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Steinsmith drove to CenterOne. "I saw this amazingly handsome counselor, and he looked at me," says Steinsmith. "He looked healthy. He asked me, "Do you have AIDS?' and I didn't respond. "Do you have AIDS?' he kept asking. I said "Yes' finally, and he said, "Me too.' It was like I just let everything go right then and started to live."
Steinsmith threw himself into activism, spending most of his time volunteering at CenterOne and lobbying state politicians for gay-friendly legislation. Like-minded advocates gathered at his home every week. One of those people was a fast-talking, leather-jacketed, 23-year-old ex-flight attendant named Brad Buchman.
"He just showed up one night and started smoking in my living room," recalls Steinsmith, sounding like a teenager describing a high school romance. "I told him he had to put [the cigarette] out, and he told me to get over it. So you can understand how fast I fell head over heels." For four years, he and Buchman were lovers. They also worked together, in 1991 forming United Citizens for Human Rights, which raised thousands of dollars for South Florida AIDS charities. Steinsmith jokingly admits Buchman's influence over him was so great that "I registered as a Democrat. It was the most painful but necessary thing in the world. Brad was very smooth."
The two sometimes fought, and Trantalis says Buchman was "unrestrained at times." The heated relationship with Buchman triggered episodes of depression, something Steinsmith had been formally diagnosed with in his 20s. But Steinsmith, always "on" at public functions, hid the condition from most of his political colleagues. Trantalis says he lost touch with Steinsmith around this time.
Steven Steiner, an early South Florida gay-rights advocate and current CenterOne board member, remembers that Steinsmith would "be at every party and then at none at all for months at a time. That was just the way it worked with Gary. He would disappear like that. You would hear things like, "Oh, Gary's visiting his family.' No one was concerned because there was this assumption that he had a close group of friends watching out for him."
But Steinsmith's friends were all but gone. As a spokesperson for CenterOne in 1991, he weathered public pressure to dismantle the agency after a state audit revealed that $146,000 meant to pay for housing was missing. CenterOne was not shuttered thanks to, among other things, efforts by Steinsmith and his friend, CenterOne public relations talent Matthew Klir. But Steinsmith was left to handle the next crisis on his own when Klir died in 1992.
At home, Steinsmith's relationship with Buchman became even stormier. Steinsmith was hounded by the media in 1994 when his lover, then president of the Dolphin Democratic Club, admitted to withdrawing $2500 from Steinsmith's bank account. Four months later, following his breakup with Buchman, Steinsmith buried friend and substance-abuse counselor William Schwartz. Two more great losses were ahead: In 1997, Buchman, who'd turned to cocaine and liquor to numb the effects of his own HIV-positive status, was found shirtless, barefoot, and dead in a friend's garage. And in September 2000, another ex-lover, 41-year-old Barry Teeters, an activist and club promoter, died from an overdose. With Steinsmith, Teeter had cofounded the Fort Lauderdale Chapter of ACT UP. "Those were what I call his hell years," says Valerie Steinsmith. "I'm sure Gary did a good job looking like he was OK. But he was really, really depressed."
True to form, Steinsmith dealt with loss by embracing his public persona. In 1998, he became Dolphin Club president and formed a political consulting firm that was hired to help Democratic state Sen. Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach turn out the gay vote. Says Geller: "Gary was the most recognized gay leader in maybe the state."
The only people who offer an explanation for Steinsmith's downfall are friends from Alcoholics Anonymous. Allan Derning, a friend and regular hospital visitor, believes the attacks September 11 probably triggered Steinsmith's erratic behavior.
"I called him about 7 that night, and he'd been sleeping all day," Derning says. The next day, Steinsmith bought American flags to hang in each corner of his home so that he could salute them at every turn. Steinsmith began calling other AA friends in the middle of the night, muttering gibberish, swearing, and making wild claims.
"He was saying that he was going to bring me onto his Cabinet when he was the president of the United States," Derning recalls. "Another one was that bin Laden had moved into the apartment next door."
A week after the attacks, Steinsmith invested thousands of dollars from his savings in the stock market. He went on a shopping spree, purchasing two gold bracelets, a watch, a gold ring, and two wedding bands. ("For the future," he now says.) He also walked into Alpine Motors on Sunrise Boulevard and leased an $85,000, silver, 2002 XK convertible.
"I wanted to do something for our country," he explains. His voice is shaky, and he nearly breaks down crying. All of a sudden, he straighten ups, wipes his eyes, and says directly, "I'm a gay man with AIDS, so I can't serve in the military. I thought, "I'm going to help the economy like President Bush is saying.'"