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Boy, Descending

Written By N.H. Van Der Haar
Cover Art by


N.H. Van Der Haar wrote this work because he was deeply interested in their Gay Sauna, how it occupies a space in pre-legality homosexual life and how delicate its position can feel in the wider culture of Pride and Melbourne culture.

Editors’ Note

“If you’re looking for sympathy … you can find it right in the dictionary between shit and suicide.”
– Charles Pierce, 1980

“The rest of the world in which I lived was still stumbling about in search of a weapon with which to exterminate this Monster [Homosexuality] … It was thought to be Greek in origin, smaller than Socialism but more deadly, especially to children.” – Quentin Crisp, 1968

Two Figures (The Buggers) Francis Bacon (1953)

The city of Melbourne is a vain, intriguing concept for a colony of criminals, utterly ruined by the reality of people living inside of it. ‘Marvellous’ Melbourne’s pride is the honesty it brings to its inhabitants. A gust of foul wind knocks a wheelie bin on its side. A phalanx of drunken teenagers are shattered by a pram filled with groceries instead of a child. Someone in stylish overalls silently carries houseplants equal in size to themselves into the foyer of an apartment block. Above us, someone is screaming through an open window. A spotless black Tesla floats through an intersection and squashes a distracted pigeon. The obese, round bird is instantly rendered flat and deceased.

This sauna is one of two in the city of Melbourne. The other is larger and has better facilities but is more publicly a gay sauna. The inner-city location tucks itself away behind 24-hour gyms and convenience stores.

Melbourne’s fondness for poverty and prejudice always provides a short-term need for the saunas. Anyone can walk into a sauna and, for less than 30 dollars, be given a towel, a locker and somewhere to sleep. This makes saunas desirable among some homeless. Anonymity in this place is strangely sacrosanct. Despite showing ID at the front door, you can call yourself whatever you like. You can spend hours speaking to no one, but showers are communal. Rinsing off next to me is an elderly bearded man very casually whistling. He is naked but has caked his whole body in shaving cream. He looks like a very gay snowman. He could be someone’s grandfather. He could be homeless. He’s also wearing thongs and you can almost feel the athlete’s foot beneath you.

Hanky Panky, Patrick Angus (1990)

Disease is a growing contemporary issue in a venue like this. Gentrification in the late 1980s allowed inner-city police to raid gay saunas by labelling them as brothels. COVID-19 sealed these places away and has become the main reason for closing saunas down. That and the emergence of monkeypox among gay communities has given excuse to some LGBTQI+ lobby groups advocating for closing saunas. Among these groups, the gay sauna is a relic of an improper and illegal homosexuality. It should have died with the rise of AIDS and the enveloping of gay culture into the wider, western one. Stuck between graphic images of men kissing and touching of our Melbourne sauna are government and lobby-group advertisements about getting tested, using protection and staying healthy. The models in the ads look nothing like the men here. They are clean and sensible; they have had their queerness tided to be acceptable.

The maze-like structure of the venue mimics playground equipment. Ramps and corridors going nowhere. No windows, only bright electric lights. Turns left or right that loop back around to join arrow entryways, leading to lounging areas padded with pleather. It all eventually goes back to the actual sauna part of the entire complex.

This is a more conversational area. Francis is the only inhabitant of the huge jacuzzi beside myself. He’s imposing at 6 foot 4 and looks like a tattooed seal with a small, greying beard. He’s friendly and open about his hypocrisy. He swung by after work before he has to get on a train home. He has two daughters and contently married. He’s not afraid of COVID because he believes it’s a Chinese conspiracy. He’s not conservative but he doesn’t trust doctors. Then, as soon as he starts talking, he’s gone, out of the sauna and into the smoking area

Quentin believes that apps and local government will exterminate the saunas. Grindr, Scruff and other dating apps do naturally erode the population of the sauna. Those with a car or a house can more easily access casual gay sex. Rather than make the sauna less useful, instead it has become an important environment for the safety and privacy of gay men.

On TikTok and Instagram, the ‘Pride’ movement is defined by its exclusivity and commercialism. It has become a cloud cuckoo land of online advocacy. Influencers create a public and easily accessible experience that promotes a definition of normalcy for audiences. To stray outside conventional aesthetics, to not fully publicize your identity, is to not be a member of the ‘Pride Movement’.1

While physical appearance does play a big role in a sauna where you only have a towel, at the same time you can see elderly bodies, chubby bodies, skinny bodies, scarred bodies, muscular bodies and bruised bodies. Shame becomes irrelevant when the playing field is level.

The saunas represent only one facet of a difficult gay history. As non-heterosexual relationships became more acknowledged and more accepted by conventional society, it is important for ‘Pride’ to acknowledge the history it brings with it, rather than abandon aspects of history that are unseemly to contemporary culture.

As I leave the sauna, I reflect on how unique this space is compared to everything else in Melbourne. It’s more comfortable than the National Gallery of Victoria, it has less crazy people than Federation Square, and it’s cheaper than the Docklands Stadium. But I also worry that a venue like this will be forced to close and become a museum to historical queerness so that a few commercial gays can better show their financial backers that members of ‘Pride’ can be well behaved for the majority.

Afterword: For the sake of privacy and better understanding, interview subjects for this piece have had their names and words changed.

Study from the Human Body, Francis Bacon (1949). Collecting dust in the National Gallery of Victoria.


  1. Ami Pomerantz, Big-Girls Don’t Cry: Portrayals of the Fat Body in RuPauls Drag Race, 2017, Springer International Publishing)

About The Author

N.H. Van Der Haar is a quietly queer and neurodivergent Australian writer currently mowing through a Masters at the University of Melbourne. His vainest ambition as a child was to replace the word ‘Writer’ with his own name, in the same way ‘Hoover’ has replaced ‘Vacuum Cleaner’.