Sexual Roulette

Despite the risk, HIV-positive gay men are engaging in unsafe sex in the wake of improved AIDS medications. Don't believe us? Check out South Florida's "backroom bars."

When Greg found out he might survive, the once proud and embittered Washington, D.C.-based AIDS activist decided to really start living. He packed his things and set off for warmer climes, the reemerging gay mecca of Fort Lauderdale, a place that a few years earlier had become an oceanfront urban hospice drawing skeletal men from gay enclaves up and down the East Coast. Greg's doctors pumped him full of drugs, and the virus quickly dwindled within him. His damaged immune system made an astonishing recovery. He ate normal meals, exercised, and ingested large amounts of prescription steroids to counter the withering effects of the virus. Within four months he'd put on 60 pounds, and the purple-pink coffee stains of Kaposi's sarcoma had vanished from his skin. He looked stronger and healthier than he had in years and, for the first time, felt imbued with real hope. And after five years of abstinence, he was overcome with sexual desire.

Bill was another story. Shortly after finding out he was HIV-positive, he decided he really did want to live. A year and a half later, his doctor pulled him aside and said, "You're not going to die of this." Bill broke down in tears. But while the protease inhibitors he was given kept his immune system strong and the virus at undetectable levels, he experienced countless side effects. His heart strained, his belly bloated, his limbs withered. He developed diabetes and constant nausea and became impotent. Many other men suffered similar side effects. The new drugs, it turned out, were not all good news. For many the side effects quickly became unbearable, and their doctors took them off the drugs. For those infected with mutated drug-resistant strains, the cocktails didn't work at all. Still the stats were unequivocal: Between 1996 and 1997, AIDS deaths dropped a remarkable 47 percent, and the wasted Giacometti face of the virus almost vanished completely. At the height of the epidemic, a buff body was an unspoken way of communicating good health and HIV-negative status. By last year, though, the HIV-infected were often stronger and healthier-looking than their HIV-negative counterparts, and distinguishing one from the other had become virtually impossible.

It was in this environment that John, Bill, and Greg started having sex again, lots and lots of sex. Although he was skeptical, John took the good news about the end of AIDS as a sign that maybe it was all right to start "sucking and fucking" with abandon once again. Bill, who had started taking Viagra, and Greg, now a solid specimen of masculinity, each looked himself in the mirror and decided that HIV-positive men had as much right to healthy sex lives as anybody else. Before long all three men found their paths crossing at Chaps, the Ramrod, and the Eagle, a triumvirate of Fort Lauderdale-area bars that had quickly adapted to the wind change in sexual attitudes.

The full-page ad for the Ramrod in a recent issue of HOTspots! magazine, one of a trio of glossy throwaways catering to the gay community in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, pictures a man's bare buttocks beside a cream-colored lube gun. "Lube Party," it reads. "Back by popular demand this Sunday." Elsewhere on the page is a rundown of the week ahead. Wednesday features $1 off for "uncut" men, Thursday is the "battle of the bulge" competition, and Friday is "Boot Camp": "$1 off all drinks for those in leather and military attire." The bar, which has a dark, shadow-shrouded façade, is set back from the road on Fourth Avenue in Wilton Manors and is easily overlooked. A menacing-looking monster of a man in tight, black leather watches over the parking lot, which on any given night is usually brimming with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Inside, beyond the unmarked black door, dozens of men, many in black leather, jam the barstools nursing Buds and Heinekens. Eventually the bar area empties out as more and more men work up the courage to venture beyond the black partitions.

The traffic in the back room, a dark space where men find furtive and anonymous sexual solace, has increased dramatically since protease inhibitors were introduced three years ago. Traffic is even more brisk at Chaps and the Eagle, the Fort Lauderdale area's other "backroom bars," where mazelike areas out of sight of beer bottles and bartenders are specially designed to cater to sex. All three bars provide ample space for late-night sexual free-for-alls: Chaps has a squat, rotating table for group play; the Eagle has pitch-black "grope" rooms; the Ramrod a "bend-me-over" motorcycle.

Sex in these places is illegal, violating Florida obscenity statutes and, in the cases of Chaps and the Eagle, a Fort Lauderdale city ordinance prohibiting full nudity in establishments selling liquor. Along with patrons, owners could wind up spending a night in jail, as long as police can prove the owners knew about and actively promoted "lewd" behavior. "It's a misdemeanor," says Fort Lauderdale vice detective Vince Rizzitello. "If you own one of these places and the sex is helping you rake in the big bucks, sometimes you just write off the occasional arrest as part of the price of doing business." (Of the three bars' owners, only Chaps owner Stephen Holt returned phone calls, but he offered no comment on the backroom sex witnessed at his bar.)

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