Because of a growing chorus of concern that a major AIDS fund-raising event was encouraging illegal drug use and unsafe sex, organizers of the popular annual gay party on Fire Island announced yesterday that they were abandoning the event.
For the last decade and a half, the gathering, known as the Morning Party, has been a poignant remembrance of those who have died of AIDS as well as an important fund-raiser for its sponsor, Gay Men's Health Crisis. But recently, the Morning Party, a swank social event held in the summer, has become something else: a cause for anger between G.M.H.C., perhaps the nation's leading AIDS service organization, and some gay critics who say the party has veered out of control.
The event had also lent cachet in recent years to a growing number of similar parties around the nation, known as "circuit parties."
In a statement yesterday, Gay Men's Health Crisis said it was canceling this year's party because "regrettably, over the past few years the Morning Party has become associated with alarming levels of recreational drug use, despite G.M.H.C.'s many attempts to discourage drug-taking at the event."
At 1998's party, a man from Bronxville, N.Y., overdosed and died in the predawn hours before the party officially began. In 1996, a man was evacuated by helicopter after falling into a drug-related coma. Dozens of police officers were stationed at the party after those incidents, prompting some in attendance to say that the event resembled a police state.
Randy Wojcak, a former producer of the Morning Party, described the Dec. 2 meeting of the charity's organizing committee. "In previous years, the attitude was, why not hold the Morning Party?" said Mr. Wojcak, a member of the committee. "This year, the attitude was, enough was enough. How long do we have to take this bad press?"
The cancellation poses a critical problem in fund-raising for G.M.H.C., even as contributions from other sources have fallen sharply -- apparently because the success of new drugs in controlling AIDS has led some donors to see the issue as less urgent. The Morning Party is the charity's second-largest fund-raiser after its AIDS Walk, which raises $4.5 million. In 1998, the Morning Party drew 4,500 people and raised about $450,000.
Michelangelo Signorile, author of "Life Outside" (HarperCollins, 1997), a book critical of the circuit party phenomenon, said it would "become more difficult for other groups -- in Miami, in Chicago, in Los Angeles -- to continue to host these circuit parties now that G.M.H.C., the leading sponsor, has pulled away, because these groups around the country are also receiving this kind of pressure from within the gay community."
Others doubted that the charity's action would slow the expansion of circuit parties, which can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a night and whose tickets can cost $100 or more. Alan S. Brown, developer of a Web site called Electric Dreams, which reports on the circuit party scene, said: "I don't see it having any effect. It's just a symbol. But now the critics, like Michelangelo Signorile, have consumed their sacrificial lamb."
In 1997, Gay Men's Health Crisis raised more than $31 million, but in 1998 raised less than $23 million, according to a senior official at the charity who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official said the charity was considering a variety of smaller fund-raising parties, probably on Fire Island, but no firm plans had been set.
The Morning Party has been held on Fire Island beaches for 16 years, usually in August, in cooperation with a Federal park agency, the Fire Island National Seashore. Officials of the agency could not be reached for comment, but some doubted whether a for-profit gay organization, indeed any gay group other than G.M.H.C., could hold a similar social event.
"G.M.H.C. has such a good working relationship with the parks people that I don't see that happening," said Duncan T. Osborne, a contributing editor of LGNY, a Manhattan gay publication, who has written about the circuit party scene.
Howard Grossman, a physician who organizes the medical tent for the party, said the Morning Party would be impossible to replace. "It raised a lot of money and costs almost nothing to run," he said. "It raised something like 90 cents on the dollar, which is unheard of." Minimum ticket prices for the party were raised in 1998 to $100 from $75, but some contributors pay as much as $10,000 a ticket, he said.
Circuit parties have become an increasing source of controversy in the gay community, as their number have grown. There are more than 50 in North America, the largest being the Black and Blue Festival held in October in Montreal.
Use of gamma hydroxybutyric acid, a liquid anesthetic commonly known as GHB and reputed in the gay community to be an aphrodisiac, is common at these parties, critics say, adding that such drugs lower inhibitions and lead to unsafe sexual practices. GHB was implicated in the overdose of Frank J. Giordano, 35, of Bronxville, N.Y., who died before the 1998 Morning Party.
"But there were no overdoses at the party itself, that's the thing," said Dr. Grossman, 44. "There were only cuts and bruises and complaints about sand in people's contact lenses, the kinds of things you see at a beach party. Straight kids, gay kids are going to use drugs at a dance party. But the Morning Party was a chance to educate them. That's what a lot of the critics didn't see. And now we've lost that chance forever."