Pictured Anti-meth ads being donated by gay newspapers in Chicago. A POZ magazine feature on meth and its contributions to a new wave of HIV infections in New York City.
On any given Saturday night on North Halsted between Broadway and Belmont they can be seen, confident and cocksure as they troll their kingdom's streets like a runway—the prettiest, youngest, most desirable boys this week has to offer. They're the boys with the cutest faces, flattest six-packs, tightest butts and charismatic, sensual personalities drawing droves of men to worship at their body-temples like moths to an exposed light bulb.
From the neon glow of the bars to the softer caress of the lighting inside Steamworks, these boys—as profiled weekly in the city's major bar publications—comprise the A list of Chicago's queer nightlife. Age and adulthood eventually claim some of these stars, as the next generation of hotties rises to overtake them. Some former A-listers settle easily into the usual adult routine of jobs, responsibilities, and relationships. But others never completely emerge from their club lives.
An unspoken secret among the gay glitterati of the nightclub scene—in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and according to statistics, most other gay communities across America and throughout the world—is the importance of drug abuse to the mystique of the A-list. And the drug of choice in America's gay bars is methamphetamine—formerly called speed but now known colloquially as tina, crystal, or, more formally, crystal meth. And some who have used it say that once introduced to the drug, crystal took over their lives—so much so that quitting seemed as impossible as refusing to eat, sleep, or breathe.
According to an article by Andrew Jacobs published Jan. 12, 2004 in The New York Times, crystal is steadily conquering Manhattan's gay, white bathhouse scene. One person interviewed in Jacobs' piece, a 38-year-old magazine writer named Devin, told The New York Times writer that he was hospitalized six times from the effects of crystal-induced dehydration and rapid heartbeat. He also said he lost five jobs due to his crystal abuse. As quoted in The New York Times, Devin said, 'Food, sleep and HIV medication go out the window ... crystal takes over your life entirely. You don't really care about anything except the next high.'
Another crystal user profiled in The New York Times article, a veteran AIDS activist identified as 'Jim,' told the newspaper that he believes he was infected with HIV during his first crystal encounter in 1999. And many experts believe that crystal abuse leads to increased sexual risk-taking which can, in turn, result in HIV infection. The New York Times article quotes the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, New York City's largest private clinic for lesbians and gay men, as reporting that 'two thirds of those testing positive for HIV since June 2003 acknowledged that crystal meth was a factor in their infection.' And the article further quoted Dr. Howard Grossman, identified as one of New York City's best known AIDS specialists, as stating that 'more than half the men who test positive (in Grossman's private practice) blamed crystal for their infection.'
And Michael Barnett writes in a recent feature on tpan.com, 'Land of Oz: Sex, Drugs and HIV,' in part: 'in many parts of the U.S., Crystal Meth decides what we actually do in bed as well as the risks that we will take ... . The escape. The way it makes us feel. All of us momentarily forgetting about what it really does to us and how it puts us at risk for HIV infection.'
Methamphetamine has played a role in American counterculture since the 1950s, when it was a legal substance marketed to students and truckers enabling them to fight sleep long enough to cram for the big test or drive across the country. Marketed under the brand name Dexedrine, meth was also taken by unsuspecting housewives during this era hoping to beat depression or shed extra pounds.
In the 1950s, according to methamphetamineabuse.com, the drug was taken orally and addiction was rare. However, during the 1960s, the advent of injectable methamphetamine, or 'speed' as it was known by then, changed the complexion of the drug and its users drastically.
Speed was widely reviled by the hippies of the 1960s as the drug that 'bummed out' their previously happy community: its users were mean and paranoid, and the depradations of their thievery, rapes, and ripoffs effectively ended the peace and love movement. Historically, cocaine was always the drug of choice among nightlife cognoscenti, but its price tag and short efficacy—requiring more and more 'bumps' to stay high—made it inaccessible to the vast majority of clubgoers.
In the gay subculture of the 21st century, meth—bearing its newest moniker, crystal meth—is the new cocaine. It's the intoxicant of glamorous queens with a friend on every barstool. It's also the ticket to social acceptance, incredible sexual stamina, and unlimited energy. Users report that it isn't unusual for a 'tweaker' to stay awake for 48 straight hours—or longer. For Christopher, a 36-year-old recovering crystal addict who for a time chaired a Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting above Ann Sather's on Belmont, meth was the drug that, in his words, 'brought him to his knees.'
After coming out during college, Christopher moved to Chicago after graduation. His goal? 'Originally,' Christopher said, 'I planned to be an actor. Instead I became a bartender on Halsted. It was so easy to be out on the gay strip, and I was really still searching for an identity as a gay man. I found that identity in the bars during the mid-'80s, among the drag queens, hustlers, and dirty old men I encountered there. I became a gay man—a creature of the night.'
It was in the Halsted Street bars that Christopher expanded his drug repertoire. 'Before I got to Chicago,' he continues, 'I thought of cocaine as a 'hard drug,' on a level with heroin, something only street addicts did. But once I got involved in the bar scene here, I realized that a lot of guys did cocaine. It made me realize that it was glamorous, hip, cool, urban ... it defined the identity I wanted.'
Seduced, Christopher began to use cocaine with his bar cronies. 'During the 1990s, we first started hearing about crystal. But people were mostly still doing cocaine—that and ecstasy and GHB. Crystal came after those things. And for me, because of the pharmacology of crystal, it superceded everything I had done before. There is a real unique difference between crystal meth and other drugs like cocaine—crystal meth has a true, debilitating, addictive nature.'
When he first tried crystal, Christopher thought it was cocaine and snorted it. 'My friends called it manufactured coke. It was cheaper, and you could get off on a lot less. Cocaine is a rich man's drug—you had to do so much to stay high that it quickly became very expensive. And at the time cocaine was my reference point.'
According to Christopher, crystal quickly impacted his life. 'Unlike any other drug I ever did ... crystal brought about a dynamic change in my personality. I became angry, selfish, cruel. My own cruelty started to scare me. A gay man is typically sarcastic normally, but my sarcasm became spiteful, venomous. I started to lose friends—I wasn't interested in knowing anyone who didn't use, or who didn't or couldn't use as much as I did. I became deceitful and I started to steal—I stole from my friends to get drugs. I stole from one friend, who is now deceased, regularly—he was a small-time dealer, and I knew he was high all the time and didn't keep good inventory. I would always steal drugs from him.'
Next time: More on drug use and abuse in the community.