Kurt, a 26-year-old pharmaceuticals consultant, knows looking great is crucial this weekend. Tomorrow morning, he will fly to Palm Springs for the White Party, a three-day extravaganza at which several thousand other beautiful gay men will gather to dance, party, and otherwise celebrate. And everyone will feel the pressure to look fabulous.
Kurt especially wants to look his best. He's planning to meet up with Zack, a 29-year-old tax consultant from Washington, D.C., whom he met at a party in San Francisco. Kurt says they "just clicked." They've since begun a long-distance romance -- they've been talking on the phone and e-mailing every day.
A few days ago, Kurt bought two matching necklaces with pewter charms -- one with Zack's Chinese astrological sign, the other with his. He hopes that after this weekend, their relationship will become official.
It's been more than three months since he and Zack have seen each other. The week following the party, Zack will stay in San Francisco with friends while Kurt is out of town on business. They'll have a weekend together, once Kurt is back.
A framed snapshot of Kurt as a round-cheeked toddler sits on the coffee table. He intends to give it to Zack, after the weekend. "You never know what will happen," he says cautiously, laughing a little.
There are parties, and then there are circuit parties.
The "Circuit" is a year-round swirl of large ravelike dance parties for gay men held in major cities across North America, and to a lesser degree, overseas. The events usually take place over three-day weekends, and draw thousands of the most handsome, muscular gay men around.
Nobody really knows when or where the first circuit party was held. But many partygoers trace the origins of the events to a gay New York nightclub called the Saint. At its peak in the 1980s -- it has since closed -- the Saint was known for a domed, three-story planetarium ceiling and nightlong dance parties that, apparently, have evolved into the Circuit.
Today, major stops on the Circuit include Palm Springs (the White Party), Fire Island (the Morning Party), Miami (the White Party Miami), Atlanta (Hotlanta), New Orleans (Southern Decadence), and Montreal (the Black and Blue Party). The largest events, like the Palm Springs and Montreal parties, attract upward of 7,000 men, mostly white, mostly between ages 25 and 40, and all affluent enough to afford the travel costs, the clothes, and the tickets to the parties -- tickets that can cost more than $100 for a single event.
The Circuit is a multimillion-dollar industry. Party producers make what has been estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of these events, although no one ever says exactly how much is netted. Some events give part or all of their profits to gay community organizations -- for example, each year Jeffrey Sanker, who produces the Palm Springs party, gives several thousand dollars to the Desert AIDS Project (an amount that some observers think is not nearly enough).
The host cities profit nicely too. The White Party Weekend is said to be Palm Springs' biggest moneymaking weekend of the year. Most visitors to Southern Decadence stay at least three days in New Orleans, and spend at least $100 dollars each of those days.
Dedicated adherents -- "circuit queens" and "party boys," as they are known in gay circles -- attend several circuit parties each year. Some travel thousands of miles just for a three-day weekend of parties; others arrange business trips and vacations around the Circuit calendar.
"Gay Disneyland" is how one Circuit denizen describes the parties. "Where you can go for a weekend and be as queer as you want to be."
During a circuit party weekend, the dancing usually begins around 9 p.m. and goes until 3 a.m., followed by various after-parties that run till midmorning. Most Circuit-goers will rely on drugs -- poppers (a gold-colored liquid sold legally as "liquid incense," which causes a high when the fumes are inhaled); crystal methamphetamine, popularly known as crystal, "Tina," or "Crissy"; and to a lesser extent, cocaine -- to stay awake for the parties. Then there's an alphabet soup of other illegal drugs that heighten the emotions and senses.
Ecstasy ("X"), or MDMA, is at the heart of the scene because of its relaxing and, some say, aphrodisiac effects; it's usually taken in combination with one or more other drugs.
Ketamine ("Special K" or just "K") is an anesthetic veterinarians use on cats and "subhuman primates"; partygoers usually dry or bake it into crystal form, and then crush it into a fine white powder that's inhaled in "bumps" from a small glass vial with a rounded plastic cap, called a "bullet." Users feel happy and relaxed -- unless they overdose and fall into a "K-hole," a temporary trancelike state.
GHB ("G"), Gamma hydroxybutyric acid, a liquid anesthetic with effects similar to Special K, is taken orally: While some users report a better high from G, its effects are unpredictable. (Health food stores once sold GHB as a growth hormone supplement, but the FDA took it off the market.) Too much G can induce any number of effects, including violent vomiting or a "G-coma," which lasts hours. Combined with alcohol, the drug can be lethal.
On the surface, the parties seem to focus on sex, bodies, disco, and drugs. That's how San Francisco party producer Jito Garcia sees it. "People are there to have a good time," he says, in his smoky, Brazilian accent. "It's just a fucking party."
Circuit Noize, a quarterly zine for "crazed party boys," says the events provide, among other things, "the chance to escape the pressures of our day-to-day existence and to enter the altered world where man-to-man sex is not only accepted, but is celebrated."