The former owner of New York’s famed Continental gay bathhouse, Steve Ostrow, has received an Order of Australia honour for his later work in Sydney’s LGBTIQ community.
On Tuesday, the Sydney-based American expat (pictured) received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for “service to the LGBTIQ community and the performing arts.”
Ostrow is best known around the world as the owner of New York’s decadent Continental Baths in the late 1960s and early 70s.
However for over 30 years he’s lived in Australia and in 1991 founded the long-running Mature Age Gays (MAG) social group in Sydney.
New York-born Steven Ostrow established the Continental Baths
Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths in New York in 1968. Speaking to ABC Radio in 2013, he explained at that time “two men dancing was illegal, homosexuality was illegal” in New York.
He said the city’s other mafia-operated gay bathhouses at the time, while popular, were dirty and treated patrons badly.
“I decided if we opened a place and treated people like customers we couldn’t go wrong,” Ostrow recalled in 2013.
“We had 400 rooms, 2000 lockers and the largest indoor swimming pool in the world.
“The day we opened we had lines around the corner coming in and it never stopped.”
Due to its popularity, the Continental Baths received threats from rivals as well as demands for bribes from police.
“We were raided 200 times in the first year,” Ostrow said.
“They sent in good-looking undercover policemen. He’d get into a towel and go into the steam room, wait for someone to touch him and then pull out the handcuffs.
“They’d also arrest everybody else in the place under an antiquated ‘bawdy house’ law.”
Continental became cultural hub for New York’s gay community
However as well as the steam rooms, Continental also became a cultural and arts hub, boasting a discotheque, live music and even ballet and opera.
The venue famously gave an early break to superstars like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow.
“[Bette] was working as a waitress at a local improv venue,” Ostrow told ABC Radio.
“She needed someone to play the piano [at the Continental]. This skinny kid [was] writing jingles for the radio.
“That was Barry Manilow. We put the two of them together and magic happened.”
Ostrow said he and the Continental also take credit for huge strides on LGBTIQ rights in New York.
“We put tables around the hotel and we collected 250,000 signatures saying homosexuality should be legalised,” he said.
“We marched on City Hall and it wasn’t long before homosexuality became legal between consenting adults.”
Steve Ostrow worked at ACON during the AIDS crisis
In the mid-1970s, Steven Ostrow closed the Continental and worked on his dream of becoming a professional opera singer.
In 1987, he came to Australia. He was about to leave when he was sought out as a last minute replacement for a Sydney opera performance.
He later received an eight-year contract in Australia and stayed here.
“Once AIDS came in, I became a volunteer operator on the hotline for ACON, the AIDS Council of NSW,” he recalled in 2013.
As part of that community work, Ostrow was tasked with identifying the needs and concerns of gay men over 40.
“Most of the health campaigns back then focused on young men, telling them ‘wear a condom, wear a condom,'” he said.
“However what [the men over 40 were more concerned about] was isolation, loneliness, estrangement from family and loss of partners.
“I decided to found the group Mature Age Gays in 1991 to help people holistically.
“We’re the largest organisation in Australia – and the largest in the world – supporting mature age gay men.”
Matured Age Gays still going strong in Sydney
Last September, Mature Age Gays Sydney proudly celebrated its 29th anniversary.
The group plan to hold their first meeting of the year next month, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
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