The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse: Rolyn Chambers and putting the art back into gay sex - Drew Rowsome - 416 Scene - MyGayToronto
The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse:
Rolyn Chambers and putting the art back into gay sex
by DREW ROWSOME
22 November 2017
One night, while waiting for a Sky Gilbert play to begin, two members of the Toronto gay social elite, strutflounced into the theatre clutching hot-off-the-press copies of the new fab magazine. Not even bothering to shrug off their designer—never knock-off!—jackets, they flipped open the magazine to the centrespread where Rolyn Chambers' Deep Dish column reigned. They avidly scanned the photos and, not finding themselves among the immortalized, tossed the magazine to the floor with disdain. It's a shame that they didn't bother to read Chambers' consistently witty text as there were always ideas, subtext or critique lurking beneath the breezy prose. I would hope that they don't make the same mistake with The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse. But then they won't. They're both in it.
Chambers has proved throughout his career that he is a canny promoter and that he understands that sex sells. The event launching The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse is titled "Salacious!" and all the promotional material for the book promises the same. As well it should, The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse is spiked with dirty details, gossipy revelations and scandal, just what one expects and wants from a saga about abathhouse, gay male sexuality and the man - "the boy" - who witnessed it. But, like his column, Chambers is also up to something more challenging.
At this point I should interject that I am not an impartial reader. I currently work with Chambers at MyGayToronto.com, have known himfor years, worked with him at fab during the period recounted in The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse, and edited his column and articles for many years after. I was at several of the events held at Grasp Erotica Bar and had a vested political interest in seeing Chambers' daring vision succeed. I was also, on many occasions, a patron of St Marc Spa, but in the years before Chambers was the manager. And I firmly believe that bathhouses were, and are, vitally important to gay male sexuality, mental health and the community as a whole.
The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse twines two stories. The first recounts how Chambers attempted to turn a rundown bathhouse into a profitable venture. Though his sketch of the glory of the great bathhouse age and why that is historically integral is far too brief, Chambers embraced the idea of glamour and community, and not only revamped St Marc Spa, but strove to transform it into something fabulous, fun and, in a twisted way, respectable. There was, is, a stigma attached to the baths and its patrons, but Chambers schemed that by adding artistry and the flair for interior design that gay men have gifted to the world, he could keep the sizzle and scandal but add broad appeal.
He also freely admits that it was a personal challenge and discloses his personal shame at being the manager of a sex facility instead of the renowned artist, he took great pride in the many ads he designed for St Marc Spa, he aspired to be. But he would be vindicated. St Marc Spa would be his work of art, his creation, and no matter the odds, it would succeed, it would be fabulous, and he would get the credit he deserved. And therein lies the second story. How one gay man faced some of his fears, phobias, neuroses, and, though the book ends with a cliffhanger, survived. The second plotline should be titled The Bathhouse That Brought Down a Boy.
Chambers writes honestly about his own preferences and needs—sexually and romantically—but carefully glides over any deep motivations. Tragedies in his past are mentioned but not delved into and, more importantly, not used as excuses. He may be a drama queen but he never apologizes, blames anyone else, or leaves out details and events that cast him in a bad light. He tries to be non-judgmental about others' preferences or situations but, when one is writing a book that people are going to read in hopes of scandal, perversion and sex, there is an inevitable whiff, a giggle, of holier than thou. For his own sanity, thank goodness he wasn't hired to manage The Barracks.
What Chambers tried to do, and what would have succeeded if he had been a little more superhuman, is remarkable. And daring. He was opening closet doors within closets and celebrating gay sex at a time when gay sexuality was being homogenized. And if his quest was partially motivated by financial gain and self-promotion, Chambers is honest enough to admit it. With The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse, Chambers isn't writing a manifesto, it is a juicy entertainment (at which it exceeds expectations) and an exorcism of his own demons. Its value as an historical document is a question for future generations of gays, but I suspect it will be mined and analyzed in many essays and theses.
The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse is, betraying Chambers' fab roots, deceptively shallow. He delights in clever wordplay and uses style to let the heavy topics of race, safe sex, drugs, love vs sex, and death, echo instead of slowing down the narrative. And for those worried, or eager, to see if they are named among the porn stars, celebrities, deviants, wannabe celebrities, fetishists, exhibitionists and artists, you are. Every gay man will recognize himself somewhere. The potentially litigious are disguised (inconsistently: even the lovely and OCD-talented "A.N." was unable to completely tame Chambers' natural disregard for the details over the fierce) and everyone, except for one romantic rival, is portrayed lovingly. Porn stars Michael Lucas and Tyler Saint in particular get a loving treatment and that is a metaphor for The Boy Who Brought Down a Bathhouse: gay sexuality and romance is about more than cock, there is artistry involved, but the cock part is glorious.
The BoyWho Brought Down a Bathhouse launches at Salacious! on Thurs, Nov 23 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St. gladdaybookshop.com