Fight for Your White to Party

White Party Week is one of the nation's biggest AIDS fundraisers and wildest bashes -- a problem or a godsend, depending on whom you ask

The models stride up the catwalk, fabulously filling out the best Burdines has to offer. They advance from, and retreat to, the shelter of interlocking white walls set up on the south side of the Eden Roc's vast pool. The department-store sponsor's name whispers in raised letters on the two flanking panels -- white on white, of course. The catwalk itself bridges the pool; as the clotheshorses trot to its terminus, they toss their manes and roll their eyes at the admirers seated on folding chairs. High above, a looming black bat projected on the blank wall behind the stage leaves no doubt that Bacardi is fueling the open bar.

As the synthed-out disco thumps and the sampled diva wails in a spiraling loop, the stragglers emerge from the hotel's refurbished lobby bar, which has traded in its powder-blue kitsch for dark wood and long purple couches. The mood is festive, expectant, but subdued. Suits, sport coats, and cocktail dresses are the norm for the couple of hundred business types, politicians, and assorted upscale do-gooders at White Knights, the Wednesday-night kick-off party for White Party Week, the premier AIDS-charity event in South Florida, if not the world.

The unusual suspects from the drag queen community also are in attendance, including a Joan Crawford, an Eartha Kitt (sort of), and a hulking character holding a giant lollipop and wearing a baby-doll dress the size of a pup tent. As Eartha struts toward the fashion show, two jacket-and-tie cynics pull on Marlboros and size him up. "Does that count as 'fierce'?" one asks. "Nah," the other assesses.

Lark Bennett of Care Resource is proud of the women's events this year
Steve Satterwhite
Lark Bennett of Care Resource is proud of the women's events this year

The oddest bunch in this crowd: twenty or so sexagenarians in polo shirts and polyester pantsuits, all wearing tags inscribed with the name of a cruise line. After descending on the spread of sushi, cold crustaceans, and cheese in the lobby, the aging cruisers make their way to the pool, and stare with fascination at the parade of models.

White Party Week '99, in all its beautiful bizarreness, marks something of a return to normalcy for the fundraising event and the charity that sponsors it. Two years ago White Party went off fine, but anemic attendance at its sister event, AIDS Walk, was one of the key factors that critically wounded Health Crisis Network (HCN), the nonprofit organization founded in Miami in 1984 to provide financial help, social services, and counseling to people with AIDS. Community Research Initiative (CRI), a nine-year-old Miami nonprofit that conducted clinical trials for experimental AIDS drugs, stepped into the breach and rescued HCN from the brink of death. The two entities merged into a new agency, Care Resource, in 1998.

A year and a half later, Care Resource appears stable. While last year's White Party was less than ambitious, Care Resource was able to expand the list of events this year, hoping to lure more well-to-do gay men (and, for the first time, gay women) to spend Thanksgiving Week in Miami Beach. Indeed the group's own figures show that at least 56 percent of the attendees at the 1998 White Party Week were from out of town, which is not surprising, given that White Party is considered one of the jewels in the string of gay bashes known as circuit parties. These events (dubbed "the circuit" because a small, affluent gay white male jet set regularly attends them) have earned a reputation as drug-laden blowouts. The image has prompted considerable debate, in the beginning quietly within the gay community and then, as the circuit's notoriety spread, in the community at large. The crux of the controversy: Should AIDS-related charities raise money through parties suffused with drug use?

One New York City charity said no, and pulled the plug on its circuit party last year after a series of highly publicized overdoses and drug-related arrests. But the organizers of White Party maintain that their events aren't like that. The people who come to White Party Week know there's a purpose to their partying, they say.

Even if they're partying pointlessly, though, their money is still green, and it still goes to fund Care Resource's services. Early indications suggest this year's White Party Week raised more than the 1998 event, and has been revitalized after two years of uncertainty. Yet organizers still face tough questions: How can they fight not only AIDS, but AIDS apathy? Does holding a series of parties for mostly white gay men hide the reality of the growth of AIDS among minority women? What will happen if, God forbid, someone gets busted for drugs at a WPW event?

Lark Bennett tugs the headset microphone away from her face and contemplates the dance floor, a vivid scene that makes this White Party Week stand out from those of the past. The outdoor patio behind the main building of the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens has been converted into an open-air discotheque, complete with house music and a swirling light show, thanks to the standards that loom overhead. The grooving mass of dancers are mostly women, and nearly all are clad in white, their clothes providing a stark canvas for the kaleidoscopic wash of primary colors shining from overhead.

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