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The nondescript metal doors leading to the convention hall itself open to reveal a spectacle of pageantry and conspicuous consumption that puts the auto show to shame. Inflatable white stars the size of Buicks hang from the ceiling. A spiraling arch, curled like a unicorn's horn, looms over the bar set up to face the entry doors. That same scaffolding also houses the DJ station, where later in the evening (or earlier in the morning) Boy George would spin the throng into new levels of frenzy.
As for the throng itself, it is, well, thronging in time to the thunderous trance the current turntablist is dishing out. As thousands whirl and shimmy on the dance floor, hundreds stand on the periphery of the mass, or else sit in the banks of bleachers set up for the partiers to catch their breath between stints. On stages at risers at the far end of the room, amateur go-go boys gleefully bump and grind above the crowd, accompanied by the ubiquitous flag twirlers.
It's easy to see why many have come to view Snowball, not the White Party, as the centerpiece of the week's festivities. Mahar gives this year's Snowball, the fifth produced by circuit stalwart Jeffrey Sanker, much higher marks than its predecessor. The only problem, he says after the event, was that it closed down at 5:00 a.m. "When the lights came on, people really did want things to last longer," he says. "Especially the people from New York, where things really don't get going until like four or five. The entire audience went to Pump [an after-hours gay club on Washington Avenue], but nobody got in. That line was not moving. I don't know how it's going to affect people as far as wanting to come next year."
As far as drugs go, he says, he saw plenty of Ecstasy and ketamine, but not nearly as much as he expected. Back in 1997 an internal HCN review of White Party Week acknowledged that that year's Snowball was marred by "open drug sales and sex in the bathrooms."
Mahar is familiar with the drug debate about circuit parties, but isn't sure the naysayers' arguments hold much water. "I think what upsets people, straight and gay, is not so much the drugs as the prospect that drugs will lead to unsafe sex," he relates. "But you really don't see that at these events. At least I didn't get any that weekend, and I was out there the whole time," he says with a chortle.
The official line from the Care Resource side is, "White Party isn't that kind of party." (Snowball is a sanctioned event, but Siclari is quick to point out that "it's not one of our events.") But the use of party-all-night drugs like Ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, blue nitro, and crystal meth hardly is unique to the circuit, or to gay men, or to gay clubs.
"I really don't think [drug use at circuit parties] is a big philosophical issue," says Don Jones. "If people want to do drugs and have unprotected sex, that's their problem. I'm kind of a libertarian; I see drugs as a victimless crime."
Yet it was drugs that killed one of the most venerable of the circuit events, the Morning Party on Fire Island. This annual August bash already had sparked a vehement debate by the time the 1998 party was approaching, thanks to several overdoses (one fatal) among those who had gone to Fire Island for the long weekend.
"The 1998 party was the sixteenth event. Sweet sixteen," rues Ronald Johnson, the associate executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City, which sponsored the fundraising event from its inception. Like the White Party, the Morning Party started out as a house party in the early days of the AIDS epidemic; over the years it grew, and by the late Eighties, it had been adopted by the circuit. "GMHC never designated it a circuit party, but that's who started to show up," Johnson says.
An overdose at the 1996 party, the victim of which had to be airlifted off the island, thrust the issue of drug use at the events into the news and op-ed pages of the New York press, mainstream and gay. "There had been some subliminal debate within the community, but that made it a media event," Johnson says. The fact that there were no major incidents at the 1997 party did little to quell the controversy. "There was a chorus, within the gay community and outside it, saying that we shouldn't be sponsoring this, that it ran counter to the ideals of GMHC to be involved in a circuit party that had widespread drug use."
In 1998, in a Fire Island bar on the Saturday night before the Morning Party, a man overdosed and died. "That quickly, and inaccurately, became a Morning Party-related event," Johnson says. "But if one straw broke the proverbial camel's back, it was the fact our paid coordinator for the event, who also was in charge of security, got busted at the event for drug possession."
In the firestorm of criticism that ensued, Johnson says, GMHC's continued sponsorship of the Morning Party "just became untenable." In December 1998 the organization announced it would no longer hold the party.