South Beach Miami is the ultimate gay party town - if you've got the muscles and the drugs, that is. It's also where a generation of HIV positive men has gone to die
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Half-assed agreements are banal in our world. Men make them every day, defying logic, reason, intelligence, caution, all for the delicious feeling of being dangerous in a world so safe, it's impossible to live in. Literally. Welcome to gay sex in the Nineties." Matthew Rettenmund, 'Boy Culture' (St Martin's Press) As the hot Florida sun disappears behind a cloud, casting a shadow over the 2,000 gay men celebrating their sexuality on Miami's South Beach, the 29-year-old computer programmer known to me simply as Greg, reveals that he isn't enjoying this year's Winter Party half as much as last year. It isn't that the men here aren't as cute, or as readily available. They are - many of them anyway, dancing around us in various stages of undress, bronzed torsos bulging in all the right places, a testament to all those hours spent sweating in the gym. It isn't that the drugs aren't working - though, as Greg explains, you can never be too sure with Special K, otherwise known as ketamine, an amphetamine derived from an animal tranquilliser and one of the most popular party drugs in gay Miami. What's really bringing Greg down is something most people here have some experience of, but few ever talk about.

Earlier this year, Greg watched one of his best friends die a messy death from Aids. Try as he might, he can't shift the image from his head. "I'm looking around at all these gorgeous men," he says, "and I just keep thinking that over half of them are probably HIV positive. And you know, there's a lot of unsafe sex going on now. I mean, I'm usually pretty careful. But sometimes ... Well, you know ... "

The sun re-emerges, which is Greg's cue to whip out a little bottle of sun lotion and start rubbing it vigorously across his chest and shoulders. Like many people in this part of the world, he is ever vigilant about the dangers of too much sun. Satisfied that his skin is sufficiently well protected, he returns the bottle to his pocket and shrugs. "Aids isn't really the kind of thing you want to think about on a day like this, is it? Still, that's why God gave us drugs. One more hit, and I'll be fine."

The next time I see Greg, at a packed nightclub some nine hours and God knows how many hits later, he is huddled at the bar, wrapped around some heavenly body in a pair of denim shorts. The club is called Amnesia. As I approach the bar, Greg grabs my arm and smiles a chemically enhanced smile. It's clear that he remembers me, though it's equally clear that he has very little memory of our earlier conversation. "It's fun here, don't you think?" he yells in my ear. "I'll bet you've never seen so many beautiful men before. Welcome to South Beach!"

South Beach, Florida, is the gay resort to end all gay resorts. Like London or Los Angeles, it has a highly developed commercial gay scene, built around gay men's apparently insatiable appetite for sexual adventure. Like New York or Palm Springs, it plays regular host to what are known as "gay circuit parties" - a rapidly expanding network of large-scale, themed events such as the Winter Party, held to raise money for Aids charities, and often accused of encouraging unsafe sex through the use of disinhibiting, sexually stimulating drugs and the prevailing air of hedonistic abandon. What makes South Beach so unique - and so uniquely unsettling - isn't a question of what you'll find here that you won't find anywhere else, but a question of degree. In London and Los Angeles one comes across gay men who seem to spend half their lives in the gym and the other half on the dance floor - in South Beach few people do anything else. New York and Palm Springs both have their own circuit parties, but South Beach boasts the original and, locals claim, the best - the White Party, held each December for the past 12 years and supported by the likes of Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, David Geffen and Madonna. There isn't a gay ghetto in the world that doesn't have its share of drug-related problems - in South Beach, drugs are an essential part of gay life, and judging by what you read in the local gay press, nobody sees it as a problem. And when it comes to Aids, South Beach is in a league of its own.

DEATH is such a frequent visitor to Miami, it has become a part of the landscape. For generations, America's elderly and infirm have retired here to live out the remainder of their days in the sun. You still see them, sitting on the verandas outside their retirement homes in the heat of the afternoon, the women with their painted faces and candyfloss hairdos, the men with their baseball caps and walking frames. These days, though, the general trend is for the "retirees" to be far younger, and gay. In the bustling gay bars and busy restaurants lining Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive, "retiree" is a popular euphemism for a gay man with HIV or Aids who has packed in his job, cashed in his life-insurance policy, moved to Miami and adopted a lifestyle that revolves around looking as good as he can for as long as possible. In the 10 years that it has taken for South Beach's reputation as a gay pleasure-seeker's paradise to spread across the US and beyond, so the number of "retirees" has risen steadily. Statistics relating to the actual numbers of gay men with HIV are hard to come by. The Miami health department keeps no public record. But of the 35,000 people permanently resident in South Beach, it is estimated that anything between 11,000 and 20,000 are gay or lesbian. And of those gay men, it is assumed that anything between a quarter and one third are HIV positive or have Aids. Some find jobs as waiters and bar boys. Most divide their time between the beach, the gym and a busy network of bars and clubs. Until they become sick, that is - at which point they "retire" from the scene.

South Beach is very big on euphemisms. Gay men here don't take drugs - they "party". They don't have sex, safe or otherwise - they "play". Here, you can meet "snowbirds" - wealthy men who flock to these shores each year to escape the cold winter months and take full advantage of all that South Beach has to offer in the way of constant sunshine, non- stop partying and plenty of people to "play" with. Here you can pick up gossip about gay men who are known locally as "pink widows" - HIV negative men who form relationships with men who are positive or have Aids, on the understanding that they will inherit everything in the event of the sick man dying. According to one gay gossip-mongerer, it isn't all that unusual for a pink widow to latch onto several dying men in rapid succession: "You know, just like Theresa Russell in that movie." The one thing you'll be hard pressed to find here is anyone prepared to talk freely about what's going on. In the physically upfront but verbally reticent world of South Beach, Aids is rarely mentioned, except in the context of fun-raising initiatives. Call it denial, call it collective amnesia, but given the enormous number of people directly affected by it, the absence of the "A" word from daily conversation is truly shocking.

IT'S THE DAY after the Winter Party, and I'm having lunch at the Palace Bar & Grill - a place where gay men come to watch and be watched - on Ocean Drive. My lunch date is a very handsome, very charming man in his mid-30s named George Mangrum. A decade ago, George was the photogenic front man with an all-gay boy band called Seventh Avenue. These days, he writes a gay social-diary column and sells advertising space for a local gay freesheet called Scoop. George knows just about everybody in South Beach - barely a minute goes by without someone coming up to say hello. This may explain his reluctance to say anything that might be construed as a criticism of the South Beach way of life. I explain how I'm eager to interview someone who would describe himself as a pink widow. He claims he's never heard such an expression. I say I'm surprised that South Beach isn't more like San Francisco, meaning that I haven't seen a single person walking around looking as though they have Aids; George replies that the men with the biggest, most buffed bodies are often the most sick. I suggest that maybe there are other men, with less big, less buffed bodies, who don't have the confidence to be seen out and about, or the desire to be part of the community which seems so determined to bury its head in the sand. George changes the subject. I don't mean to sound so hard on George - he's a nice enough guy. It's just that his sense of discretion strikes me as horribly misplaced in a culture so afraid to face up to itself, that it is quietly killing itself in the process.

As the history of the past 15 years has demonstrated, there are times when silence isn't only deafening, but deadly. And nowhere is this more true than in South Beach. In 1989 in New York, activists took to the streets to protest at what they saw as wilful government neglect over the growing Aids crisis. The slogan they coined was "Silence equals Death". Almost 10 years on, in South Beach, the fashion photographer Thomas Heidemann talks me through his latest work: an exhibition entitled "Sex and Death", dedicated to all his friends "who have to live silently with HIV". On show at the Clayspace gallery on Lincoln Road, the resulting photographs are big, bold and have the simple urgency of activist art - 6ft-high prints of men in agonising poses, bound and gagged, naked bodies backed against walls, faces frozen in fear, overlaid with images of rotting corpses. Heidemann's lover died six years ago. He has also lost his two closest friends, as well as innumerable colleagues and those he describes as "friends from past lives". Very recently, his first ever lover revealed to a mutual friend that he had just contracted the disease - at the age of 50. Heidemann talks openly about his own discomfort around those with HIV. He describes an occasion when, sitting in a bar with a friend he knew to be positive, they were interrupted by a third party who made a reference to Aids - Heidemann and his friend turned and stared in opposite directions. This exhibition came about, he says, because he decided that he couldn't go on turning his head away forever. And what better place to exhibit it than Miami - a city where, in his words, people have made "a lifestyle out of staying silent".

The South Beach lifestyle is one that affects different people in different ways, creating added pressures for many who are HIV positive, giving a false sense of security to those who are negative, and, inevitably, impacting on the kind of sex they all have. My suspicions that not every gay man with Aids is busy working out at the gym and parading down Ocean Drive with his shirt off are confirmed when I meet Adam, a 32-year-old former sales representative. Adam has lived in South Beach for the past five years. Before that he was based in New York and travelled a lot on business, until his Aids diagnosis prompted him to give up his job and move somewhere a bit warmer. I am introduced to Adam by a mutual friend, which is really the only way I would have ever got to meet him. Adam rarely goes out of the house these days, on account of the recent and quite drastic deterioration in his health. There was a time, not so long ago, when he was the type of man who could walk into a circuit party and take his pick of the men available. A framed photo on his bookcase, taken three years ago at the White Party, stands as a proud testament to the fact. He is pictured surrounded by a crowd of admirers, looking fit and tanned in a white vest and white jeans. These days, he describes himself as "slim and pale, but still interesting".

Over a cup of herbal tea, Adam jokes that the sunny weather that drew him here is the very thing keeping him indoors. "Everyone in South Beach walks about half-naked all the time. It's all part of having such fabulous weather, and living so close to the beach. And then there's the whole gay body thing. Everyone here wants to have the biggest, most buffed body. The trouble is, once you start to look sick, it becomes really difficult to find the confidence to go out. I knew a guy who went down to the beach one day with a Karposi's lesion on his chest, and somebody actually told him to put his shirt back on." Adam tells me other stories, too, of men he knows who stopped taking their medication in order to up the level of virus in their body and thus become a more attractive proposition to third-party companies offering to buy up life-insurance policies, in exchange for anything between 50 and 70 per cent of their value. The companies gamble that the insured party will die within two or three years, leaving them to recoup the total value of the policy. The gamble these men take is that, by interrupting their drug-therapy programme, they can jeopardise its future effectiveness.

Of course, these are by no means the only men in South Beach putting their own or others' lives in jeopardy. For those acting in the knowledge that they are HIV positive, the South Beach lifestyle is perhaps a little easier to understand. Faced with the prospect of dying young, many choose to live fast, pumping their bodies full of steroids to maintain a robust physique and living a life of gay abandon. Dr Michael Wohlfiler, a local gay medical practitioner, defends the "choices" these men have made, arguing that these are the same choices many of us would probably make given the same set of circumstances. But even the good doctor isn't so generous as to defend anyone's right to knowingly put another person at risk through unprotected casual sex. And this is certainly a choice some of these men are making. As one such man puts it: "I don't know how long I've got, so I just want to enjoy myself as much as I can. People come here to get away from all that negative shit. You meet somebody in a bar, you assume they know exactly what the score is. People aren't stupid.

"As for the question of whether I, as somebody who is positive, have the right to put another person at risk of HIV, well the way I see it, it's up to everybody to take responsibility for themselves."

So why aren't they doing so? How can it be that in 1997, in South Beach where HIV is so prevalent, gay men in their 20s and 30s who have grown up in the age of Aids are continuing to put their lives at risk? What went wrong?

One obvious factor is gay men's complicated relationship to sex. For a large number of gay men, sex is the core of their identity. Sex is the thing that marks them out as different, and it is the thing they turn to in order to establish a sense of self-worth, to fulfil what are often nonsexual needs. For some, this doesn't present a problem. For others, it can lead to the kind of sexually compulsive behaviour which is at best demoralising, at worst self-destructive. Larry Harmon, a gay psychologist based in Miami, links self-destructive patterns of behaviour in gay men to issues of low self-esteem which stem all the way back to childhood, and which the sexually competitive gay scene does little to alleviate. Indeed, the nature of the scene may be a contributing factor, creating as it does both the pressure to compete and the opportunity to indulge in a form of behaviour which, anywhere else, would be seen for what it is, but which the gay world insists on describing in terms of "liberation". Gay men may not have the monopoly on sexual compulsion, but what is significant is that in places like South Beach, they have built a lifestyle around it.

Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist based in Berkeley, California, and the author of a book entitled In the Shadow of the Epidemic, offers further clues. In his book, which is based on long-term clinical studies of HIV negative men in San Francisco, Odets draws attention to the specific needs of those uninfected men who, through a combination of survivor's guilt, depression and denial, are taking risks with their health which simply aren't being addressed by existing Aids-prevention programmes. According to Odets, safe-sex campaigns telling gay men to use a condom every time are failing for the simple reason that they ignore the psychological roots of such men's unsafe behaviour. After a decade of facing the deaths of friends and, in some cases, the decimation of their communities, many of these men don't regard themselves as being HIV negative at all. They regard themselves as positive statistics waiting to happen.

Certainly this seems to be the case with "John"(not his real name), whom I met at a crowded bar on Washington Avenue called Twist. He is 27, fairly good-looking, HIV negative ("At least I was the last time I tested") and has lived in South Beach for the past four years. He tells me he enjoys living here, partly for the weather, but mostly for the men. The pace of life in South Beach suits John very well. He likes to have sex with lots of different men, and has no plans to settle down just yet. "It's just not my style," he says, casting a well-trained eye over my shoulder and rapidly scanning the room. The last time John had unsafe sex was two weeks ago. "I met this really hot guy from out of town. We were both pretty messed up, pretty drunk, and he came back to my place. It wasn't like I planned to be unsafe or anything. It just happened. When you're really into someone, it isn't always easy to talk about that stuff. And things happen in the heat of the moment." I ask John whether he ever worries about the risks of becoming HIV positive. He looks at me as if I'm a little mad. "Of course," he says, frowning slightly. "But the way I figure it is, if it's going to happen, then it's going to happen. Besides, being positive really isn't such a bad deal these days. I've heard that with the protease inhibitors and everything, it's becoming pretty manageable."

Of all the contributory factors helping to shape the sexual mores of South Beach, none has had a greater impact than the new class of Aids- treatment drugs. In some circles, they are spoken of almost as a kind of miracle cure. For many HIV negative men like John, or for those who don't know their status, protease inhibitors have led to an even greater mood of complacency, a sense that even if the worst should happen and you suddenly find yourself testing positive for HIV, all you need to do is pop a few pills and you'll be well on the road to recovery.

The reality is rather different. Not everyone with HIV can tolerate the new drugs, and even assuming they can, the long-term benefits are not yet known. Some find that they work for a time, and then stop. Health workers warn of the dangers of treating protease inhibitors as some sort of "morning-after" pill, and worry that their beneficial effects will be off-set by a dramatic upsurge in the rate of new infections. There is even talk of the possibility of a drug-resistant strain of "super-HIV" developing as a result of unsafe encounters between people infected with different strains of the virus.

Still, the much-publicised protease revolution may be the very thing that turns South Beach around, forcing this community finally to take a good look at itself. Whatever the long-term predictions about their efficacy, it's certainly true that, for now at least, the drugs are giving many people with HIV and Aids a new lease of life. Men who moved to South Beach expecting to die in a couple of years are finding that their health is improving beyond all expectation. And, almost invariably, that physical improvement calls for a major psychological readjustment. Men who only a year ago were preparing to die, are now faced with the prospect of living - and, with it, the demand to start behaving like responsible citizens.

This is the challenge faced by a 33-year-old retiree named Pete. Having spent the last two years of his life feeling "pretty empty inside" and doing "nothing very much", he is now back on his feet and making plans to restart work. For him, the new drugs have brought a new outlook. The trouble with the South Beach lifestyle, Pete says, is that it encourages people to take "a very nihilistic attitude", to live only for the moment, and not think too much about the consequences. "That's why you meet people who aren't ashamed to say that they're having unsafe sex. They don't see life the way other people do. Breaking out of that mindset is hard, but, personally, I would much sooner have the responsibility of having a job and making plans for the future than the responsibility of knowing that I had infected somebody else with HIV."

Men in Pete's position aren't the only ones welcoming such changes. As one local gay activist wryly observes: "For a lot of these guys, the fact that they are HIV positive and were expecting to die was the perfect excuse to run around acting like spoilt children, doing exactly what they wanted, never taking any responsibility for their actions, and never stopping to think about other people. Now the new drugs have come along, and suddenly they're having to face up to their responsibilities as human beings, and as members of a community that has enough to deal with already, without having to worry about the destructive behaviour of a relatively small group of people. Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased for these guys. Really I am. But I'm really pleased for the future of South Beach too."

The gay scene in South Beach is explored in a documentary entitled 'Lust', presented by Paul Burston, to be shown on Monday 27 October, as part of Channel 4's 'Seven Sins' season.