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A Dominating Narrative: The Mineshaft and BDSM Culture in the Meatpacking District

Notice: The following text contains references to sexual materials and activities appropriate for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

Exterior of the Mineshaft at 835 Washington Street in the Meatpacking District, via the LGBT Historic Sites Project and the Leather Club Roma
Exterior of the Mineshaft in the 1980s at 835 Washington Street in the Meatpacking District. Provided courtesy of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and the Leather Club Roma

835 Washington Street has had many past lives. In the 1930s, it was a humble butcher and meatpacking plant, until the industry declined in the 1950s and ‘60s. Then in the 1970s it was a smattering of revolving gay bars with rather unassuming titles: Cycle, Den, Zodiac, and O.K. Corral. Currently, it’s home to a candy store and a Thai restaurant, both new additions serving its gentrified neighborhood’s clientele of travelers, shoppers, and art connoisseurs. However, the building’s most intriguing stories may come from its time hosting the Mineshaft, a gay BDSM club whose patrons challenged biases about radical sexuality amid the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Mineshaft School for Lower Education 1985
“Mineshaft School for Lower Education” Poster from 1985. Image Provided courtesy of the Wally Wallace Collection at the Leather Archives & Museum.

Operating between 1976 and 1985, the Mineshaft is indicative of the larger Queer BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sado-Masochism) culture that existed within the Far West Village. It wasn’t that different from other clubs in the area, like The Anvil, The Manhole, or the heterosexual-friendly Hellfire Club. It was nondescript on the outside. Walking along the cobblestones of Little West 12th Street, you’d hardly notice the iron clad door with a poster taped to it, identifying the club as the “Mineshaft School for Lower Education.” Once inside, a set of stairs was guarded by a bouncer, checking to make sure all patrons wore the appropriate dress-code: denim and leather only, no preppy shirts with little alligators, no sneakers, and absolutely no cologne. From there, visitors were free to choose their own adventure. Going upstairs led to a rather seedy bar, but the level’s first floor led to a labyrinth of dungeons (i.e. sets of cubicle-style rooms reserved for sexual exploration). If you’re interested in learning more about the explicit details of these activities, see patron Will Kohler’s first-hand account in his 2012 article “Remembering the Mineshaft.”

Mineshaft Newsletter
Mineshaft Newsletter 1979 Page 1. Provided Courtesy of the Wally Wallace Collection at the Leather Archives and Museum
Mineshaft Newsletter 1979
Mineshaft Newsletter 1979 Page 2. Provided Courtesy of the Wally Wallace Collection at the Leather Archives and Museum

While the Mineshaft may be well remembered for its infamous activities, the club’s importance to our neighborhoods lies within its greater contribution to our ever-evolving understanding of human sexuality. Among its many patrons, several artists, scholars, and celebrities visited the club to find inspiration from its radical acceptance of Queerness and promiscuity. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe regularly participated in the club’s BDSM activities and events, inspiring his culture-war incensing collection The Perfect Moment that sparked national political debate about the limits of free speech and reframing ideas of obscenity (Fritscher, Page 1-29, See Footnote 1). Another visitor, Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and author of Discipline and Power (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), wrote on the roles in which power, sex, and dominance play in our society. Additionally, Jacques Morali used inspiration from the Mineshaft’s dress code to create the character for The Village People’s original Leatherman, who was played by Glenn Hughes, another one of the club’s frequent members (Fritscher, Page 54, See Footnote 2). In effect, the club’s clientele helped shape the public perception of both BDSM culture and Queerness within the wider media.

Robert Mapplethorpe's Mineshaft Membership Card
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Mineshaft Membership Card, as seen in the 2016 documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” and sourced from Dr. Jack Fritscher within the Cornell University Archives’s Human Sexuality Collection.

The club also acted as a center for community discussion and practice of sexual wellness, espcially among gay men who, at the time, were plagued by the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis used the club as a place to distrubte condoms and information about sexually transmitted infections, and Tim Sweeney, at the time the executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, urged Mayor Koch and local authorities to use such clubs as places to educate sexually active gay men and other at-risk individuals. However, the mayor did not heed these calls. Instead, in October of 1985, he directed the NY State Public Health Council to forcibly close any clubs where sexual activites occured on-premises. The Mineshaft was shut down by authorities that November, and several people associated with the club were charged with a variety of crimes related to its operations. Many sexual psychologists and scholars contended that Mayor Koch did not understand the importance of these clubs as sites of sexual education and exploration and that his actions largely criminalized radical expressions of sexuality, driving BDSM & Queer cultures underground and further exposing their members to sexually transmited infections.

Freddie Mercury wearing a Mineshaft T-Shirt, 1984. Photograph courtesy of Richard Young

In one last hurrah to combat this cycle of stigma, the club’s former manager, Wally Wallace, donated the entirety of the Mineshaft’s records to the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago for historic preservation. Those interested in viewing the club’s collection of photographs and flyers can do so online at the Wally Wallace Collection and by searching “Mineshaft” in their online database. Do note that these collections contain sexually explicit material and that you must be 18 or older to view its contents.

If you’d like to learn more about LGBTQ+ culture within our neighborhoods, then we also strongly encourage you to visit our organization’s resources: 

Further reading and resources on this topic:

Research Resources Provided by Dr. Jack Fritscher:

Footnotes:

  1. From information found in Jack Fritscher, “ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE – Fetishes, Faces, and the Flowers of Evil,” Profiles in Gay Gourage 1-29, May 2022, www.JackFritscher.com
  2. From information found in Jack Fritscher, “THE MINESHAFT – Legendary Twentieth-Century Sex Club,” Profiles in Gay Courage 54, May 2022, www.JackFritscher.com

One response to “A Dominating Narrative: The Mineshaft and BDSM Culture in the Meatpacking District

  1. Do you have any information on The Zodiac Bar?It was located at 835 Washington Street in Manhattan.It was there before The Mineshaft.I was born in 1975.A few years ago I saw the movie “Some Of my Best Friends Are”(1971).The end credits state that the movie was filmed at The Zodiac Bar.From what I understand The Zodiac Bar was a Gay Bar.When did it open and when did it close?I was in Manhattan on the 4th Of July and I visited 835 Washington Street.

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