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It's a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon on South Beach the first weekend in March. There isn't a single cloud in the azure blue sky. It's the kind of day that reminds residents why they live in South Florida, and that goads visitors here by the thousands.
This particular weekend, hordes of gay men have come to South Beach for Winter Party.
At the Surfcomber Hotel, the site of this year's pool party, hundreds of handsome men in seductive swimwear are hanging out by the pool, bumping and grinding on the makeshift dance floor, parading their rippled abs and bulging biceps.
I'm standing with a friend soaking up the sea of flesh when our attention turns to a particularly muscular man with a hairy chest who's wearing a red ball cap. He's absolutely stunning, but it's not his body that grabs our attention. It's his inability to walk without stumbling. "He's really screwed up," my friend comments. "From the look on his face, it's probably Tina."
A Winter Party volunteer, wearing the signature pink T-shirt that helps them stands out in the crowd, approaches the unsteady man and asks if he needs help.
I overhear his friends dismiss the inquiry. "It's OK," they say. "We're his friends." Minutes later, there is a commotion in the packed crowd. The muscular man in the red ball cap has collapsed. His apparently unconscious body is slumped, limp in a white plastic pool chair. Four pink-shirted volunteers have surrounded him now. One of them has two fingers on an artery in the muscleman's neck, as if she is checking whether or not he has a pulse.
A band of volunteers heaves the chair up, and together they carry the unconscious man away. As they push through the crowd, the woman keeps her two fingers on the man's neck, and his pulse.
The crowd hardly pauses, barely seeming to notice that someone has been carried past them. The dance beat cranks, and the bodies continue to gyrate.
It's no secret that crystal meth is rampant at circuit parties all around the country. When I mention the pool party episode to my gay friends, and comment I may want to write about it, the response is almost universal: Big surprise, stop the presses.
And the crystal problem is hardly limited to circuit parties. It's all around us, on a daily basis, and it is wrecking gay men's lives every day -- financially, physically and emotionally. But what strikes me most, perhaps, is the nonchalance surrounding the issue. It's become so routine, many gay men don't even seem to notice it, or perhaps they just don't pay attention to it anymore.
Obviously, the drug use and crystal problem involves a serious issue of personal responsibility. But I can't help but think that there must also be a collective consciousness to this problem, if we as gay men -- as a group of people who have staked the claim that we are connected to one another in some sort of bond that forms a community -- hope to beat it.
In the early years of AIDS, gay activists combed the streets and the bars and the bathhouses, armed with condoms and safer sex fliers, gently reminding other gay men that all our lives were at stake. In our newspapers and our magazines, at our offices and in private homes, people were talking to each other about the risks and perils of unsafe sex, and the need we all had to help each other stay as safe as we could.
It didn't save everyone from HIV, or replace the personal decision-making at the moment of truth. But there was, at least, a recognition that we were all in this together, and that we needed to hold each other's hands, literally and figuratively, because even with the best intentions, we are all human, and we all slip up sometimes.
To some degree, aren't we all supposed to watch out for each other? Particularly in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, or the Castro or Chelsea or Provincetown, or any of the other gay ghettos where we've congregated by the droves to create our own little gay Meccas, our insular, protected, safe spaces where we can fashion the kind of world we think is better than the places we came from. Aren't these places, at least -- the places where we've worked so hard to make being gay so easy -- supposed to come with something more than crowded bars and naked pool parties? Or have we created places where we are so callous to each other that we no longer notice, or care, if our community is partying itself to death?
After the pool party, much later that evening, I get a poignant reminder about why, as gay men, we need to care about and care for our own.
It's almost midnight, and I have driven with a date from Fort Lauderdale back down to Miami to go to Winter Party's leather party, at a bar called the Loading Zone. We park no more than two blocks from the bar. I am wearing jeans and a leather harness, without a shirt. My date is also shirtless and in jeans, with a leather vest. Our outfits are typical leather bar gear, and we think nothing of walking dressed this way from our parking spot to the bar.
Apparently, a lot of Miami residents feel otherwise. As we stroll down the street, passersby yell catcalls from their car windows. Then, one car speeds by, and there is a rapid succession of thuds in front of us. My date feels something hit his leg. To my disbelief, I look down to find we've just been pummeled by a barrage of raw eggs. After cleaning off his jeans, we continue to the bar.
There, men seem to walk around wild-eyed. Everyone's drinking water and sucking on lollipops--one sign of people using crystal. We decide to stay only an hour at the Loading Zone. As we leave, we see four guys, acquaintances from Fort Lauderdale, huddled in the shadows behind the bar. There's no doubt in my mind what they are doing.
The next day, Sunday, March 6, I am at Winter Party's beach party, right on the gay beach at 12th Street. The enormous swarm of muscled men dwarfs even the crowd at the previous day's pool party. It's another bright, hot Florida afternoon, and everyone seems to be hanging out shirtless and in sunglasses.
I have my camera in my hand, and I'm taking pictures to publish in the gay newspaper that I edit in Fort Lauderdale. It's something I do frequently at such events, and I understand that different people have various comfort levels with their face being shown in a gay publication.
Initially, I assume that is why so many people decline to remove their sunglasses when they agree to have their picture taken. Then I ask a smooth young Latino in white pants and a sailor's hat to pose, and he gladly agrees. Lean and well-defined, he looks adorable in his little outfit on the beach. But he would look so much cuter without the dark sunglasses that hide too much of his face.
I ask him to remove them, and he emphatically shakes his head no. "I can't show my eyes," he tells me. "They're a mess." Soon after, I come across the muscled man in the red ball cap from the pool party the day before, the one who had been carried away in the chair. He, too, is wearing sunglasses.