Kiki: “A party including good music and good friends, held for the express purpose of calming nerves, reducing anxiety and stress and generally fighting ennui. May involve locked doors, tea and salacious gossip.” (Urban Dictionary)
As an openly gay man and member of the LGBT community, I will happily admit that life throws very few challenges my way, especially in comparison to the trials the martyrs and ones who fought against social injustice faced before me.
It is because of the bravery of those people, that I know that I will not be discriminated against in the workplace, in the housing market, I can marry whomever I fall in love with, I can start a family with that man, I can live a joyous, content and conventional life.
It is not only gay or bisexual people who have seen massive strides in equality. Transgender and gender non-binary people have seen gender neutrality being widely adopted in more liberal environments. Many universities and LGBT venues now offer gender-neutral bathrooms.
One would be mistaken, therefore, assuming we were living in a golden age for queer people. As with any civil rights movement, there is still progress to be made on all fronts, both domestically and internationally.
Australia, for example, a country that is perceived as extremely tolerant has only just passed a bill legalising same-sex marriage after the results of a non-binding referendum came back in favour.
The last 50 years have been a turbulent half-century for queer people, as our timeline illustrates.
The predominance of drugs within the LGBT community is one of the most worrying issues facing queer people. In recent years, it has almost become accepted that gay men can attend weekend long chemsex parties.
Where excess is celebrated and methamphetamines (referred to as meth, crystal or Tina), mephedrone (Mkat) and GHB/GHL (simply shorted to G, but more commonly known as the date rape drug).
While the other two are powders, GHB/GBL is normally taken as a liquid, diluted in a drink, and has similar properties to being intoxicated on alcohol. Users are required to measure doses and time the period between consumption to avoid poisoning themselves.
It seems like a cliche to being this particular tale with “It was a warm summer morning, mid-August…” but that is exactly what it was. That particular Sunday morning was one of those where you wake feeling stifled, almost suffocated by the humidity and there is only a handkerchief-sized section of bed linen covering your body. I had to rise, the chances of a leisurely morning were dashed by the brutality of a rare glorious London morning.
I shower, constantly having to adjust the temperature. The first one to wash in the morning always had to be vigilant for sporadic changes in water temperatures as the fatiguing gas boiler prepared itself for the day ahead.
Skin care, serums and moisturiser are applied while sitting at my desk. The window in front of me, although clean on the inside, was awash with pollutants and dust from the outside. Regardless, it let the August haze filter through, and let me look out. It was not much of a view, a south-east London council estate green, but a view all the same.
Grindr has a complete monopoly as a dating app (or more commonly used as a hook-up tool) among gay men. Its premise is simple, any man within a certain distance will be shown on a grid on the screen, from then, you can choose to message any of them for whatever purpose one wishes.
Anyone who has known the app will know the notification tone of Grindr. On that very morning, a flurry of messages came in from the same location, notifying me with the familiar jingle. Messages of “you free?”, “how are you this morning?” and then the more interesting “want to come to a chill out party?”
I had always heard of chill out parties but never received an invitation to one.
My interest was piqued. But it was 11:00am and I could not help but wonder what state of despair these men would be in. Eventually, I agreed, after much persuasion by profiles with varying levels of anonymity and sculpted torsos.
I found the venue, a modest flat in Borough. It was the middle of summer and yet the heating was on, perspiration formed on my forehead almost instantly. The room had that distinctive smell of ‘sweaty teenager’, I couldn’t help but think of the changing rooms for PE in my state secondary school; they looked like they’d not been redecorated since the 1980s and certainly smelt like it. This flat had that particular odour.
I knew there were going to be narcotics there, I was not naive to that fact, but I was surprised at the sheer amount of powders and liquids being offered and consumed so flippantly. Lines of methamphetamine and mephedrone were being passed around on black marble plates, empty bottles of GBH strewn on the kitchen counter.
The sex. In every room. I am not prudent when it comes to sex, however, walking into any room of this two bedroom abode and seeing group sex, it was enough to shock most people observing a chemsex party for the first time.
I had seen all I had needed to see and spoken to enough of the attendees, a journalist and a PR spin doctor included; I had seen enough to realise that these excesses cannot be positive for anyone going to these events or the community as a whole.
In light of this, I decided to delve further into the secretive and problematic world, especially as it is something that until recently, seemed to be almost totally unknown to heterosexual people.
I spoke to Monty Moncrieff, the Chief Executive of LGBT health and wellbeing charity, London Friend. I asked about the history of this scene. “Sex parties themselves are nothing new and have been organised by both gay and straight people for many years. We started hearing about the specific trend of what’s now understood as a chemsex party in the late 2000s.”
Gay and bi men seeking support for their drug and alcohol use started reporting the same patterns of behaviours. Groups of three or more men meeting, usually at weekends, sometimes for two or three days, and using one or more of three chemsex-related drugs: crystal meth, GHB/GBL, and mephedrone.”
I press the issue of methamphetamines, as it widely known to be an extremely harmful substance and one, before that day, I had never seen taken without consideration of the implications. “Crystal meth had been used in other parts of the world and was highly problematic on the gay scene and in society as a whole, but in the UK we hadn’t seen much use of it. Today, use of crystal here is mostly limited to gay men in a chemsex setting.”
He continues to tell me about GHB/GBL and mephedrone, the two other substances used predominantly in chemsex parties. “GHB had been used for a time, but users switched to GBL after it was made illegal. GBL is similar but stronger and longer lasting. It’s now also illegal. Mephedrone was one of the so-called ‘legal highs’ that emerged around 2008, with a different chemical structure to illicit drugs but mimicking their effects.”
The fact that GBL and mephedrone were, for a time, available to buy legally led to many people switching from other drugs like cocaine and ecstasy, although the fact that the purity of those drugs had dropped also played a part in people seeking alternatives. The three drugs became linked with sex, and their use to facilitate and enhance sex became known as chemsex.”
Tom Jenkins, also works for a charity called Nightlife Outreach that works with young people and the LGBT community to combat mental health and substance abuse. He spoke to me about his first-hand experience with chemsex parties and the highly detrimental effect they had on his life.
“I used to work at a bar on the scene and was pretty quickly introduced to chemsex. The fact it was so easy, so laid back, and with no obvious consequences was amazing. Soon you couldn’t have sex without drugs and you couldn’t have drugs without sex,” he says. “They became intertwined but still attractive. Hook up apps just increased the ease at which to meet people and soon it became a regular occurrence.”
Dating and hook up apps are very modern components of a gay culture. Grindr has an almost complete monopoly on the market, with niche or specialist competitors like Chappy or Scruff claiming what market share is left.
However, I could not help but wonder, as these seem as gateways to harmful drug taking, whether applications like this should be regulated.
“We have to be careful not to demonise the apps; in many ways, they’re just the new version of contact ads in the paper or the lonely hearts columns, a way to meet people. It’s down to the individual using them to decide what they’re going to do, and many will indicate they don’t want to do chems or hook-ups or are looking to meet for an old-fashioned date.”
The app providers all have policies on not allowing drug references, but of course we often see people getting around this with coded language like H&H for ‘high and horny’, or ‘3 guys chilling’, indicating there’s a party happening there. We’d like to see more engagement from the app providers to work with community organisations who can do some good work with guys around their health and wellbeing,” I am told by Moncrieff.
“All the parties and meet-ups I ever took part in were organised through hook up apps. I think its one of the big dangers of the modern world; the ability to just download an app and find someone, meet up and have sex, without any interaction or safety check. As David Stuart from 56 Dean Street once said: ‘There’s something about our relationship to our sex; that’s causing harm and needs addressing’,” Jenkins concurred.
Gay dating and hook up apps provide the opportunity for your LGBT youth gain access to no string sexual hookups. It provides access to drugs, chemsex, as well as group meetings and the danger cannot be overstated.
Regulating this industry won’t help; we need to look at the root cause of what is fuelling this epidemic. The social and mental health reasons behind this surge in HIV/STD cases related to chemsex and casual hookups. Only when we look at why young LGBT people are engaging in these activities can we truly start to try and reduce the problem.”
I asked Moncrieff whether the impact of chemsex parties was wholly negative, or whether they could have a positive influence on the community.
“This is exactly what most people tell us they’re looking for when they first get involved. A chemsex session can be very intimate and bonding and lots of people feel they meet and connect with other guys this way. The risk is really when things start getting out of hand or causing other problems like missing work, relationship tensions, money, other health issues. The sad thing is that many people who go on to have a problem with drugs don’t realise this until it’s too late, or if they do they don’t know what to do about it.”
Jenkins, speaking from his own experience, had a much stronger view on the matter. “I don’t think it has any positive impacts. I think there are some fake positives, where you believe whilst you’re involved that it’s improving your social standing or self-worth, but in fact, it’s just damaging and destructive,” he tells me.
“I think really; thinking back on it, it was always destructive. But to start with, you kind of just go along with it. You don’t realise the damage it’s causing or the way it’s affecting you. So for a year or so, you think its great. You become popular; you have great nights out, everyone wants to be your friend. It’s only after about a year you start to see the downside. The fact that it’s all fake. Your relationships aren’t real and people are just using you for drugs, money or sex. You start to realise that all you’ve been doing is destroying yourself.”
The subject of consent is one that is reported frequently in the media. From Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and the #MeToo campaign. In UK law it is set out simply that sex without consent is classified as either rape or sexual assault.
However, within an environment where lines are blurred and judgement is inhibited such as a chemsex party, is consent still given. “The troubling issue with consent is it depends if you look at it legally or morally. Legally, you cant give consent if you aren’t of sound mind; high on drugs,” Jenkins says.
“However this becomes more complicated if the people consented prior to taking drugs; where the line is drawn between what can be judged to be acceptable if, for instance, they go under on GHB.
It’s a question the Crown Prosecution Service raised last year as a concern for vulnerable adults, and my advice would be simple, don’t ever put yourself in a position where you don’t know or understand what is happening; even if you consented previously.”
Drugs used by gay or bisexual men and women are notably higher than their heterosexual counterparts. Moncrieff tells me, quoting data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales from 2014, that “33 per cent of gay and bi men had used an illicit drug in the past year, compared to 11 per cent of straight men. For lesbian and bi women it was 22 per cent compared with five for straight women.”
Continuing on, going into the depth of the sociological reasons why this could be. “There are many factors that could be behind this: a lot of LGBT socialising is in bars and clubs, and that’s also where many of us start exploring our identities and meeting other LGBT people so alcohol and other drugs are around from the start. People might also use or drink to cope with things like prejudice and discrimination – so-called ‘self-medicating’ is common. Also, LGBT people are usually less likely to have other responsibilities like childcare, which is perhaps the biggest thing that slows most people’s youthful partying days down.”
Following this up with Jenkins, I wanted to know what substance he was taking while participating. In a frank manner, he says, “I took both Meth, GHB, Mkat, and Ketamine as well as a few other drugs not normally used in the LGBT scene. GHB, Mkat, and Meth are the most commonly used drugs on the gay scene; with their stimulating and sensory heightening effects increasing the sexual experience of young gay people, as well as the lowered inhibitions that encourage one-off sexual contact.”
“I think that substance use in the LGBT community is far more accepted than elsewhere; and is in danger of becoming a lifestyle choice. Issues around self-esteem, coming out and sexuality are common problems for the LGBT community and drug use helps suppress these issues and allow people to ignore issues affecting their mental wellbeing. This leads to a huge rise in drug and alcohol misuse, from a community that is suffering from a lack of self-belief in its own identity.”
It is common knowledge that drugs are harmful, the most recent data from the Office of Nation Statistics show 3,744 people died from consuming fatal amounts of both illegal and legal drugs, 160 of which were due to amphetamines such as methamphetamines and 123 from new psychoactive substances which include mephedrone and GHB/GBL.
“We don’t fully know the long-term impacts, but all drugs have the potential to have serious negative health impacts,” Moncrieff answers when I asked about the long-term effects.
“Probably the most concerning aspect is the impact on mental health. Crystal meth and mephedrone are both strong stimulants, so can keep the user awake for several days. That impact of not sleeping can have effects such as agitation, paranoia, delusions or even psychosis. It certainly feels as though these issues have become more common in the decade or so we’ve been working with chemsex. GHB/GBL has the potential to become physically dependent, in much the same way as heroin or high amounts of alcohol would. We’ve seen people taking it every couple of hours, just to avoid what can be a dangerous withdrawal. If anyone is using that frequently it’s important they don’t just try to stop, but get medical support to do so.”
There are other dangers associated with GHB/GBL. “The other risk with GHB/GBL is an overdose. You only need a very small amount to have the euphoric effect people are seeking, a little too much and you can pass out, or even die. We saw an increase in GHB/GBL related deaths in clubs and at parties over a few years, and it was the main drug linked to the murders and sexual assaults carried out by Stephen Port.”
Stephen Port, known as ‘The Grindr Killer’, was found guilty of murdering four men, ten offences of administering substance with intent, four of rape and four of sexual assault. He received a life sentence.
It is not just the risk of drug-related harm that can plague men indulging in chemsex. STIs and HIV can also be a risk.
“Research from Public Health England has shown an association between chemsex activity and the transmission of HIV and other STIs. It’s thought that chemsex played a role in the numbers of new HIV infections increasing in gay and bi men for many years. People tell us that either they don’t, or forget, to use condoms during chemsex, although research by Sigma for The Chemsex Study also found groups of men who planned their chemsex use well, and regularly used condoms, so it’s a complex picture,” Moncrieff tells me.
“The nature of HIV prevention has changed too. Since PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) has been available HIV risk can be vastly reduced for men who are HIV negative and having sex without a condom, and increased testing and earlier treatment means men who do test positive and are on treatment cannot pass the virus on. We know that plenty of men who are engaged in chemsex are choosing these newer ways of protecting themselves and others against HIV, and we’ve seen a significant drop in new HIV infections, particularly in London. There’s an indication in early figures from the 56 Dean Street clinic that some STIs might be falling, which could be because people who are on PrEP or under the care of an HIV clinic are getting tested for these more often, so this could help with earlier identification and treatment for these.”
I wanted to ask Jenkins about his view on the risk, as he was someone who had personally experienced the scene. “At the time, HIV or STD’s didn’t even cross my mind. I wouldn’t even worry about the implications of unsafe sex with strangers. The danger was kind of exciting. And with the drugs, your inhibitions just disappeared; I would do things I would never even think about doing when sober. I think that’s one of the most dangerous things; the idea that you can make one stupid mistake and it will affect the rest of your life. After I stopped doing drugs; I learned that one of my friends had caught HIV from a sex party that was organised on Grindr. He was high, took loads of Mkat and GHB and then woke up to find he’d caught HIV. The idea that he won’t ever recover from that stupid mistake; it should make us all stop and think.”
It would be foolish to believe that there will be a time when no one dies from drugs, where simulating highs or mellow lows can be experienced in safety and without fear of macabre endings.
While it is a worrying trend of increased drug use in the LGBT community, it is understandable why. Minorities will always face challenges in life, and drugs can offer a welcome escape from these. The irony, however, it that these only lead to greater challenges.
If there is anything I have learned from talking to these men, is that support is out there when the blurred lines between fun and danger are crossed. Both London Friend and Nightlife Outreach, based in London and Birmingham respectively, can assist in giving information and support and helping people take control back.
Featured image by Cristian C via Flickr CC.