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By Michael Roberts
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Many of them did not use condoms.
Rod's online profile stated that he was HIV-positive, and he only hooked up with guys who were at least in their thirties. "I kinda justified it in my own head that it would be okay if it was someone who was over 35, because they'd already been through the first wave and knew how to protect themselves," Rod says. "In Denver, it's like the military policy: Don't ask, don't tell." Before he penetrated someone, Rod put on a condom. But when he was on the receiving end, he didn't always ask the other man to use one.
Rod tried to clean up his act again. He got an apartment and a job -- then relapsed and lost it all.
Finally, in 2003, after a several-day binge, he found himself at ARTS, which he'd heard about through the Colorado AIDS Project. And at ARTS, he met Bob, who'd been watching meth decimate the gay community.
"Meth does not discriminate," Bob says. "It's getting into white-collar, highly professional socio-economic circles. People who have been committed to each other for a very long time who have not done drugs have been introduced to this drug. Meth is so unique because it creeps. It creeps from the highly professional to the white collar to the blue collar to the guy who's living on public assistance.
"This drug is different from other drugs," he continues. "Crack cocaine has generally stayed within the inner-city populations. It didn't creep out to the suburbs, it didn't go up the economic food chain. Meth has creeped into suburban worlds. Mommies are using it for weight control, and other people are using it as a sexual-advancing drug, better than Viagra."
And meth definitely had a hold on Rod. After meeting with Bob, he found another job waiting tables at a restaurant downtown, but relapsed within a few weeks. The pattern continued for months. After a frustrating day at work, Rod would find a party online, then hit a gay bathhouse and binge on sex and meth for four or five days without sleep. By the time the binge ended, his job had, too.
In September 2004, Rod relapsed yet again: He went to a meth house, met a guy and partied on sex and drugs for a week. "It was a really bad stint," he remembers.
He'd been living in a friend's basement; when he finally returned home, the friend kicked him out. Rod was homeless for a while, and then another friend allowed him to spend the night at his house -- but required Rod to be out of the home during the day. To burn daylight, Rod returned to ARTS. He began aggressively participating in the rehabilitation treatment and started attending twelve-step meetings.
Rod hasn't smoked meth in more than two years. But giving up the drug didn't solve all his problems. Back to waiting tables, he felt like his life didn't matter. "Why did I get sober?" he wondered. "Was it for this? Please tell me it wasn't for this."
And then Bob called.
Bob Dorshimer has always cheered for the underdog, both in his professional and personal life. As Rod was getting off meth for good in 2004, Bob was adopting a second son -- the child of a teenage mother in Nebraska who was hooked on meth. Bob knew that kids with special needs like this boy were the least likely to be adopted, the underdogs. He seemed a perfect addition to the family.
The adoption was finalized when Bob heard that the director's job was open at Denver's Office of Drug Strategy. He decided he wanted to be Denver's first gay drug czar -- and his friends gave "the queen" a tiara at a celebration party after he got the job.
The Office of Drug Strategy coordinates city policies with the anti-drug efforts coming out of the White House, covering drug prevention for everyone from kindergartners to the elderly and linking local agencies with funding opportunities. When Bob took over, he looked at all the stats involving meth abuse and saw that the gay community was particularly vulnerable.
"Meth affects people the same, but when meth targets one subgroup of people it really deteriorates the social network of that subgroup," he explains. "It's penetrating within multiple social networks. As a gay man, it's hard now to know someone who hasn't done it or at least tried it."
Talking with Dr. Mark Thrun, director of HIV Prevention at Denver Health, Bob realized that there was a legitimate concern that HIV infections in the city would increase because of the meth epidemic. "It's a different emotional situation," Thrun says. "It's challenging for people to come out about their HIV status because they fear rejection from their potential partners. So they use meth, they get disinhibited and they don't worry about having to come out about their HIV status or having to use a condom."
A recent survey of 981 gay men in Denver found that 11 percent had used meth within the past year -- about ten times the state's overall rate of meth use. And Colorado's meth usage is about double the national rate, which experts at least partly attribute to the ease of getting the drug that flows up from Mexico on I-25.