Gay Black Men Confront Crystal Meth
June 23, 2017
Where had that friend gone? Micheal Rice -- his first name is spelled that way -- wondered that often of the fellow gay black friend he'd made in their early years in New York City, the friend who wanted to dance for Alvin Ailey and Beyoncé. "We were in New York, and everything was new, and we were so excited," says Rice, 35, a Brooklyn film and video maker who grew up in Texas.
"This friend started avoiding me," he recalls. "Then, one day he called and said he was hungry and just wanted to lie down in a safe space. So, I met him on the corner. He was emaciated. I tried not to show I was shocked. I never saw him again after that day. I'd heard he died of cardiac arrest in a bathtub at a sex party. His mother was so hurt that when they came to New York to identify the body, they didn't even have a funeral."
The friend was only one of several gay black friends of Rice who, in recent years, had become addicted to crystal meth. Another one, he says, an Ivy League graduate and professor, was now living in a basement in the Bronx with his dealer and "tried to fight us when we came to his door."
It was a dark trend that Rice had known nothing of only a few years prior. "When I'd go on Jack'd, SCRUFF, Adam for Adam or BGCLive," he says, naming hookup apps preferred by gay and bi men of color, "I'd see people capping all their Ts or asking if I wanted to party. And I'd be like, 'I love to dance, let's go out!' And they'd be like, 'No, I mean do you smoke Tina?''"
That's how he came to realize that a powerful and destructive drug that had long wreaked havoc in the urban gay white male community seemed to be making fast inroads into gay social networks of color, particularly in the Bronx, Harlem and central Brooklyn.
"I'd heard a quote from Nina Simone where she said it's an artist's duty to reflect the times," says Rice. So, via hookup apps, he started asking gay black meth users -- many of whom inject the drug in addition to smoking it from a glass pipe -- whether they'd be willing to talk about their experiences on camera.
That led to parTy boi, a raw and heartbreaking documentary Rice has made in which New York City gay black men talk (sometimes incoherently) about both using and dealing meth, sometimes while doing those things. (Rice says that he had two conversations apiece with subjects before shooting to make sure they understood what they were getting into, then had them sign releases.) Currently, Rice says he is refining the doc and talking to various well-known online viewing platforms about showing it.
"I had to make a stand in my community and raise my voice about this," he says.
A New Trend
Rice is not the only one to pick up on this trend. "Absolutely, there's been an increase in use among gay black men," says Kenyon Farrow, a gay black man who is the health policy director at Treatment Action Group, an HIV/AIDS think tank. (The link between meth use and HIV infection has been well-documented.) "In the last five or six years, I know far more gay black men dealing with meth addiction than I did a decade ago. Conversations I've had make me think it's really quite serious in Atlanta, D.C., New York and other places."
That's echoed by Gregorio Millett, M.P.H., a gay black man who is vice president and public policy director at amfAR. "Historically," he says, "gay black men were far less likely than gay white men to use drugs associated with condomless sex, such as poppers, crystal, ketamine, GHB or X. The only drugs they used more than gay white men were marijuana and crack cocaine. But that began changing five to seven years ago. We're seeing rapid increases in meth use among black MSM [men who have sex with men] alongside declines in meth use among white MSM."
Why the shift? Gay and HIV-positive Perry Halkitis, Ph.D., M.P.H., who heads Rutgers' school of public health, says that he was warning as far back as the early 2000s that it was only a matter of time before meth use migrated from gay white men to gay black men. "Meth use is socially and behaviorally transmitted and, in New York City, where we're all on top of each other, it will spread," he says. "And it has," he adds. "Meth is powerful and makes you feel hypersexual, undoing everything bad that you feel about yourself. "
That, he says, explains meth's allure among gay men in general, who have long battled homophobia, both external and internal, and fear of sex related to HIV. Add to that the racial (and often economic) stressors faced by gay black men, and it only increases the drug's appeal. "It's no surprise to me that this drug has spread to the most marginalized members of the gay community," he says.
Our current political moment may play a role, too. "Racial hostilities and homophobia have been more out in the open, apparent, in recent years," says Los Angeles' Yolo Akili Robinson, the founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), which works to increase the mental health of people of color through the lens of social justice and systemic change. (Currently, he is working with the Harm Reduction Coalition to formulate interventions specifically for gay black men who inject meth.)
"Increasingly, we see black bodies killed, we had the Pulse massacre of LGBT clubgoers [mostly of color], we have violence against transgender women all contributing to a baseline level of distress black people face," Robinson says. "Some gay black men are like, 'I just wanna check out.'"
A Sense of Belonging
But experts also say that meth provides users something they may have had a hard time finding prior to the drug. "There's this sense of community and social interaction among users, of no judgment, and the added benefit of extreme pleasure while high," says Nathaniel Currie, D.S.W., a gay black male therapist in New York who works with fellow gay black male meth users. "Your brain is telling you you're happy and good and accepted and connected to someone."
That's powerful stuff. Take it from Michael Crumpler, 43, LGBTQ and intercultural programs manager for the Unitarian Universalist Association. He's now been clean from meth for six years, but when he started using in the District of Columbia in 2008, shortly after coming out as gay and being diagnosed HIV positive, he had divorced his wife and dropped out of a conservative seminary school. His entire life was up in the air.
"I had no vision for my life, and I felt freer and more open but also lonelier than I had ever been," he recalls. "As a black man, I felt desperate for someone to date me and was constantly told, 'Sorry, I'm not into black guys.' At the time, I saw being into black guys as a fetish that only some guys had. And I wasn't really into black guys either, so I'd say, 'Neither am I!'"
Then came meth. "The first night I did it," he says, "I thought, 'This is it. This is what I want to do.' I found that thing and the social group that I'd been missing." With meth in the mix, he didn't feel stigmatized. "There'd be old and young, black, white, Latino, tops, bottoms, HIV positive and HIV negative" at meth parties, he says. "It felt very leveling. It was all about the drug and the sex, and even if you didn't want the sex, you had the drug, and vice-versa. It felt like a radically tolerant, open space."
But that seeming utopia eventually gave way to losing his job and apartment -- and to extreme paranoia, a familiar meth side effect, especially after continued use. "I thought the whole city had a conspiracy against me," he says.
A military veteran, he went to a VA hospital, which connected him to a homeless shelter, then a 90-day treatment program. After that, he started going to 12-step meetings and eventually embraced a more loving and accepting form of Christianity, enrolling in the progressive-minded Union Theological Seminary in New York. There, he started attending a 12-step fellowship specifically for meth users, who were almost entirely gay and mostly white.
Challenges of Treatment
That created its own challenges. "For most black people, being black is very central to who we are, and it's hard to name that in a [mostly white] meeting because you feel like you're hurting people's feelings," says Crumpler. Yet, there were aspects about his using that he needed to talk about that were specific to his being black. At a sex party, for example: "You'd be the black dick in the room and you were expected to perform that way. People would use the N-word, and you had to be very clear telling them [you] weren't into that. And they'd say, 'Oh, no, it's just a sex thing.'"
There were also racial disparities in recovery. "Gay white men get clean and then become capable of all sorts of things: jobs, buying an apartment, advanced degrees. Everything they lost they get back. With a lot of black men, getting clean only brings us to baseline. Some of them are ashamed to admit they don't have a college degree."
Crumpler started a group for black men within the fellowship called "Ike and Tina." "Now, when newcomers come in, they're able to connect and feel like, 'Oh, I'm not the only black guy in the room, or I can be black in this room.'" That's important, he says, because a lot of gay black men come to the group feeling alienated from a homophobic church upbringing, and they need peer support to navigate the spiritual aspects of the 12-step approach, with its frequent talk of God or of a Higher Power.
Partly for that reason, not all experts think that the 12-step approach -- or any abstinence-driven approach -- is the right one. "I'm not convinced that recovery is the right intervention for everybody," says Currie. "I think there is a place for use. Will there be consequences? Sure. But we can do harm reduction. How can we keep you safe and healthy to the best of our ability?" For example, he says, he worked with one client on putting parameters on his use, such as using only during extended time off from work or with one or two particular, trusted friends.
Yet, nearly everyone agrees that, with marginalized groups such as gay men -- and gay black men in particular -- drug use cannot be addressed in a behavioral bubble, cut off from societal influence. "We have to ask why they're self-medicating," says Halkitis. "It's not just about getting people to change their individual behavior. It's about making sure people are feeling good about themselves, not feeling discriminated against or stigmatized. It's about fighting for policies, regulations, laws and protections on a macro level that I think will lead to less reliance on substances over time."
Rice, the filmmaker, says he hopes that his hard-hitting film sparks that dialogue -- and that he sees himself as part of, not apart from, the world of the film. "We're all brothers trying to find love and make it in this crazy world," he says. "I didn't make the film to say, 'Hey, don't do this,' exactly, but hopefully that 19-year-old black or Latino guy just getting into his sexuality will see it and say, 'Wow, these people went through some shit.'"
Note: Many of the below accept Medicaid or Ryan White or offer services on a sliding scale or free.
New York City
LGBT Community Center, substance use treatment
Tim Murphy has been living with HIV since 2000 and writing about HIV activism, science and treatment since 1994. He writes for and has been a staffer at POZ, and writes for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Out Magazine, The Advocate, Details and many other publications. He is also the author of the NYC AIDS-era novel Christodora.
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