Fight for Your White to Party
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.
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.
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.
Also, inexplicably, the staff missed a critical deadline to submit a grant application. Executive director Marc Lichtman quit in disgust; a month later HCN laid off a dozen people, citing major funding shortfalls.
Enter Community Research Initiative. Rick Siclari, the clinical-trial group's executive director, initiated merger talks with the troubled HCN. CRI, while smaller, was far more stable financially than the social-services nonprofit. It also had earned a national reputation by proving the efficacy of two of the protease-inhibitor drugs now used as part of the so-called cocktail of AIDS medications. In April 1998 the two groups became one. Shortly thereafter the combined entity was dubbed Care Resource, with Siclari as its executive director.
But White Party waits for no one, as Siclari and Lark Bennett found out. "That was a difficult year to pull off [White Party and AIDS Walk]," Siclari notes. "We were still in the throes of changing our forms, procedures, policies, letterhead; this thing is discontinued, that license needs to be renewed, the mountain of paperwork." He pauses. "That's not a place I want to go back to anytime soon. It was very hard on us.
"The financial difficulties at HCN were a concern, but the result is truly a classic business success story," Siclari adds. He asserts that the merged organization has maintained all of the counseling, outreach, and social-services programs of the former HCN, the clinical-trial services of the former CRI, and has added "four or five" new services. "Our staff and volunteers are now a much more cohesive group."
White Party Week 1998 netted about $500,000 for Care Resource. That was less than in the 1997, but the combined group's greater solvency allowed it to weather the drop. The group aimed for bigger and better in 1999. "This time we had a little more time to breathe, so that allowed us, in our second year, to enhance some events and to think about new ones rather than just maintaining what was there before," Siclari says. At press time the tentative total from this year, less expenses, is close to $550,000.
Berrebi, who was on the board of directors of HCN at the time of the merger, declares the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. "Some people had been deeply disappointed with the limits of the service HCN could provide," he says. While HCN offered counseling and support, it didn't have doctors who could write prescriptions for AIDS medications, or give primary health care to AIDS patients. The focus of CRI was even narrower. The combined entity, he says, can provide it all. At the time of the merger, HCN had 91 employees and CRI had 13. Care Resource currently employs 73 people, who directly serve some 1400 clinical and psychological clients.
"It was a huge change, and many staff didn't survive it," Siclari allows. "We tried to be good about it, and if people decided that they couldn't do it, it's okay to say it's time to move on. We did have a lot of turnover."
For those who forget to bring their sunscreen to the beach at Twelfth Street, the Ozmoziz table inside the cyclone-fence perimeter of Friday's Muscle Beach Party is a godsend. On the folding table is a pair of gallon bottles with pumps on top, the kind that dispense mustard and ketchup at ballgames. Except these contain SPF 4 and SPF 15, respectively. All free, all you need.
Turns out to be quite an icebreaker, too. "My name's Steve," says a muscular man with short black hair and a silver hoop earring in each ear. "Mike," says the slimmer, flaxen-haired man next to him. They shake hands, then partake of the free sunscreen. "You need me to get your back?" Steve queries.
It's barely 2:00 p.m. and the party's scheduled to run till sundown. The early birds are here though, to be found mostly on the elevated stage on the ocean side of the area, grooving to a heavy house beat that reverberates off the façade of the Victor Hotel. They are largely shirtless, largely large, 99 percent male. One shortish fellow with a linebacker's build stands among the serried blue banners planted in the hard-packed sand, twirling his own pair of flags in time to the music. Among the sea of white sand and faces, a cluster of black women in white baseball caps and T-shirts, employees of Care Resource, pass out condoms and safer-sex literature.
Wally Mahar, a lean Miami Beach resident in his early thirties with wavy hair and a hoop through his left nipple, surveys the growing crowd through his thin-rimmed sunglasses. He's a volunteer for this event and half-jokingly laments he'll also be working at the White Party itself, cleaning up Vizcaya afterward. But at Snowball later tonight, he'll be off-duty.
"White Party got some bad press last year because the DJs at Snowball were so bad," he recalls. "The sound was horrible, and the DJ got to the point where he was just spinning for himself and not responding to what the crowd wanted to hear. Nobody liked it." He's curious about Boy George, who is spinning at this year's Snowball. He also agrees with the conventional wisdom that this "sanctioned" event, with its thousands of shirtless men packed into a convention hall, feels the most like a circuit party, because of the music and the drugs. In his experience the drug use is "no more than you'd see at a typical club."
Siclari sighs at mention of the words circuit party. Does it bother him that everyone in the world who knows the circuit exists thinks of the White Party as part of it?
"Yes, actually it does," he says. "Because everything I understand, and know, and have experienced at the White Party tells me that it's a really magical experience, and it clearly is presented as a party with a purpose. If people saw these events, saw the efforts of education and outreach we do at them, these are characteristics that don't in the least conjure up the same things I think of when I hear the term circuit party." He points out that the party itself only lasts until 11:30 p.m., not until sunrise. "I think we do a really good job setting this event apart in that way, but I guess it's inevitable that we'll be called a circuit party.
"We make every effort to say to folks that we don't want the overuse of alcohol or the use of drugs at any of our events, and we have serious security at all of these events to ensure that everyone basically is staying on track," he insists.
But the question of whether or not it's appropriate for an AIDS charity to raise money by worshipping Bacchus continues to vex many in the gay community, including some prominent intellectuals. "The problem is we have increasing levels of drug use at these events," says Michelangelo Signorile, a New York City-based author and columnist for the Advocate who doesn't hesitate to lump White Party Week in with the rest of the circuit when it comes to sex and drugs. "We have increasing incidence of overdoses, and also drug use is connected to unsafe sex, which is on the rise as it is. We also have a decline in the efficacy of protease inhibitors and development of drug-resistant strains of HIV.
"There's entire culture -- the circuit culture, not the gay culture -- built around supposedly helping to solve the AIDS epidemic by raising money that is actually exacerbating the AIDS epidemic," he continues. "And on top of that, there's the idea that AIDS is over to many people. I see it as something that is a time bomb in a way.
"AIDS groups are going for the quick fix, the money these parties raise, and not looking at the larger picture. And the general apathy to AIDS makes their hunger even greater. These charities need to pull away from these events, and certainly not be supporting and promoting these events, where you have this intense drug use. You don't create a problem to solve a problem."
This point echoes one Marc Lichtman made as a parting shot when he quit Health Crisis Network. At the time he told New Times he didn't want to be a part of a fundraiser that simply created more clients for the agency.
Another former HCN employee agrees. "The drawback is who the party caters to: It's another circuit party, and we all know what," Arthur Ackerman relates. "People come from Minnesota where everyone's fat, and they see all beautiful guys running around. A lot of these guys have HIV, but they're not the typical person with AIDS -- skinny, with cane or crutch, you know? Now obviously between the cocktails and the steroids [which often are prescribed to AIDS patients to combat wasting syndrome], you can get even bigger than you were when you were negative. Some people still say, 'I know that guy's safe; just look at him!' And it's even easier to talk yourself into it if you're rolling on Ecstasy."
One ex-HCN staffer, who asked not to be identified, is blunt. "The board of directors has stuck its head in the ground about the drugs and the sex," he declares.
White Party Weekend chairman Alain Berrebi disagrees. "Our policy on drugs is zero tolerance," he says. He notes that WPW had some 250 volunteers this year specifically on the lookout for that sort of behavior. "But you can only do so much," he concedes. "It is a problem, but it's a problem in society as a whole," he comments. "We've been lucky, but we've been lucky because we've been proactive."
Don Jones, the former associate director of development for Community Research Initiative, doesn't see what's so wrong about raising money by giving circuit people a place to whoop it up. "Personally I don't have a problem with that," he says. "I debated that guy Signorile about this at a conference down here three years ago. The way I look at it, these parties are a way for affluent gay men to tax themselves."
Siclari might be uncomfortable with the term circuit party, but he seems to accept the "if it walks like a duck" argument. At Friday night's Snowball, the metaphorical duck in question is walking, quacking, and shaking his Lycra-clad tail feathers all over the Miami Beach Convention Center.
In the foyer outside Hall C, the better part of the scattered revelers indeed are shirtless, some sporting a theme costume: a brace of shirtless sailors over here; a cluster of rhinestone cowboys complete with cap guns, silvery vinyl pants, and Christmas lights in their ten-gallon hats over there. Now clad in an iridescent silver shirt, Wally Mahar offers a wave and a smile. The mood is festive, undimmed by the fact that Miami Beach Fire Rescue has just carted someone away on a stretcher.
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.
Morning Party may be dead, but the controversy, Johnson says, is very much alive. "There was and still is a debate within the agency, the board members, our staff, and volunteers over these issues, including a strong feeling that GMHC caved in to anti-gay forces [by canceling Morning Party]. Some people within the gay community applaud our decision to end it, and [there are] people who still are angry at us."
How much money is the agency missing out on? "Don't make me cry," Johnson implores. "Our net income from the '98 party was $450,000. And, no, we haven't been able to replace that funding."
The night of the White Party proper is clear and breezy. Though most of the attendees are content to show up in crisp white shirts and slacks -- with the occasional sailor outfit or guayabera -- several White Partiers have saved up their best costumes for last. The coolest getups have nothing to do with drag, either. The Trojan warrior, whose feathery white crest glimmers with tiny lights; the pair wearing nothing but towering white Mardi Gras masks and briefs; the diabolical figure in a white robe with black ram's horns sprouting from his head.
Still, the overwhelming impression from the party is the wearin' of the white, and even though the vast majority of the guests are in T-shirts, the ocean of white against the backdrop of Vizcaya and its grounds has an undeniable elegance.
And, as its organizers insist, the White Party doesn't feel like "that kind of party." From the mansion itself to the hedges behind to the elevated terrace where a torch singer croons to a crowd sampling free food from various restaurants, even to the dance floor between the house and the docks, the ambiance is one of slightly reverent revelry. Bacchus is here (demanding a sacrifice of $200), but he's on his best behavior. At least, as far as is evident. The New Times reporter, like all members of the Fourth Estate, is accompanied by a press escort: in this case, two very nice women from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor's Bureau. And all press is "escorted" out the door at 9:00 p.m., two and a half hours before the party officially ends.
"We used to not let press in at all," remarks Sharon Kersten, publicist for White Party Week. "I don't know why that is," says Mahar later. "It's not like we all got naked at 9:01."
Nelly Hernandez is there as well, with about ten other women who'd been involved in organizing Cirque Blanc. "The men were so happy to see this roving band of lesbians," she says with a laugh. "People who didn't know us, including big-ass drag queens, were photographing us: 'Ooh, let's get a picture with the girls!'"
"It was so beautiful; I was proud to be part of it," she continues. "I've been a gay person in this town for so long, and I'd never been. You know, I'd heard a few nasty things, about people running around all messed up on drugs, but it wasn't like that at all. It was this nice, clean event. I was bowled over."
After the wobble in 1998, the White Party and the agency that sponsors it clearly have regained their footing. Where they go from here, as the story of the AIDS epidemic and the parties that fund the fight against it unfolds, remains to be seen.
"There is a contradiction inherent in the circuit parties," declares one Miami gay activist who declined to be named. "But both gay-rights and AIDS agencies are desperate for the bucks."
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