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Bennett actually wears a gray-silk blouse, but her paperlike complexion soaks up the hues as if they were watercolors. Although she looks tired, she can't help but crack a slight grin at the spectacle. "I've been talking about this for two and a half years, ever since I joined HCN," she relates over the thumping beat. "This is great."
By "this," she means not only Friday night's Cirque Blanc, but also the two other "women's events" taking place during White Party Week '99. The expansion of White Party Week to include venues targeted at attracting gay women, as opposed to the traditional clientele of gay men, adds another layer of complexity to issues of White Party identity. Is it primarily about being out and proud, and secondarily about raising a ton of money for a big AIDS charity? Is it a gay thing or an AIDS thing? The face of AIDS in America is changing from that of a gay, white male to that of a straight, black female. So it makes sense that WPW features women's events. But most of the women at Cirque Blanc are neither black nor straight. ("Sorry to break it to you," one gay man says to an unescorted straight guy that night. "But they're all lesbians.")
Bennett points out that Miami's gay and lesbian community contains plenty of bisexuals (or at least people willing to experiment), thus introducing an element of increased risk even to women seeking women. "We've got to keep getting the safer-sex message out," Bennett stresses. That aside, many see bringing out Miami's lesbian community to fight AIDS alongside the men as reason enough for the women's events.
"This is a great vibe," says Nelly Hernandez, a freelance writer and a member of the women's event subcommittee that organized the shindigs -- a task that, in the case of Cirque Blanc, involved the hiring of palm readers, stiltwalkers, and close-up magicians. "We're involved in this major event, the number-one AIDS fundraiser, probably, in the country," she continues. "It's like all of a sudden, here's all these women, who normally keep a low profile, making this statement." She waves at the dance floor. "When have you ever seen 300 lesbians in white?" she asks rhetorically, clad in a zippered black-leather vest.
Care Resource itself produces only three of the parties: White Knights, the Muscle Beach Party, and the White Party. The rest of the events on the schedule, from the women's events to various club parties, to Snowball at the Miami Beach Convention Center, are "sanctioned" events, meaning that the individual promoters donate a portion of their proceeds to Care Resource.
Cirque Blanc and its related events are baby steps toward forging a new, more diverse identity for White Party Week. Bill Clinton once said he wanted a cabinet that "looks like America." Even with this encouraging infusion of estrogen, White Party Week still doesn't look like the HIV-positive population of today. Demographically it resembles the positive population of 1984, but with far more muscles and far less of a sense of impending doom.
In 1984, the first year of Health Crisis Network's existence, the gay community was beginning to wonder if it was facing a universal death sentence. "There was panic in the air," recalls Alain Berrebi, chairman of White Party Week. "I was literally losing friends left and right. One day they'd be diagnosed with the 'gay cancer'; the next day they'd be dead."
HCN was formed in an attempt to do something about the mysterious epidemic. The first White Party was a house party, Berrebi remembers. He was among those who attended and paid ten dollars at the door to help support the fledgling HCN. The following year organizers approached Vizcaya about renting the county-owned mansion for one night during Thanksgiving weekend for the fundraiser. Every year since then (except 1992, when Hurricane Andrew-related damage forced the party to the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables), the opulent Italian Renaissance-style manse has provided the backdrop for the White Party.
Attendance at the party increased steadily over the years, and the combination of a good cause and a beautiful setting began to lure gay men with disposable incomes to Miami for the long weekend. Miami Beach gay clubs cashed in on this windfall of tourist clientele during a time of year when people usually leave South Florida. Eventually representatives of HCN approached the club owners and promoters and agreed that the clubs would contribute a share of this revenue to the charity that had helped create it. Berrebi was the chairman of the first White Party Week in 1994. By 1997, between the official events and the club events, the week grossed nearly $900,000. This money, along with that from the February AIDS Walk, helped support a staff of 93 and a client base of roughly 1000 people with AIDS.
But in 1997 HCN faced its own crisis. Despite the success of the 1997 White Party, turnout was disappointingly low for the AIDS Walk three months later, a fact many blamed on the growing misconception that AIDS, while far from cured, was at least under control in the United States. "If there was panic in the beginning, there's a certain complacency in recent years," Berrebi laments.