Tucked between Pike and Pine on Summit Ave lies an unmarked gray building distinguished sharply by it’s vibrant yellow brick facade and yellow door proclaiming ENTER. Behind that door lies Steamworks, a bathhouse for men.
“Steamworks is a space where a man can come and be around other men, everyone is in a towel or naked, ready to have sex,” says Chris Peterson, the General Manager for Steamworks Seattle. “You are surrounded by people who have already made the decision to have sex that night. There is not as much negotiation in this setting, everything is more anonymous.”
I spoke with Chris about the company’s locations in Berkley and Chicago, gay bathhouse history, hook up culture, safer sex, and of course, how transgender folks fit in there.
“I’ll take anyone that wants to be here,” he exclaims, and we both laugh.
I was definitely curious to experience this integral part of gay male culture, but anxieties around my body tend to keep me from exposing myself publicly in a way many cis men take for granted. My maleness is never questioned when I am clothed. Once I begin to remove the layers you start to get the indicators. Seven months post top surgery, the scars have begun to fade, my nipples are cute, and in the dark you would still have no doubts that I wasn’t born a male. Although I see my own chest as reminder that I’m not your common male, it isn’t until you get to the genitalia that you really get the difference.
As a policy, Chris Peterson assured me that Steamworks is open to all transgender people who identify with being male. His staff has been spoken to about being accepting of everyone, although there have been instances of transgender women being asked to tone down their displays of femininity.
“If there is a dispute with anyone,” he explains, “we’re not going to ask anyone to leave because they are not ‘passable’ as a man. There are no tests. All we ask is that you want to be here, and you want to dress down, rent a locker or a room, and do whatever you want as long as it’s legal and with another consenting adult.”
A bathhouse is not a space to have conversations beyond “HIV status? Condoms? Top/Bottom?” I was completely unfamiliar with such a sexual space.
As a man with an innie rather than outtie, I wondered how people in there would react to me and how I would navigate this space. I was given the opportunity to take my ‘leap of faith’ into the unknown when I checked into Steamworks on a Friday just past midnight.
Chris hooked me up with a large room for the evening (you have to buy at least a months membership, and a locker or private room upon entrance). Their steam room was closed for renovations, but there were communal showers, places to potty and douche, communal sex spots, vending machines selling things from candy bars to poppers, condoms condoms condoms, and house music pumping throughout. The place is laid out with almost fifty private rooms on either side of a circular “track” in which you walk can walk around and cruise one another.
I was definitely in a sex positive environment, but was it trans-positive?
While my gender expression neatly fit in line with Steamworks’ policy of allowing “males looking for sex with males”, most men in there had probably never seen a trans guy naked before, let alone have any idea what to do with one sexually.
I spent the first hour there lying in bed naked, alone, with the door open, passively trying to entice interest in me. I flipped through the porn channels hoping to come across James Darling fucking Damien Moreau, or maybe even encounter another trans male in there. After an hour of nobody actively approaching me, I texted some fuckboys, determined to get laid, but had no luck there either.
Eventually I decided to be proactive, and got up and made a few rounds of the place with my towel wrapped tightly around me. I sat down in a few spots where there were others masturbating and I did the same, trying to emulate others’ behavior and appear to fit in. I had a few guys reach under my towel, only to turn away when they realized I was missing something.
“I’m a different kind of guy,” I told them, chuckling nervously .
Nobody wanted to go any further than that. Determined not to let the disinterest get me down, and wanting to make the most of this experience, I mustered up the courage to take a shower and walk around the place completely bare. I walked that floor like I had nothing to lose. For a period of probably only two minutes, but what seemed like two full lifetimes, I felt as if I was truly living. I didn’t give a single fuck as I strutted past all sorts of differently bodied dudes with my own deviant body fully on display. After making my way back to my room, I closed the door and finished myself off for the evening.
As a transgender person who can fit relatively well within normative masculine and male standards, it is easier for me to come into a space like Steamworks. But it doesn’t always mean I will be embraced by everyone. Being a visible transgender person is an important aspect of my life, and I do things to constantly push myself outside of my comfort zone.
At the end of the night, I knew I had made an impression and non-verbally disclosed my trans status to over 100 guys in one night by simply just being there. My experience was about being me finding comfort in my sexuality, and my body, and realizing that anonymous, casual, sexual encounters aren’t what I am into when I have so much to say about my sexual desires. You never know if you never try, and you never try if you never know.
Chris ended our interview by telling me: “I never say never to anything.”
I would suggest that Steamworks add porn featuring transgender people, get Kipp Slinger in there for a live sex show, and feature an evening for us to come out knowing full well others like us will be there. I’m hoping Chris and his staff will continue to support the transgender community by actively engaging them and focusing more on making sure we are represented in the space.