Clubbed to death?
As drug abuse claims another five gay lives, isn't it high time we woke up?
The devastating consequences of excessive hedonism were in the spotlight again last week with the drug-related deaths of a further five gay men in London. Three of these fatalities occurred in Vauxhall's gay village in the space of just one week. The police are sick of it, the hospitals are despairing and, most alarmingly of all, people are still not adequately addressing the problem.
As we enter the new year, maybe it's time we stopped, took a moment to reflect and asked ourselves - how many more lives must be lost before we all take responsibility for our behaviour?
I was 18 when I first found my way to the gay nirvana promised by the scene magazines. I got lost at the busy Vauxhall interchange before finally finding the club and throwing myself into a cruise maze. Ten years later I was still there, clinging to people who were searching for the same fragile sense of belonging I'd been missing my entire life. I knew my way around the clubs and I knew who to get the drugs from. But the stark truth is that I was just as lost as I was the first time I'd made that journey. Where I once felt excited, now I felt jaded and hopeless.
It's a familiar story and one that gay men's health specialist Paul Steinberg encounters on a daily basis. Steinberg has studied the spiralling HIV rates and the toxicology reports and has listened to those who have become consumed by the endless opportunities for sex and recreational drug use - the men who, like me, struggled to find the off button. To tackle the issues he is setting up a Healthy Gay Business Forum which encourages everyone to get involved in gay men's health.
'It's time that we, as a community, collectively come up with safeguards to tackle the problems,' says Steinberg. 'And everyone needs to be accountable - not just gay men, but also the gay venues and the gay organisations. If we were all content to stay in with a DVD instead of clubbing, incident rates would, of course, go down. But that's not in the interests of the gay clubs or the gay media, and nor does it help foster a sense of community. For a long time, nobody has pointed out that gay businesses have as much responsibility for gay men's health as gay men have themselves.
We can't stop the damage if we don't acknowledge its deep-rooted and multiple causes.'
Steinberg has contacted saunas, bars and clubs to create a semi-public forum in which problems can be aired in a constructive, mutually beneficial way. The event is planned for February, but is dependent upon everyone's backing. While the initial verbal response was promising, Steinberg has now been met with a deafening silence.
'This isn't about blaming anyone,' stresses Steinberg. 'But we have to understand that gay men can't do this on their own. The gay market is extremely powerful and has an enormous influence on our lives. It is also in the interests of gay venues to deal with the problem. If they have healthy customers, then they are going to return, which is good for business. We all need to work on this together or it will continue to get worse and the most vulnerable people in our community will suffer.'
As we prepare to enter 2012, it's time for gay men to truly 'man up' and start looking out for one another. Being proactive is the only way forward. Gay bars and clubs displaying posters banning GHB is simply not enough, not when people have little problem finding the drug inside the venues. Promising to provide condoms and then running out of supplies is unacceptable. We can't go on ignoring the kind of self-destructive behaviour that damages our health and takes our lives. We are all stakeholders in our community and we are now at a crisis point. Only by working together can we ensure our survival.
Pace, London's leading charity promoting mental health and emotional wellbeing for LGBT people, offers a range of counselling services. If you're affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact them. What better way to start 2012 than by taking control of your life?
PACE can be contacted on 7700 1323. www.pacehealth.org.uk