Unsafe Sex

Our intrepid reporter probes the gay orgies that have helped to spark a runaway syphilis outbreak

After a rainy day, the ground was still wet, and cloud cover made for a dark evening. Black lights lighted up Inn Leather's secluded pool area, which was visible through the gate. Behind the gatekeeper, toward the rear of the fenced area, I could make out about four men lounging on plastic furniture, their bodies creating slim silhouettes on the dusky patio. I couldn't tell whether they were fully clothed, in bathing suits, or naked.

The gatekeeper, a man in his late 20s with short black hair and a neatly manicured goatee who wouldn't give his name, didn't let on that he was there to screen attendees. "Hello," he said, his eyebrows rising to make sure I knew it was my turn to talk.

But I knew what he wanted me to say: "I'm trevorinftlaud@hotmail.com."

Gatekeeper pulled a Palm Pilot from his back pocket and tapped the stylus on the screen a few times. "Yep," he said, looking up from the device, "I've gotcha right here." Already, about 35 men had arrived, he said.

I asked if I could just watch. I'm straight, not gay, and I didn't feel right taking off my clothes while surrounded by an orgy. Call me shy.

The gatekeeper seemed baffled. "I don't know," he said. "No one's ever asked before." He dialed on his cell phone. "Matt, can you come out here?"

Matt strolled out of one of the rooms. A handsome blond who appeared to be in his early 30s, Matt had his shirt off and held a red plastic cup in one hand. Jovial and smiling, Matt didn't look like someone ravaged by illness. His hairless torso was ripped, his muscles drawn distinctly, and his abdomen divided into a six-pack. I hadn't expected an HIV-positive man to look like Matt, but that was indeed naive. Combinations of protease inhibitors known as "cocktails" make HIV manageable. In fact, many HIV-positive men look even better than Matt.

"This is Trevor," the gatekeeper told him.

"Oh," Matt replied, "I remember the name."

I asked Matt if I could watch. "I've never been to a party before," I admitted.

"I don't know how anyone could just watch and not participate," the gatekeeper interjected, his voice tinged more with curiosity than disdain.

"Haven't you ever been to a bathhouse?" Matt asked.

"No."

Matt explained that the party had two rooms -- one for "getting warmed up" and the other for sex. I could start in the first room, Matt told me, and then work my way up.

Next, he looked me up and down. "But no," he said, "you just can't watch."

I tried to be persuasive, describing how I'd had only monogamous partners and how I just moved to Fort Lauderdale to escape a failed relationship. (To be fair, that was only partially true. I have had monogamous partners, but all have been female, and I moved here after being laid off from a weekly newspaper with which I had a professional relationship.) Watching would be therapeutic for me, I said.

Rubbing his bare feet slowly on the cement path leading to the room doors, Matt stood firm. To come in, he explained, the clothes would have to come off.

I declined.

Matt had one last sales pitch: "You'll meet some nice people and have great sex."

I again declined, and Matt reminded me that the parties occur regularly if I want to come back at another time.

As I walked back to my car at the end of SE 19th Street, a man passed me and smiled. His shaved scalp glimmered dully in the moonlight, and in one hand he carried a plastic Publix bag containing a towel. Later, the bag would hold his tank top, shorts, and ankle-high boots.

He was most likely HIV-positive, but even if he weren't, the gatekeeper and Matt wouldn't have known any different. He might have been a bug chaser. Or he might have infected someone with syphilis or herpes.

Or he might have contracted a mutant strain of HIV that's resistant to his cocktail -- which is the possibility that troubles Cresanta most about HIV-positive bareback sex parties.

At least three more bareback parties will take place in Broward County this month, according to online ads. One of them will be hosted by a Chicago man who would like "to collect as many loads as possible" while he's in town. Matt will also hold another Brandon Poz Party in Fort Lauderdale on June 28.

In response to the recent syphilis outbreak, the Broward County Health Department recently began free testing at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promised help, but so far nothing has arrived, Cresanta says. "It's a nightmare," the epidemiologist says of the party atmosphere.

I never talked with anyone actively trying to contract the HIV virus. Sam Burns, a San Francisco writer whose 2000 short story Bug Chaser was one of the first writings to address the real if fringe phenomenon, explained the barebacker's logic in an e-mail to New Times: "I think they represent a remarkably common condition in modern American society -- the pursuit of intimacy. Since the rise of AIDS, sex has demanded wearing a condom. That meant having sex while encased in the equivalent of a Hefty trash bag. How intimate is that?... I think the intake of fluids actually becomes a type of desire, as if obtaining the essence of another person -- even if only for a moment, and only in the physical sense."

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