Dangerous Liaisons

Police may never know for sure how a young gay man ended up shot to death in a field off Bird Road. But they have a theory: Cruising can kill.

On the Monday after Paul Silverio-Benet's attack, two men dumping trash in the field northwest of Helene's Rendezvous saw a human body lying in the tall grass. Metro-Dade police arrived shortly after 8:00 p.m. to find the decomposing body of a man, face-down with his torso turned a bit on its right side, legs together and bent. He was wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and jeans but carried no identification. Maggots and flies swarmed. Death seemed to have resulted from a single bullet wound just above the heart. The morning after, long after the medical examiner's van had taken away the body, an anonymous caller dialed 911 to report a dead man in a field at SW 37th Street and 69th Avenue.

By that time police knew who the victim was. The corpse's fingerprints matched those of twenty-year-old Onay Barrera, who had been arrested for trespassing earlier that year, and for public intoxication in 1993. He had died where he was found, the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office concluded, early on Saturday, August 26 -- some twenty hours before Paul Silverio-Benet was attacked.

News of Barrera's death ignited rumors, speculation, and some anxiety. He had lived with his mother and one of his brothers in a house several blocks south of Bird Road and was among the gay men who socialized at the bar, bookstore, and parking lot; like many others, he was still a boy in his early teens when he first began frequenting the spot. It was no secret that the neighborhood wasn't particularly safe; men had previously returned from trysts badly beaten and/or without valuables, victims of young strangers they'd picked up. The incidents were rarely reported to police, according to the men who mention them, because many of the victims were married or had other reasons for not wanting their families to know where they'd been.

In general, the practice of going to strangers for fleeting sexual companionship may be more widespread than ever. Much has been made in the past several years of a backlash against safe sex among young gay men, who were barely out of diapers when AIDS gained public awareness and who are embracing the unchecked promiscuity that was commonplace among their elders before AIDS.

"It's not unusual for gay men to pick somebody up they don't know -- it's a not-infrequent way people meet," says Richard Isay, a New York City psychiatrist and professor at Cornell University Medical College who has published two books about homosexuals' personal development. "But it's also true that younger gays aren't appropriately cautious. They don't have appropriate role models. They look around them and see only sickness and death, and they're terribly dispirited about their capacity to live long and gratifying lives. So what is the sense, they feel, in being circumspect about who they pick up?"

Indeed, research presented earlier this summer at the eleventh International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver -- including a study of young homosexual men in South Beach -- indicates that gays in their teens and twenties are exercising little restraint in sexual behavior. "It seems to have more to do with adolescence and rebellion," says pioneering AIDS researcher William Darrow, who recently took a professorship at the Florida International University College of Health and who wrote the South Beach study. "They have to take risks to find out who they are, and a lot go out to take risks. They want to have fun, but sometimes, unfortunately, it leads to tragic consequences."

An ongoing nationwide Centers for Disease Control study of 15- to 22-year-old men who frequent gay social gathering spots shows "shocking" preliminary results in Miami, according to medical anthropologist Al Bay of Health Crisis Network. Bay coordinates the local part of the study, which is being conducted in five other U.S. cities. At the rate his study subjects are being infected with HIV from unprotected sex with other men, Bay says, more than 30 percent will have the virus by the time they're 30; the number threatens to reach 50 percent by age 40.

While heterosexual kids also succumb to sexual carelessness because of a youthful sense of invincibility, Bay believes it's worse for adolescent homosexuals and bisexuals, who have few social guidelines to moderate their behavior. "The community doesn't create a supportive atmosphere for young men who have sex with men. There are really very few alternatives for these kids, and gay culture centers around bars," he observes. "They may look old, but they're kids. We expect them to be able to negotiate like adults, but they may not have the skills to say no."

Onay Barrera's family and friends may never know for sure what happened to him. Most assume what police investigators have concluded -- that he was lured to the field by his killer with the promise of sex, but instead was robbed and shot. And with the storm of rumors that spread through the gay bookstore crowd immediately after Barrera died, though, even his friends weren't sure how it happened -- stabbed, raped, castrated? Everyone purported to know some horrible detail about the murder.

Sensationalizing the incident was, in a way, a defense against the truth many didn't wish to confront: Cruising can kill. Anyone might have taken the risks that Barrera and Silverio-Benet did and might have died alone, from nothing more lurid than a single gunshot wound to the aorta.

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