Pubdate: Tue, 8 Sep 1998
Source: New York Times (NY)
Author: David Bruni


NEW YORK -- It began in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic as a
relatively modest affair, a respite for the living and remembrance of
the dead that was held in daylight, so that even the ill might be able
to go, and it was given a double-edged title resonant of grief.

A decade and a half later, the Morning Party has evolved into a
glamorous social event that attracts hordes of gay men to Fire Island
and reliably raises enormous sums of money for Gay Men's Health
Crisis, perhaps the United States' most respected AIDS service

This year's gathering, on Aug. 16, was no different. About 4,500 men
went, $450,000 was raised and a good time was had by many.

But the hangover has been formidable, underlining the way the event
has become an albatross around the health group's neck and a flash
point in an increasingly bitter debate over the alliances between AIDS
service organizations and a network of dance-oriented fund-raisers at
which a substantial number of participants are high on drugs.

In the predawn hours leading up to this year's Morning Party, a
35-year-old man from Bronxville overdosed and died.

In the three weeks since, many gay men are again questioning the
propriety of the group's endorsement of a party that seems to inspire
the kind of drug consumption widely thought to increase the likelihood
of unsafe sexual behavior and the spread of AIDS.

``It gives the organization not only money but future clients,'' said
Troy Masters, the publisher of LGNY, a twice-monthly newspaper for
lesbians and gay men in New York. ``In a way, it's like a
self-perpetuating machine.''

Criticism of this kind has been aimed at Gay Men's Health Crisis for
several years. In 1996, a man was evacuated by helicopter from the
Morning Party after slipping into a drug-induced coma.

But the complaints seem to be taking on a heightened urgency with the
proliferation around the country of other large-scale gay dance
events, some of which funnel part of their profits to AIDS service

These events have come to be known as ``circuit parties'' because they
are linked by similar music and because some of them attract the same
core crowd, lavishly muscled and wealthy enough to buy plane tickets
and plenty of drugs like cocaine, Ecstasy and ketamine, or ``special

In addition, the chemicals taken by a few of the men who attend
circuit parties has expanded recently to include a liquid anesthetic,
gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, that has been implicated in a string of
medical emergencies at circuit parties this year. GHB is extolled by
some as an aphrodisiac.

Suffolk County law-enforcement officials said that GHB appeared to
have caused the death of Frank Giordano, 35, at the Pines on Fire
Island around 4 a.m. on Aug. 16, seven hours before the Morning Party
officially began on a stretch of beach nearby.

Three other men at the Pines who apparently took the same batch of GHB
were taken to hospitals on Long Island, treated and released,
law-enforcement officials said. Several people who attended the
Morning Party said that one of the three men made it back to the Pines
in time to join the festivities.

``People are partying harder than ever with substances that are more
volatile than ever,'' said Alan Brown, a management consultant from
New Haven, Conn., who annually attends about two dozen circuit
parties, from Montreal to Miami, and recently sat on a panel at a gay
physicians' conference in Chicago to discuss health issues relating to
the events. ``People have been leaving parties in ambulances routinely
for three years now.''

Brown and other gay men familiar with circuit parties emphasized that
many men who attend the events use illegal drugs infrequently, if
ever, and that the vast majority of gay men have never been to any of
the parties.

Officials of Gay Men's Health Crisis, which stages (and profits from)
the Morning Party, said that educating the minority of gay men
involved in the party circuit about the perils of drugs is a principal
reason the organization remains committed to the event, which they
said would occur with or without the group's involvement.

Jeff Soref, who was president of the board when the organization began
to assume full responsibility for coordinating the event in the early
1990s, said, ``GMHC does need to be involved in harm reduction, and it
does need to be where the community is.''

Others stressed that during recent years the organization had
intensified its efforts to rid the Morning Party of illegal drugs,
distributing written warnings. Many people who attended the Morning
Party this year said that drug use was noticeably less prevalent and
conspicuous than in the past.

Ronald Johnson, the organization's managing director for public
policy, said that linking the GHB overdoses that occurred more than
eight hours earlier to the event was gratuitous.

But critics said that the Morning Party, like other circuit events,
has spawned several days of revelry around it, and cannot divorce
itself from those often reckless festivities.

``If GMHC officials don't think they have some responsibility for the
overdoses, they're kidding themselves,'' said Michael Trovato, 41, who
spends summer weekends on Fire Island.

Many gay men said the organization could do prevention work at the
party without sponsoring it. Several said they had stopped donating
money to the organization because of its affiliation with the
gathering. Johnson said he had seen no evidence of that.

The circuit embraces New York; New Orleans; Palm Springs, Calif.; and
Pensacola, Fla., though many events have no connection to AIDS
organizations. It usually features shirtless men dancing all through
the night, their energy and euphoria often enhanced by powders or pills.

But what most alarms many gay men and public-health experts is not the
drug use itself but the implications for responsible conduct.

``The extent to which gay men use drugs is a strong, significant
predictor of becoming HIV-positive,'' said Ron Stall, a professor of
epidemiology at the University of California at San Francisco.

Others said that some circuit parties even feature darkened back
rooms, and that a few men who flock to circuit extravaganzas also
attend sex parties before or after the main event and may not adhere
to precautions against HIV transmission.

That has provoked critics into greater anger at AIDS service
organizations around the country for staging circuit parties or
signing on as beneficiaries.

``Circuit parties got the imprimatur of their local AIDS
organizations and, bingo, instant, total respectability,'' said Gabriel
Rotello, author of ``Sexual Ecology: A IDS and the Destiny of
Gay Men'' (Dutton, 1997). ``And the irony of that is just so

To varying degrees, officials with AIDS service organizations that are
involved in circuit parties are wrestling with that accusation, a
process complicated by their difficulty raising money in other ways.
They said that sunny news reports about better treatments for AIDS
have left many individual donors with the mistaken impression that the
epidemic is waning and have discouraged them from giving.

``We are more dependent than ever on special-events fund raising,''
said Bryan Delowery, the events coordinator for the AIDS Information
Network in Philadelphia, which stages a circuit party every January.
The event, called the Blue Ball, raises $125,000, more than 10 percent
of the group's annual budget.

Profits from the Morning Party, for which tickets cost $100 apiece,
account for a much smaller percentage of GMHC's annual budget of $25
million. But proponents of circuit parties said the case for them
transcends the economic vitality of AIDS service organizations that do
crucial work.

They said that many gay men attend the events not to indulge chemical
or sexual appetites but simply to bask in an environment free of the
bigotry they face elsewhere in society.

Critics counter that circuit parties have an impact beyond their
perimeters, idealizing dangerous habits in a manner that has
particular influence over young gay men.

The experience of Jeffrey W. supports that viewpoint. He said that
when he moved to Manhattan after graduating from college a few years
ago, he ``had no desire to be part of a drug and intense sex culture.''

But he said conversations with other gay men and glossy ads in some
periodicals piqued his curiosity, and even left him with the
impression that the circuit scene was the very definition of gay identity.

``I figured if there were 5,000 other men who are considered the upper
crust in the gay world doing this, it must be all right and it must be
the norm,'' said Jeffrey, who spoke on the condition that his last
name not be used. ``I experimented quite heavily with drugs, and I
began to be unsafe.''

One such moment occurred in December. Several months later, Jeffrey
said, he tested positive for HIV.

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Checked-by: Patrick Henry