Morning-after mourning; one death and three overdoses lead some to ask if GMHC should scrap its place on the circuit – Gay Men’s Health Crisis service organization’s Aug ’98 annual fund-raiser ‘Morning Party’ in New York

Jonathan Capehart

One death and three overdoses lead some to ask if GMHC should scrap its place on the circuit

Frank Giordano of Bronxville, N.Y., and two friends arrived at New York’s Fire Island Pines the weekend of August 14 simply to have fun. After all, the 16th annual Morning Party, themed “Sweet 16,” was scheduled for Sunday, and with all the preparties and postparties others had planned around the fete–which raises money for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a New York City AIDS service organization–the weekend marked the height of the Pines social season.

But Giordano never made it to the Morning Party. According to Suffolk County police, the three men took the potent party drug gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB) before heading out Saturday night to the Island Club, a popular dance bar nicknamed “Sip and Twirl” by Pines regulars. Once there, two of the men collapsed and were transported to local Long Island hospitals. Giordano, meanwhile, was helicoptered to Brookhaven Hospital, also on Long Island, after police found him at 2:15 a.m., unconscious, in the home where he was staying. By 3 a.m., Giordano, 35, was pronounced dead.

Although Giordano’s death, his friends’ overdoses, and an OD by another man Sunday morning did not occur at the actual Morning Party, they have nonetheless stepped up what has become a rite of summer, calls on GMHC to sever its ties to an event that has become a full-weekend affair.

“GMHC is 100% responsible for the death of Frank Giordano,” says Andrew Beaver, an outspoken and longtime critic of GMHC’s involvement with the Morning Party. “GMHC is responsible for the madness that is Morning Party weekend—the preparties, the postparties.”

But GMHC stands by its tried-and-true fund-miser, pointing out that a stringent no-drug policy is strictly enforced at the Morning Party itself. Of the death, GMHC managing director Ronald Johnson told the New York Post, “It’s tragic, and I’m not dismissing it, but it had nothing to do with the Morning Party.”

According to Michelangelo Signorile, whose book Life Outside details the circuit-party scene, Johnson’s reasoning may have held more water in 1982, when the Morning Party got its start as a small poolside event for those who had survived the wrath of AIDS. But the party has since grown into “a stop on the international circuit known for its intense drug use,” Signorile says. “The Morning Party differs from other parties thrown for gay and lesbian organizations on Fire Island because it stretches out for the entire weekend.”

GMHC officials say they are not sure how the Morning Party got added to the circuit, but according to Circuit Noize, the bible that details all the parties worldwide, it is one of the core events of the year.

Drug-laced weekend-long parties are nothing new to the circuit. Police shut down a party at Atlanta’s Hotlanta River Expo, held August 6-9 this year, after three GHB overdoses were reported, and the Heritage of Pride Party on Gay Pride Sunday, June 28, in New York City saw four drug-related emergencies.

And GMHC isn’t the only AIDS service organization to benefit from these parties. The boys boogying to the beat at Miami’s Winter Party are giving to the Dade Human Rights Foundation, which supports “the needs of the lesbian and gay community.” Hotlanta supports local Atlanta charities “to help in the ongoing fight against AIDS.” The same is true of Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Delight Party, which benefits area AIDS organizations such as HIV Community Coalition and Food and Friends.

Still, the rub for many lies not as much in the fact that GMHC is a beneficiary of the Morning Party but that it is also the organizer.

It’s that fact, says Beaver, that puts GMHC’s credibility in jeopardy. “You can’t take any of their drug counseling seriously with their banners hanging over this drug-fueled event,” he says. For that very reason he and many others, including some high-up GMHC officials who wish to remain anonymous, believe the AIDS service provider should get out of the party.

But the Morning Party has supporters too. Among its biggest proponents is former GMHC board member Jim Pepper, who is also one of the Morning Party’s largest funders. Pepper, who has lost two generations of friends to AIDS, says, “Had it not been for GMHC, the passing of so many of my friends would have been miserable. Unless you went through the loss, you’ll never understand the emotions that course, through my veins [during the party].”

Blaming GMHC for the drug use at its party is a “cop-out,” Pepper says. “GMHC has done everything in its power to control drugs at its party.” That has been especially true since the 1996 party, when a reveler slipped into a GHB-induced coma and nearly died aboard a helicopter en route to the hospital. This year houses at the Pines were papered with letters from GMHC executive director Mark Robinson warning against illegal drug use at the party. That admonition was repeated at the party itself on signs at the entrance and on ticket-holders’ bracelets.

The warning went unheeded by some, though. Police arrested 21 people at this year’s party for drug possession. One of those nabbed was Chris Lipari, a consultant with whom GMHC contracted to coordinate party logistics. Police also reported finding more than a dozen drug containers on the dance floor when the party was over.

Despite the trouble, GMHC is committed to the event. “It grounds us in our roots, ties us back to the founding community,” notes GMHC spokesman Greg Lugliani. “It is also one of the most predictable fund-raisers for us. In an era of shrinking funding, this is one event that meets the budget.” The party raised more than $450,000.

Pepper challenges critics “to figure out a way to provide funding for services for people with AIDS when government is cutting back, sponsors are cutting back, individual donors are cutting back because they think the epidemic is over.” Indeed, in its last fiscal year, GMHC cut its $28-million budget by $4.6 million. That included eliminating 60 positions, which affected about 42 staffers. “How will they go about making up the shortfall in funding [if the party is canceled]?” Pepper asks. “Everyone thinks it’s so goddamned simple, and it isn’t.”

But for party critics such as Beaver, GMHC is faced with a bigger question than meeting funding goals. “No amount of fund-raising will make up for what GMHC is losing by squandering its leadership in drug counseling and HIV prevention [by hosting this party],” he says. “If this is just a matter of raising money at all costs–including GMHC’s credibility–then they should just sell drugs at the party.”

Coperhart is an editor writer at the New York Daily News.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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