gay sex club operating out of a warehouse in north Minneapolis. The owner had to move the weekly parties to a smaller, private residence. The sex went on, just without testing that the Red Door Clinic health workers used to offer at the former location.
At the time, city officials spoke of rewriting the ordinance and researching Minneapolis' appetite for a commercial sex venue. But as the year winds toward its close, the city has not offered the expected changes.
"It feels like there's a memo floating through City Hall saying, 'Don't anyone talk about this ever,'" said Phil Duran, legal director of OutFront Minnesota.
City Hall likely doesn't know about new research around the spread of HIV and advances in gay men's sexual health, he says. And there does not seem to be the political will for change as elections loom on the horizon.
"What it comes down to is they don't want to have these discussions," said Karri Plowman, owner of Twin Cities Leather and Latte, as the audience questioned whether City Hall is refusing to acknowledge the gay community's need for regulated bathhouses that arguably make sex safer.
"It's amazing to me that we're still taught to fear something that's so natural," he said. "Knowledge has increased, science has increased, the way we feel about the health of our community has changed, and it's my belief something that was important 30 years ago has begun to inhibit the health of our community."