Drug Holiday

Once a leading gay activist, CenterOne cofounder Gary Steinsmith has fallen on hard times

It's visitors night at Fort Lauderdale Hospital. A woman behind the front desk buzzes more people into the waiting room. They take a seat, and most stare at a small corner television that flashes "America's New War" in bright red letters. The woman yawns and gestures toward a clipboard.

"Oh," she says, "you're here to see Steinsmith. Take a number."

The initials GS are repeatedly scribbled in the log. In line to see Gary Steinsmith tonight are two attorneys and several friends. And now, after providing Steinsmith's password, AA1985 (the year he got sober), a reporter is next. Guest tags clipped to their shirts, several people are herded onto an elevator. The doors close, then open to the third floor's drab celery-green walls and terrazzo floor slick with ammonia. Dressed in a fluorescent orange jump suit that reads FDLE across the chest, Steinsmith is talking to three nurses. Take the man out of the outfit and the place and you would have a charming host telling a joke to three ladies at a cocktail party. An orderly politely interrupts him. Steinsmith nods his head, excuses himself, and walks with his hand outstretched.

Just as he's about to shake hands, his arms open into a half embrace. "Thank you for coming," he says like an uncle you rarely see. His black, disheveled hair smells of Prell shampoo. With cigarettes and peppermint on his breath, he flashes a Cheshire smile. "Welcome to paradise on the psych ward!"

Another patient, a gigantic man in blue fuzzy slippers, bounces behind him. "Hey, there's another reporter here to see Gary!" He turns the ward's television up full blast. "Gary is really going to be in all the papers, like he told us!"

Steinsmith, who was once regarded as Fort Lauderdale's most influential AIDS activist and gay political insider, rolls his eyes. He had been in the papers just a few weeks earlier. On November 8, the Miami Heraldand the Sun-Sentinel had described the 44-year-old as "ravaged" by the virus he'd contracted nearly 13 years before. The Herald story reported that he was "destitute," a reason HIV agencies -- even those he'd spent years raising funds for -- had refused to treat him.

"It's amazing what a week here will do to you," begins Steinsmith. He means a week of various antidepressants and mental health counseling. "First thing I want you to know is that I'm not crazy, I'm not poor, and I have plenty of time left," he says. Shuffling in his Nike flip-flops to a small conference table, he delicately crosses his bony legs at the ankle. "Sorry about this," he says, gesturing to his jump suit. "I would have dressed better, but I haven't had a moment to shop."

As soon as he closes the door, a nurse pokes her head in the room and tells him to keep it open. This is the high-security area. Steinsmith was moved from the low-security fifth floor, nicknamed The Pride Floor for its mostly gay patients, after he threatened a nurse and kicked a three-foot hole in a wall.

"I'm here because I took a drug holiday that very few people know I was on," says Steinsmith, referring to his decision in late August to stop taking medication for bipolar disorder. "What a vacation, right?"

Over the next hour, Steinsmith gives every reason to believe he's stable. He can recall dates and events clearly, even stopping to spell names. He is witty and self-effacing, attentive and sharp. But moments of lucidity are occasionally interrupted with fantastic promises to team up with Charles Schwab soon so they can go into business together. He cries a split second after he laughs. The volume of his voice yo-yos. But after two months of listening to Gary Steinsmith, it's apparent that this behavior encapsulates who he is -- a man wobbling on a tightrope of sanity. Despite suffering from severe depression most of his life, living with HIV for 13 years, and battling alcoholism, Steinsmith has managed to remain, at least in the public eye, a celebrated political insider and gregarious fundraiser.

But during the past few months, Steinsmith's disguise has slipped, say his closest friends in Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than rally behind him, AIDS agencies are using Steinsmith as a political football, the friends suspect. More alarmingly, the friends are leery of Fort Lauderdale attorney Norm Kent's involvement in Steinsmith's finances. Recently, the Florida Bar Association determined Kent had mishandled another person's estate trust. Acting since November as Steinsmith's power of attorney, which gives him access to the activist's sizable bank accounts, Kent tried unsuccessfully to obtain legal guardianship. That move, says Steinsmith's criminal attorney, Rae Shearn, was premature and likely unnecessary. What's more, Shearn and two of Steinsmith's friends contend Kent tried to sell Steinsmith ads in his weekly gay newspaper, theExpress -- a charge Steinsmith confirmed three times for New Times. Kent denies any conflict of interest.

"Any number of people could take advantage of [Gary]," says Shearn. "Here's a man who was at the top, was an extremely respected activist. He's now struggling very much to keep his dignity."

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