The public has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role bathhouses can play in queer communities, and Carlos Reynoso has had a hell of a time shifting the narrative around them because his online archive dedicated to these spaces kept getting shut down by Instagram. Despite the app’s regular practice of censoring Reynoso’s work, it was originally an Instagram algorithm that led me to the Mexican artist and his page Proyecto Bathhouse, which can now only be found on Twitter. The project is a community-driven archival project in which members of the public submit stories and photos to Reynoso, who is using social media platforms to document the people, stories, and communities behind commercial sex venues.
Reynoso is currently working toward an art and social practice master of fine arts degree at Portland State University, but the 36-year-old wears many hats. He’s an artist who runs a queer mercadito selling one-of-a-kind vintage designs and an HIV counselor and social worker. In his professional capacity, Reynoso frequented bathhouses to help connect marginalized people with HIV resources, but he also visited bathhouses as a patron looking to find partners and explore his sexuality. Proyecto Bathhouse has allowed him to pull many of these identities together into a project that bridges his identities as an artist, storyteller, and advocate.
The artist is turning the Proyecto Bathhouse online community archive into a five-issue zine that will include narratives from the project’s participants. Eventually, he would like to turn the work into a documentary. Reynoso recently spoke to Prism about the community-led archives, consent, censorship, and his first time patronizing a bathhouse. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: Some folks may be unfamiliar with bathhouses and what they are, so before we start let me ask you: How would you describe a bathhouse?
Carlos Reynoso: I describe it as a commercial sex venue, and broadly that’s how I’m describing the places I’m archiving. Historically, a bathhouse is a spa, and the kind of bathhouses I’m talking about also still operate as a spa with a sauna, a steam room, and other amenities. But there are also places inside where you can explore your sexuality. My archival work also includes sex clubs and arcades, the kind you find in adult stores and porn stores. These spaces are community spaces; they are part of our queer culture. People in my community go to these spaces to have fun, to be with their friends, to find partners. People find their husbands or long-term partners in these spaces. They know the staff. It’s a community and yes it fulfills a sexual need, but it also fulfills a community need.
Vasquez: Proyecto Bathhouse has really pushed me to think of archival work differently. Who inspired you to do this work?
Vasquez:I’m a big fan of Guadalupe Rosales’ work. When I came across Veteranas and Rucas, it was the first time that I ever saw the kind of people I grew up with reflected artistically and in an archive. What about her work speaks to you?
Reynoso: I was very inspired by her work because whenever I think of archives, they seem kind of dry, right? When I think of an archive, I think of going into a library and picking up a big, huge dusty book and sorting through very old material. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not for everyone. I love the idea of archiving the culture in certain places, and I also want to challenge what archives can be. Guadalupe’s work does that; it challenges the idea of a stuffy, old archive and instead adopts this community-led approach to archival work. She reached out to her community to find other people who were part of the underground house party scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s and asked them to contribute photos because she wanted to preserve that moment in time. I grew up in Los Angeles and in communities where that subculture belonged to. My sisters and my cousin were older and that was their scene and culture and seeing that work unfold really empowered me and inspired the approach I took to Proyecto Bathhouse.
Vasquez: Tell me how that process began. How did you begin collecting the images for Proyecto Bathhouse?
Reynoso: It was important to me to give participants a lot of autonomy so that they also felt like this project was for them and it was theirs. I just started talking to people and asking them if they were interested in the project. I told them I wanted to collect stories and images and that I wanted to understand relationships people in the community had to bathhouses and I wanted to build relationships with those people. The community helped me cultivate this project from the very beginning. I will turn all of this into a publication and do a series of lectures on the research I’ve done for the project.
Vasquez: In relation to your work, I’ve thought a lot of Pulse Nightclub. So much of the media that was produced about the mass shooting wasn’t produced by people who belonged to the LGBTQ+ Latinx community. Latinx LGBTQ+ artists and writers were the only ones who named this other layer of violence, which is that the shooter specifically targeted a place queer and trans people of color cultivated where they could be joyful and carefree and messy. In other words, it was a violation of a community space. I feel like there are similar misunderstandings and misconceptions about the role that bathhouses play.
Reynoso: Thank you for saying that, and that does make sense to me. There are similarities because like the club, bathhouses are a place where you can feel free. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that bathhouses are just for gay or queer men. That’s not true. Bathhouses are sexual places, and sexuality is complicated. A lot of men don’t necessarily identify as gay; they go to these places to explore their sexuality. The fact that women have not been allowed in these places is patriarchal and oppressive. Before COVID-19 shut a lot of bathhouses down, they were starting to open up to more identities.
Even though this project is about archival preservation, it’s also about sexual liberation. I’m less interested in what outsiders perceive bathhouses to be or what they misunderstand about them and much more interested in making it clear that bathhouses are empowering places for men of color and people with queer identities. As an example, Midtowne Spa in downtown Los Angeles is a safe space for people of color. A lot of the men who go there are immigrants who for whatever reason are not openly queer or cannot be openly queer to their families back home, so the bathhouse is a place of liberation for them. A lot of times that liberation can only be found in the confines of that building and once they leave that space, their queer identity is gone. That’s why I’ve also had to go about this project very carefully. Consent is really important and I don’t post any images without consent. I want people to know that when they do see my account, but they can’t right now because Instagram disabled it.
Vasquez: Talk to me about that. We’ve seen how FOSTA-SESTA has overwhelmingly harmed sex workers who use social media, but sites like Instagram are notoriously aggressive with any accounts that have sexual content that doesn’t feature thin, cis, white bodies.
Reynoso: My account has been disabled so many times and I no longer use Instagram for the project because I felt my labor was in vain due to it being taken down so much. I think a big part of it was the content that I upload. It was almost all men of color because the bathhouses I visited as a patron were bathhouses where it was mostly men of color. But yes, it was frustrating. You have to go through an entire appeal process, which takes a lot of time. Instagram is a research platform for me and this made it hard to do my work.
It’s totally a form of censorship. The type of sexuality that’s allowed on Instagram is very white and very manufactured and filtered and curated. The type of sexuality I showcased was sometimes bold and sometimes vague or blurry; it was unedited and unscripted and very real. It was very human. Because of all of that and because it was men of color, it was seen as too graphic and it kept getting taken down.
Vasquez: The work you’re doing is really sensitive. As a journalist, it makes me think of the responsibility I feel to the communities I report on and how one of the most uncomfortable parts of journalism is the way we edit or filter or frame a person’s story in a way that isn’t always consensual or beneficial to the subject. As an archivist who was handling sensitive images on a public forum, what did you think about the tools Instagram gave you to crop and filter and edit the photos people shared with you?
Reynoso: I did find creative ways to edit the images because of the confines of Instagram, but it was always my hope that the image I ended up posting was a respectful portrayal of the person who submitted it. Sometimes the edits were necessary, otherwise I couldn’t post the images that people submitted. It was very important to me to keep the original story behind the image, and that’s really hard on a platform where they block out the image or blur it because they consider it too graphic.
That censorship takes away from the story; it takes away from the experience the image represents. I don’t like the idea of altering someone’s image in order to be able to post it. If these were overly curated images of muscled white guys in jockstraps, I probably wouldn’t have been messed with at all. It’s not just the imagery that Instagram has a problem with; it’s that it’s not overly manufactured. Proyecto Bathhouse images are raw and organic and they show what human sexuality looks like in these spaces. The images weren’t flagged by followers, but they were flagged for not following the guidelines set forth by Instagram.
Vasquez: You touched on consent earlier, but I want to talk about it more in-depth. I imagine there are a lot of challenges in building trust with folks so that they feel comfortable sharing intimate photos.
Reynoso: At first it was really difficult. Before I even started the project, I worked in these spaces, so I already had a community of people that I knew would be interested in participating or contributing to this project. So, that was a good starting point. But I’m not just interested in collecting images; I really want to collect stories. That can be a challenge because you’re asking someone to be vulnerable with you. We’re talking about this thing that humans have always done, but it’s very vulnerable and it does require trust. This includes me. I include myself and my experiences in this project and I use my body in ways that make me vulnerable or sometimes I feel uncomfortable with images I’ve posted of myself. To me, this is an important part of the project and I want to use myself to allow others to feel comfortable. I want to make sure that people feel comfortable and they feel liberated and empowered. In the early stages of developing this project, I mostly posted images of myself. I would go to a bathhouse, take a picture of myself or my partner, and then I would get a message on Instagram or someone would email me to share images. What would happen a lot is that men who went to the same bathhouse as me would contact me to share images from that bathhouse, but they didn’t want me to post them. We would talk about the project, but it would end there. They basically just wanted to be seen or to talk about the bathhouse as a space where they felt free. As the project continued, people started to send me images that they did want me to post, but they just wanted to make sure their faces didn’t show or they wanted to make sure they would remain anonymous.
Vasquez: I remember being a young person and entering queer spaces for the first time or going to gay bars and feeling both scared and excited because I was still sorting through my own bullshit and understanding my identity. What can you remember about your first time going to a bathhouse?
Reynoso: I’m an immigrant and I grew up in a household that was kind of oppressive because I grew up Catholic. I knew that I was a gay kid so when I was a teenager, I started to go to this gay youth center near where I grew up in Whittier. That helped me sort some stuff out and I also learned a lot just about queer culture. That’s how I learned about bathhouses.
I was probably 19 at the time. I’m 36 now, so this was before smartphones. There was no Grindr. There was Craigslist, but I was afraid that if I went on Craigslist it would leave some kind of trail and my dad would find out. It felt like there was no escape for me. So, learning about bathhouses was—even though it was terrifying and evoked a lot of anxiety and nervousness— was also an outlet for me. It was a place I would be able to explore my sexality and identity.
I was obsessed with the possibility of going and I was too afraid to ask MapQuest for directions because I was terrified my parents would figure it out, so I had to bust out this rogue mission. I knew there was a youth center in downtown LA, which would allow me to escape my parents’ house without giving them any red flags. At night, I would drive around downtown LA looking for Midtowne Spa. This went on for months. I kind of figured out it was near the American Apparel building on Broadway, so I’d just kind of cruise around by the old Greyhound station.
I was like a hunter, just trying to hunt down this place. I was feeling defeated and then one night, after months and months of searching, I was driving down Seventh to get back on the freeway to go home and I see this really sexy guy. He looked out of place walking on Seventh and it was already dark. I had this intuition that he might be going to the bathhouse. This sounds horrible and I don’t mean it this way, but I kind of followed him just to see if my intuition was right and it was. He led me to Midtowne Spa.
Vasquez: I can’t imagine what that moment felt like!
Reynoso: I was terrified. I parked the car really far away. I don’t know why I was scared to park in the parking lot. I was shaking; my body was literally shaking. I managed to get to the front desk, but I couldn’t look at the check-in guy in the eyes. I paid and he gave me lube and condoms and a little key for the locker and that’s it. I was in. Being 19 in that space for the first time, I got a lot of attention and that felt really nerve racking, but it also felt very empowering. I felt so proud that I was there. I had no idea what the space would come to represent for me or my work. I’m so glad I found it.