Size Matters

That's the motto among gay men in Miami Beach who have fueled a rage for illegal steroids -- health considerations be damned

It's 9:30 a.m. on a recent Friday. Sunlight slants across Ocean Drive. Jason DiBiaso, his partner John, and another friend are shirtless and eating breakfast. Heaps of eggs, toast, bagels, and bacon will fuel Jason's and John's daily late-morning weightlifting session. All three men are, to use the vernacular, ripped -- bulging with musculature that would require a working knowledge of Latin for a full description.

John (a pseudonym), like a significant number of gay men living in Miami Beach, has a prescription for anabolic steroids. He injects testosterone regularly, and will do so every week for the rest of his life. For good reason. Some years ago he had surgery on his pituitary gland, a procedure that left his body unable to produce testosterone.

DiBiaso also uses anabolic steroids. He too has a prescription. But DiBiaso has no medically accepted reason for injecting his mix of Deca-Durabolin and testosterone cypionate. His reasons, by his own admission, are mostly aesthetic (though, as a model/actor, his sculpted physique has helped his career).

DiBiaso had been bulking up naturally, he says, ever since a gay-bashing experience a few years back in Coral Gables, in which two of his friends ended up hospitalized. "I felt I needed to be big enough to defend myself," he says. After a couple of years, the five-foot-eight DiBiaso went from 130 pounds to 155, then plateaued.

"At the same time, in the community -- not just the gay community but in Miami Beach as a whole -- steroids had become much more prevalent," DiBiaso continues. "In my social circle, at least half of my friends were using steroids. We're all vain gay men, so I figured what better way to keep yourself looking amazing? So, being the sheep that I am, I gave myself a cycle of steroids as my 40th birthday gift."

But that first batch of steroids, which DiBiaso brought back from Brazil, was a bust. All he ended up with was a sore posterior where he injected the stuff. He found another source, one who supplied a better product: an American doctor from out of town who has numerous HIV-positive patients to whom he regularly prescribes steroids. DiBiaso, who is HIV-negative, says this obliging doc has hooked him up with three "cycles" -- six- to twelve-week doses -- in the past year and a half.

DiBiaso, now up to a rock-solid 185, is ecstatic. "Steroids have transformed me," he gushes. "I'm astonished with the results. I've become a much more sought-after model."

In the Beach's gay male community, legal steroid use is widespread. The vast majority of users are HIV-positive. Doctors have prescribed steroids for AIDS patients throughout the Nineties to combat wasting syndrome, the debilitating, potentially deadly weight loss associated with advanced stages of the disease. Most HIV-positive men who are on steroids not only maintain their muscle mass, they are able -- with regular trips to the gym, of course -- to look healthier and more robust than when they were HIV-negative.

But recently, illegal steroid use among gay men has skyrocketed, transforming Miami Beach into a national epicenter for "cosmetic" steroid use. The drugs are no longer a matter of medical necessity but rather of attaining the perfect bod. While the steroid boom among gay men mirrors a similar pattern in the straight community, doctors fear that gay users are pumping up without heeding the potentially deadly side effects of heavy use. And gay pundits fret that the ascendancy of massive chiseled physiques is producing a drug-enhanced gay elite that disdains the less-sculpted citizens of the Queer Nation.

Steroids are cheating. Everything else that the average American knows about these drugs springs from that notion. Steroids make you bigger, stronger, faster. Get caught with traces of them in your urine and you will lose your Olympic medals. The word "steroids" even sees action as quickie metaphor. If you rerfer to something "on steroids," whether a car or a caterpillar, everybody knows you're talking about a jumbo version.

There are different kinds of steroids, though. Corticosteroids, for instance, are commonly used as anti-inflammatories. The most popular and notorious variety of steroid is anabolic, which works by enhancing the muscles' ability to grow and by suppressing their atrophy. Testosterone is a natural steroid. Flooding the body with this or its numerous synthetic cousins, in conjunction with strenuous exercise, allows users to build pounds of extra muscle in a matter of weeks.

While anabolic steroids do have limited medical applications -- in addition to treating HIV-related wasting, anabolics are sometimes used to treat certain kinds of anemia -- they are used mostly to bulk up. Not long ago these drugs were the dirty little secret of a relatively small group of hard-core weightlifters, bodybuilders, and other athletes. Steadily, though, they have become ever more widely available, almost always illegally.

In the 1993 National Household Survey on drug use, nearly one million people reported using the drugs. In 1996 a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 1.9 percent of high school seniors reported using them.

Anabolic steroids are manufactured worldwide. Generally, the highest-quality brands are made domestically and in Europe and are available only by prescription. The active black market for steroids in the United States provides anything from prescription-quality drugs to veterinary preparations. "It is extremely easy to obtain steroids on the black market," remarks Dr. Harrison Pope, a researcher with the Community Epidemiology Workgroup at McLean Hospital in Boston.

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