Jim Clarke is no stranger to change. After his time in the Army, he transitioned to the food industry, which eventually forced him into the Mile High City. Not long after moving here, he made a career jump from the food industry to LGBTQ nightlife, landing a job at the now-closed gay bar The Fox Hole Lounge. His time bartending there was short, and it wasn’t long before a regular customer offered him a job outside of the bar.
“I had no idea what this man did, and I told him I’d come in for an interview one Sunday,” Clarke said. “When he told me to meet him at Midtowne Spa on Monday, I had to do a lot of soul searching before walking through those front doors. That day, he hired me as assistant manager. That was 22 years ago.”
Denver’s Midtowne Spa is one of the few gay bathhouses left that share the same name. After decades of operation and nine locations around the country, Midtowne Spa has only three locations still in business: Denver; Los Angeles; and Wilmington, California.
After Denver Midtowne’s general manager left the chain, Clarke was offered the position. Again, after sleeping on the decision, he decided it was too good of money to pass up. Although his workforce changes came to a halt in 1996, Clarke was now in charge of something bigger—changing with the always-evolving culture that exists within the LGBTQ community. It’s through leadership and eye for detail that Midtowne Spa has outlasted most of its brethren.
“It’s not easy work,” Clarke said. “A lot of time and energy has gone into making Midtowne what it is today.”
In the late 90s, when Clarke first started working, Midtowne was one of three bathhouses in Denver alongside the now-closed Triple C and still-standing Denver Swim Club. Right from the beginning, Clarke noticed some things that needed to be changed.
“We had two people who had completely moved in,” he said. “I’m talking hot plates and posters. They were the first to go.”
He then began noticing some regular customers, and even staff members, selling drugs out of certain rooms. They were next on the list. As long as gay bathhouses have been around, they have been filled with gay and bisexual men looking to get laid and fueled the stigma that surrounds gay sex. Bathhouses were a source of contention—to some they were integral to gay culture; for others they were dangerous. That stigma and shame intensified as the AIDS epidemic grew, forcing many bathhouses to close their doors.
Today, even with new drugs that prevent the spread of HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEp), and the knowledge that those with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus, Midtowne is still riddled with the association of being a place where diseases are spread.
“We work really hard to make sure that our guests are having safe sex and have the resources to get privately tested on-site,” Clarke said. “That’s a really, really big deal to us.”
Stanning Safe Sex
Midtowne Spa has a zero-tolerance policy for bareback sex. Condoms are scattered throughout the maze of public and private rooms. Anyone caught in the throws of unprotected sex is banned for a length of time. If they are caught a second time, they are banned for life—from all three locations.
The spa also offers testing opportunities for its customers weekly as well as at special events.
For Alex*, a regular at Midtowne, it’s one of the few places in town where he feels comfortable getting tested. After moving to Denver from Chicago, Alex was looking for a bathhouse to replace the Windy City’s Steamworks Baths. After visiting both Midtowne and Denver Swim Club multiple times, Alex decided to make his regular spot Midtowne while still visiting DSC occasionally.
“There’s no judgement in the atmosphere there,” Alex said. “Everyone who walks in knows what they are walking into. I don’t feel judgment from the person testing me; I don’t feel judgment from the staff, and I feel safer when I leave the testing room.”
In August, at the biennial National STD Prevention Conference, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented preliminary data from 2013 to 2017 showing trends in STDs. The data showed that from 2013 to 2017, “increases in STD cases have continued for four consecutive years; syphilis cases nearly doubled, gonorrhea cases increased by 67 percent, and chlamydia remained at record highs.”
In addition, the CDC has determined that these statistics disproportionately affect men who have sex with men, since the reported incidence of many STDs is higher among this group than among women or men who have sex with women only.
According to STI/HIV data published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the state of Colorado saw similar upward trends in reported incidences of STDs. For instance, in 2010, the DPHE reported 19,447 cases of chlamydia, 2,787 cases of gonorrhea, and 138 cases of syphilis. In 2016, the total amount of cases for all three STDs increased. The DPHE reported 25,569 cases of chlamydia, 5,975 cases of gonorrhea, and 524 cases of syphilis.
Midtowne currently works with both Denver Public Health and HeyDenver! to offer these testing days.
“I’ve contracted a few things over the years. But that’s why I continually get tested, so I can treat it and prevent spreading it,” Alex said. “I’m going to continue using this resource as long as they provide it.”
For Clarke, preventing the spread of STDs in his establishment is only one of the battles he faces. He is constantly on alert for drug use within the walls of Midtowne. There is a zero-tolerance policy for drug or alcohol use. All bags are checked at the door. And anyone caught breaking this policy is immediately banned for life.
“We know all the tricks. We’ve seen them before, and you’re not going to get away with anything in here,” he said. “We’re on all the apps and websites checking for people. We notice behaviors, and we aren’t shy about approaching people. We take it very seriously—we want all our guests to feel safe and comfortable here.”
Changing With the Times
The changes didn’t end with the clientele and policies. Over the past two decades, Clarke has updated the aesthetics of the club. He worked hard to get the exterior painted to a more natural color rather than the “nasty green that they painted in the 40s,” and even harder to make sure the space inside the historic building was welcoming to anyone who entered.
Alongside the private testing room, Clarke revamped almost everything: the patio, the group room, the dungeon, the locker rooms, show room, and the vending area. He also added a TV lounge. Currently, he is re-tiling the wet area, transforming it into a mid-century-modern-inspired area of the spa.
“I’m working hard to make the next project updating the rooms,” Clarke said. “I’m hoping we can start next year once the wet room is all finished. We’re seeing more and more people come through those doors, and I want to make sure they keep coming back.”
For Midtowne regular Randy*, it’s not the updated design or easy access to testing that inspires him to renew his membership, but the clientele.
“I’ve been to bathhouses everywhere, and this place is where I feel the most comfortable,” Randy said. “As long as you follow the rules, they are never going to turn anyone away. You see a lot of different types of people in here.”
Midtowne Spa prides itself on being inclusive to all gay and bisexual men, no matter their appearance. Although they don’t allow women in the club regularly, as long as your ID declares you male or you are male presenting, you are let into the spa.
But, Midtowne Spa started something unprecedented in 2017—the gay bathhouse opened its doors to the entire world. Anyone over the age of 18 was welcome to the first ever Panorama Party. Clarke, who is always open for change, didn’t know how people would take this. But people accepted the idea, as the line to get into the spa was around the block, literally.
“At first, there was very clearly a divide. All of the gay men were on one side, and all the females and their partners were on the other,” Clarke said. “By the end of the night, some girl had four gay guys bent over a couch while she pegged them.”
In 2018, Midtowne Spa hosted three more Panorama parties, drawing in people from all over the nation. Every party has hit maximum capacity, forcing it to only take place in the summer months at Midtowne. But, other bathhouses are taking note and attempting to implement similar nights at their establishments.
“We always have to be changing with the times,” Clarke said.
*To protect the privacy of sources, some names have been changed.