Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jun 2002
Source: USA Today (US)
Page: 3A
Copyright: 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Donna Leinwand, USA Today
Note: Subhead truncated on source website as posted below.
Bookmark: (Club Drugs)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Raves)


The Events Began As Fundraisers Bringing In Millions Of Dollars For Gay 
Charities And Aids Prevention. But A Growing Reputation For Drug Use And 
Random Sex Has Public Health Officials And Som

WASHINGTON -- They began years ago, and from the start were raucous 
celebrations of gay culture, from the drag queens who did sendups of pop 
tunes to the hundreds of dancing partygoers who found comfort in numbers.

Today, "circuit parties" have become weekend-long bashes in cities across 
the USA and Canada. They attract thousands of mostly young gay men who 
dance until dawn and whose admission fees raise millions of dollars for 
AIDS-prevention groups and gay charities. At the Old Post Office Pavilion 
here in April, about 2,500 shirtless men packed the dance floor during a 
circuit party called "Cherry 7."

But charities -- along with public health officials and many gay rights 
leaders -- are increasingly uncomfortable with what has become the dark 
side of circuit parties: widespread drug use and random, unprotected sex 
that some charities say is just the type of behavior they discourage.

At the Cherry 7 party, drug use was apparent and acknowledged. "Probably a 
good 25% of the people here, maybe more, are on drugs," said David 
Tillette, a drug counselor and a volunteer at the party. "It does worry me. 
I feel like it's deteriorating our health."

Concerns that such events have grown out of control have led one major AIDS 
service organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, to get out 
of the circuit party business. Other groups, mindful of the financial 
windfall the parties provide, are trying to stop drug use and encourage 
safe sex among partygoers. Still others have tried to detach themselves 
from the controversy by allowing the parties to be run by promoters, who 
take a cut of the proceeds and send the rest to the charities.

Health officials say the parties have become a reflection of the risky 
behavior that is contributing to rising rates of HIV infection among gay men.

Drug use prevalent A federal survey last year of 295 men who had attended 
circuit parties within the previous year indicated that 95% of them took at 
least one illegal drug at a party.

The survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the men's 
favorite party drugs were Ecstasy (also known as "X"), which gives users a 
sense of well-being and unlimited energy but also can cause brain damage; 
the anesthetic ketamine ("Special K"); the sedative gamma hydroxybuterate 
(GHB); and crystal methamphetamine, a stimulant. The survey also said 28% 
of the men reported having sex without condoms on circuit party weekends.

Drugs are so prevalent at the parties that organizers often hire medical 
teams to treat overdoses.

"These parties are creating (HIV-positive) clients," said Troy Masters, 
publisher of LGNY, a gay newspaper in New York City that has opposed the 
parties. "You wouldn't find the American Cancer Society throwing a smoking 

Gay Men's Health Crisis, which was founded in 1981 and serves 11,000 
clients annually in the New York area, stopped holding its party in 1998 
after it became known for drug use and sex. The annual party had begun 16 
years earlier as a way to educate gay men about safe sex and to raise money 
for AIDS prevention.

"It became a social phenomenon above and beyond what (we) intended and 
beyond what (we) could control," said Ronald Johnson, an official of the 
group. At its peak in 1998, the party drew more than 10,000 men and raised 
more than $450,000. "We're still closing those (funding) gaps," he said.

YouthPride of Atlanta, a group that provides support for gays ages 13 to 
24, turned down a pledge from the "HotLanta" circuit party last year. 
"YouthPride is trying to promote . . . healthy behaviors. Circuit parties 
are not appropriate for the youth we are working with," said Linda Ellis, 
the group's executive director when it declined the funds.

Other groups, determined to keep their fundraisers alive, are cracking down 
on drug use and increasing security. Among those is Philadelphia Fight, an 
AIDS service group. "We confiscate a lot of drugs," Executive Director Jane 
Shull said. "We don't want anybody to die. We don't want anyone to get 
hurt. We certainly don't want anyone to contract HIV."

Meanwhile, other charities acknowledge wrestling with the ethics of 
accepting contributions from circuit parties and prefer not to be involved 
directly in the events -- in part because of liability concerns.

Whitman-Walker Clinic, an AIDS service organization here, accepted $35,000 
last year from the Cherry party. This year, Cherry organizers did not 
include Whitman-Walker on their list of beneficiaries. Whitman-Walker 
officials have discussed whether their group should benefit from parties 
that could foster the spread of HIV, Executive Director A. Cornelius Baker 
said. "We would never produce such an event," he said. "If you are holding 
an event where there is the potential for alcohol and drug use, you have a 
greater responsibility about what occurs."

Weighing the benefits Cities where circuit parties are held say they 
usually present fewer problems for police than similar events. But some 
city officials are beginning to examine whether the economic benefits from 
the parties should outweigh the troubling behavior of some partygoers.

Last year in Palm Springs, Calif., Mayor Will Kleindienst cited concerns 
about drug use when he asked the City Council to consider banning the 
annual "White Party," which attracts more than 10,000 men who generally 
dress in white. Last year, Palm Springs police reported 13 overdoses and 
two citations for sex in public during the party weekend. The city 
eventually decided to allow the party to return to its convention center.

"In a nutshell, the economic impact of the White Party is huge," said David 
Aaker of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce.

To address the mayor's concerns, organizers emphasized the dangers of 
drugs, gave out condoms and had an ambulance at this year's party, held 
Easter weekend. Two overdoses were reported.

Circuit parties got their name from those who travel to various cities -- 
the "circuit" -- to attend several parties each year. The parties 
essentially are the gay version of raves, parties that are popular among 
some young people.

There are two or three circuit party weekends a month. Among the cities 
where they are held: Montreal, San Francisco, Atlanta, Palm Springs, Miami 
and Washington. The parties are not universally popular among gay men, 
although many say they have attended one. The parties generally attract 
professionals ages 21 to 35.

At the party here in April, organizers sheathed the building's food court 
in black drapes, suspended laser lights and disco balls in an elaborate 
stage set, and played music at earplug levels. Two lip-syncing drag queens 
did a floor show. Proceeds -- about $150,000 -- went to gay and lesbian groups.

Organizers of the party emphasized a safe-sex, anti-drug message. Everyone 
who bought a ticket received a pocket-size drug guide. A sponsor scattered 
festively wrapped condoms and lubricants throughout the building. The 
organizers hired physicians to provide first aid. "We've never had to 
transport someone to the hospital," said Patrick Menasco, executive vice 
president of the Cherry Fund, which organized the party. "Weigh that 
against the fundraising and community-building. This event is worth it."

At 1:15 a.m., a man who Cherry volunteers said had taken too much GHB was 
about to lose consciousness. A friend helped him down some stairs.

Two Philadelphia couples said they attend up to eight parties a year and 
usually take Ecstasy pills with a liquid shot of GHB or some ketamine, 
which can be liquid or powder. "If you don't do drugs," said Jonathon, 33, 
who did not want his last name used, "you're not going to enjoy it as much."
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