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Dangerous liaison; the first gay liaison to the mayor of Providence, R.I., talks about politics, gay sexuality, and why he was recently asked to resign. (Behind the Headlines).

As the first gay liaison to the mayor of Providence, R.I., W. Fitzgerald Himmelsbach proved his mettle immediately. Since October 1997, "Fitz" had worked energetically through the old-boy system, ensuring domestic-partner benefits for city employees and lobbying for better police response to hate crimes. He was also a local businessman, owning and managing several gay bars. Last fall, five syphilis cases were reported among patrons of the Mega-Plex bathhouse, a Himmelsbach business interest. The story broke in January, with Providence's Channel 10 alleging drug use and prostitution on the premises. Despite a spotless record of compliance with state authorities on AIDS prevention measures, Himmelsbach was under attack. The debate: Should the gay liaison be moonlighting as a bathhouse manager? Reluctantly, Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci forced his aide to choose between his political and entrepreneurial careers. Himmelsbach tendered his resignation, effective March 15.

Let's look at the media's role in your resignation. This incident happened at the same time as a sting at a gay video store and theater in nearby Johnston. The media announced the names of the arrestees, and one man committed suicide. Are Providence media particularly virulent?

Until this incident [in] Johnston and my incident, I had the highest respect for them. Channel 10 has a lot of openly gay employees. But I will tell you that I lost total respect for them. Especially when [reporter] Jim Taricani admitted on a radio show that he had only one source for his [charges of drug use and prostitution]. He did not do his homework to check on anything. When you don't do your homework and you rake my community over the coals, I'm going to come out fighting.

How do you feel about government interference in consensual sexual affairs in a private club?

The city has no regulation over this business. The mayor said that publicly. Sodomy is not against the law in the state of Rhode Island. And the state health department has a signed compact with me that I voluntarily agreed to last [fall]. I want to be running the best place. I want to be communicating with the right people. I want the experts to give me the advice and to work toward a healthier gay community.

You are clearly conscientious about disease prevention, but STDs seem to be occupational hazards of these places. Is zero transmission possible in bathhouses?

Is there a way it get it down to zero? No. Because you can't make someone put a condom on. If a person does not want to perform safe sex, it's not going to happen. We try to provide every opportunity and every tool available, from condoms to dental dams to rubber gloves. If you want me to put a camera in every room, it's not going to happen.

As gays court greater mainstream acceptance, there is an inclination to squelch certain aspects of our culture. What role does the bathhouse play in this new era?

A bathhouse is always needed, due to the fact that everybody can't be openly gay. There are a lot of gay men who live a heterosexual life, due to the fact that they are afraid to be who they are.

[When] the news story hit, I was nervous that my business would go down to nothing. The gay men showed up at the bathhouse anyway. That made me realize that I provided a safe place for my community. And that was the first time out of the whole [incident] that I cried.

Has this incident changed your view of politics? Do you feel that gays are still held to a double standard?

Everything is out in the open now. So I'm thinking about running for city council. I would like to see an openly gay city councilperson. Our council has stood on [some] issues, but they're not willing to take a vocal stance on gay issues.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:W. Fitzgerald Himmelsbach
Author:Blotcher, Jay
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U1RI
Date:Apr 16, 2002
Words:647
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