Drug Holiday

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

Growing up in Merrick, Long Island, Bill Steinsmith never thought his son was "six feet," recalls Valerie Steinsmith. "That's what my husband would always call the other Wall Streeters' sons. That meant they were all tall, strong, young men who played football, sports. They were well-liked. Bill wanted a lot from my son, and I think Gary felt enormous pressure to live up to that."

An honors student and New York state debate medalist, Steinsmith struggled to please his workaholic father, who, Valerie Steinsmith says, spent more time in his financial-district office than at home. Although Gary had a steady girlfriend for three years during high school, "I just felt that things weren't right," she explains. "I asked him several times if he was gay, and he said no."

After three weeks on antidepressants, Gary Steinsmith awaits a decision on whether he's healthy enough to go home
Michael McElroy
After three weeks on antidepressants, Gary Steinsmith awaits a decision on whether he's healthy enough to go home
Broward Mental Health Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren blasts AIDS agencies for not reaching out to Steinsmith
Michael McElroy
Broward Mental Health Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren blasts AIDS agencies for not reaching out to Steinsmith

Not until 1981, when Steinsmith was 24 years old, did his parents learn of his homosexuality. "Gary tried to kill himself," his mother says. "He didn't want to tell his father that he was gay. I didn't even know until his boyfriend called the house and said that either I had to tell Bill or Gary was going to get more depressed and try it again. So I told [Bill] the next day."

The news stunned Bill, who finally muttered, "Gee, I always thought it was peculiar the way that boy acted,'" says Valerie.

The following year, Gary Steinsmith moved to Fort Lauderdale and became one of the youngest brokers at Salomon Smith Barney. Senior Vice President Howard Guggenheim recalls that the young man's talent for selling tax-free municipal bonds quickly earned him the accounts of some of the firm's wealthiest clients. Steinsmith says he began building his nest egg then, which he says is today worth about a quarter of a million dollars, mostly from day trading and money-market investments. "I'm more than secure financially," he says. "The people at Salomon treated me like gold."

Unlike his father, Steinsmith didn't let work consume his life. He teamed with other activists to rally Fort Lauderdale's gay community, then plagued by the disease known as "gay cancer." In 1984, he helped found an assistance agency for men called CenterOne -- now Community Health Care CenterOne. Today, it's the second-largest Broward County one-stop AIDS agency, receiving $2 million annually in federal grants, but it started as nothing more than a shabby office in a Las Olas basement.

"It was like trying to live your life as if someone had cursed you for being who you were," Steinsmith says. "It was a total viral holocaust. I was burying everyone I knew. What I had to do was to admit that no straight person, no straight politician, wanted to acknowledge it, much less advocate for government spending to treat it."

"By definition, Gary was a pioneer who challenged authority in a way I'd never seen before," says Dean Trantalis, a Broward County attorney who helped Steinsmith establish CenterOne. "He does what the situation calls for. If that means speaking in hyperbole to get attention, he does it. He can convince anyone of anything."

By early 1988, Guggenheim had begun to suspect that his protégé wasn't entirely focused on the job. "I noticed that he was taking a lot of time off work for what were doctor appointments," he says. "I started to analyze it. Is it drug-related? Is it just his lifestyle? I knew he had a, uh, roommate. Bottom line, I started to suspect that something wasn't right. I don't know why I did this, but I asked him to come into my office, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, "Gary, do you have AIDS?' He looked at me and said, "Oh my God, you found out.'"

Steinsmith shut Guggenheim's door and sat down. "He told me that he had a problem but that he was going to beat it," he says. "I was sick. I wanted to throw up because I cared for him so much." Guggenheim assured Steinsmith the firm would help him. (Steinsmith says he still receives disability compensation.)

Valerie Steinsmith says her son told her of his HIV-positive status shortly afterward. "When he called me and said that he was coming home, I knew." He went to New York, where his family had gathered in their Merrick home. That weekend, he told each person separately. "Everyone was crying hysterically," she says. "My husband just hugged him for a long time and then wrote Gary a check for $10,000 in case he needed anything."

Over the next five years, as Bill Steinsmith's own health deteriorated (he is now in a Florida rest home, suffering from dementia), he grew closer to his son and even marched with him in Fort Lauderdale's gay pride parade.

But not everyone was as understanding. Shortly after Gary returned from New York, his Pompano Beach dentist turned him away because the staff, having heard he was HIV-positive, refused to treat him. "I thought, I was born Republican," recalls Steinsmith, holding back tears. "I'm a businessman who wears expensive suits. This was who I was. I got into my beautiful Mercedes and leaned over the steering wheel and cried."

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