4 min

Dance till you drop

Is there such a thing as circuit sickness?

DANCING QUEENS. Partying hard can take a toll on your body and leave you open to whatever bugs are circulating through the crowd. Credit: Xtra files

Imagine a regular Sunday afternoon at the local coffee shop. The sun is shining, the lattes are flowing and most everyone is cruising. Enter the hottie.

It’s someone you’ve been watching in the clubs and he’s got all the trappings of a circuit boy – the muscles, the hair and the strangely indefatigable stamina. In the usual Sunday mating dance, you linger by the milk, waiting to make contact. Yet, when he opens his mouth, out tumbles a harsh, wet cough. If there were a record playing, it would have scratched to a halt.

Winter in the city brings a time of colds and flu, but surprisingly little rest in the party scene. With the arrival of several new club nights and new clubs in Toronto, now there’s even more choice in the city for those queers who dance ’til dawn and think sleep is for the weak.

Queer culture, long bar-oriented, makes for some hard-core partying and that can take a toll on one’s health.

“I’m impressed that more stuff doesn’t go around,” says Jeff Harrison, a Toronto-based journalist and veteran server at Zelda’s.

With the social circle of a bartender and the observation skills of a writer, Harrison has observed some party scene trends. In particular, he’s seen rituals develop to help keep partiers in good health – physically, at least.

“They might kind of lose their heads while they’re on it, but they’re definitely very sensible before they do it and after in making sure that they’re taking precautions,” Harrison says. Those precautions include multi-vitamins, nap time and herbal remedies.

Club-goer Charles Pavia offers another perspective. “I think often, however, party boys are more concerned about image than health.” Buff doesn’t necessarily mean fit, he adds.

If club boys have a reputation for being buff and perpetually shirtless, they also have a rep for casual physical affection.

“Generally speaking, we’re a very affectionate group of people,” says Harrison. “So there’s always a lot of kissing and hugging and always a lot of contact.”

Rita Shahin, an associate medical officer at Toronto Public Health, says all that necking can mean bugs are being passed through the crowd. “In the winter there are so many viruses going around and in a community with so much contact with each other it’s not unusual to see them passed on.”

Outbreaks facilitated by close contact or sexual contact are hardly unknown to the community. Aside from HIV/AIDS, other infectious diseases have made queer headlines in recent years. Meningitis unexpectedly popped up in Toronto bathhouses in the summer of 2001, infecting five men and killing two of them. According to Shahin, the disease normally hits teenagers, so the occurrence among men older than 20 seemed suspicious. Closer study revealed links to bathhouse visits and so Toronto Public Health set up vaccination clinics in the community.

In Los Angeles, antibiotic- resistant staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) infections have been linked to bathhouses and circuit parties, though so far this hasn’t hit the Toronto scene.

Jeffrey Wulffhart, a Toronto-based family doctor, says it’s sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that bring the circuit boys to his door – and some of them can be spread without sex.

“In the circuit boys I see lots of scabies because they’re all rubbing their bodies together,” he explains.

Pavia says he’s seen a lot more than rubbing on the dancefloor. “They’ve run the gamut from simply exchanging numbers or leaving the club with someone, to making out, to far more explicit acts squeezed into, or maybe out on, the dancefloor.”

John Goodhew, also a family doctor in Toronto, says he too is seeing a lot of STDs among his club-going patients. “We should all be yelling syphilis,” says Goodhew, referring to the recent jump in syphilis infection rates in the city.

Goodhew’s advice for those in the scene? “I hate to sound like my mother, but it really comes down to moderation,” he says. “If you’re going to stress your body you need to give it time to recover.”

Wulffhart advises much the same, with a laugh. “Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs.”

Meanwhile, the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) is bringing advice and information to the party. With a desk surrounded by boxes and piles of harm reduction materials, Elmer Bagares, gay men’s outreach coordinator at ACT, is up to his elbows tackling these queer health issues – literally.

“We do a lot of outreach around Unity and Pride and the circuit parties and clubs,” Bagares explains. Previous outreach has included harm-reduction posters in clubs and on the website. Bagares emphasizes that outreach needs to be holistic.

“It’s not just the health consequences, it’s the social consequences, the emotional, the community consequences,” Bagares says. “What is this doing to the community?

“One of the things that we want to try and re-instill is the community ethos,” Bagares says. ACT’s research data, focus groups and community forums have made it a clearinghouse for health information in the queer community.

Those laying faith in city health authorities take note: Toronto Public Health doesn’t have any staff dedicated to the party scene or to queers. Shahin says the inherent diversity of Toronto’s queer population makes it hard to track health trends.

“It’s not a community that is easily identifiable,” she explains. “It’s not housed in an institution or going to a particular physician’s office.”

Instead of focussing on people or communities, Toronto Public Health focusses on a group of about 60 “reportable” diseases, ranging from STDs to respiratory conditions. The organization stepped in during the meningitis outbreak and is helping to fight the current syphilis explosion, but it relies on doctors to report health trends. The response depends largely on the actual illness and its scope in the community.

“We would investigate to see what’s going on,” says Shanin. “It depends on the disease and whether there are any interventions that can be done.”

Wulffhart says that queer doctors share information about trends in the party scene through lesbian and gay doctors’ associations at the provincial and international levels. In the meantime, health issues in the queer party scene are monitored by doctors and individuals.

Pavia is one club-goer who is taking responsibility for his own inner and outer health. “I believe life in moderation is the healthiest choice,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think we don’t spend enough time perceiving what’s under the surface.”