This is Part 3 of a BuzzFeed News Series.
Part 1: Revealed: How Racism, Meth, and Sex Are Combining To Destroy Queer Black Lives.
Part 2: This Is Why Queer People Of Color Are Becoming Addicted To Meth And Sex
Ask for help. That is the message given to people with addictions — that this single act is the most transformative, when finally you can benefit from the support of others.
But what if the help is blighted because the people you turn to are, at best, subconsciously racist?
Kenneth is a black gay veteran of Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings in West Hollywood. “These beautiful, young black men come in,” he says, “and they get sexualized.” The others, mostly white and gay, will “gravitate towards them,” he says — his mocking tone suggesting otherwise — and “want to help them.”
Instead, some of the white members will find revealing pictures of the new attendee, from Grindr or one of the other hookup apps, and circulate them.
“I’ve seen people trade pics and pass them on — shown everybody — so everyone sees that’s a black man with a big dick who’s two days off crystal,” he says. It is, he adds, a continuation of everything outside the room that those young men will have already experienced: “more white men being predatory.”
According to a dozen black and Latino LGBTQ people with personal or professional experience of meth, however, this is just one barrier to recovery for these communities. In the first and second parts of this series, they revealed the harm meth is doing, how it has been weaponized against them by white men, and why they were lured in.
Today, they describe what’s underneath: an entire structure embedded in American society that keeps pushing queer people of color into meth’s orbit, escalating the risk of addiction while disabling the response to the crisis — and, for many, ensuring help never comes.
For Thomas Davis, a 27-year-old dancer and former meth user, it was the reaction from white people to the deaths of two black gay men that began to typify the problems.
The bodies of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean were retrieved from the West Hollywood apartment of Ed Buck, the millionaire Democratic Party donor, in July 2017 and January 2019, respectively. Both were killed by meth overdoses, and many suspect Buck was responsible. (His lawyer did not reply when approached by BuzzFeed News for comment.) Buck is now in jail awaiting trial for a series of offenses to which he has pleaded not guilty: running a drug house, battery causing serious injury, administering meth, three counts of distributing meth, and two counts of distributing meth causing death.
But during the two years between the first death and his arrest the response from white members of the queer community, says Davis, was inaction.
“People would say, ‘Oh yeah, Ed Buck needs to be jailed,’ but when it came to it, when it came to bringing the petition to [Los Angeles County district attorney] Jackie Lacey, when it came to the rallies, when it came to showing up to town hall meetings, it wasn’t no white gay men showing up. They were nowhere to be fucking found,” he says.
What that absence did was confirm what he had long suspected: “Y’all ain’t never given a fuck about us.”
Footage of the protests that followed both deaths confirm it was black and Latino people who demanded action against Buck. Jose Ramos, founder and president of Impulse Group, an LGBTQ health organization, was one of the activists at those meetings.
“The only people that I saw were African American and maybe one or two Latinos,” he says. “Everybody else is [pulling] the blinds down. I would have thought that the community would be more upset to see bodies being carried out of a man’s house — and nothing happening [to Buck].”
Jeffrey King, a black gay community organizer, advocate, and addiction worker for the last 30 years, also protested following the death of Moore. At one point, he stood outside Buck’s apartment asking white men, in particular, white gay men, what they thought. “And they would say, ‘Well, you know, I think it’s about time something is done.’” His tone — mimicking hollow concern — foretells the rest. They did nothing.
Nor did the Los Angeles LGBT Center, America’s largest and best-funded LGBTQ organization, say Davis and others, who accuse the center of inadequately responding to both the Buck scandal and the wider meth problem among queer people of color.
The problem is partly structural, says Davis, who used to work there. “They haven’t had any type of black leadership up in high places of power, even though they’ve been called out on it before.” And so, he says, while the frontline workers “are amazing people and they really care, a lot of them feel the same way that I feel about it.”
He points to the organization not releasing a statement about the Buck scandal until after the second man, Timothy Dean, was found dead.
When BuzzFeed News requested an interview with a representative of the center — anyone qualified to discuss these issues — a spokesperson suggested the co-director of health services, who is white, but did not arrange it. Instead, the spokesperson recommended approaching other organizations.
Later, when approached for comment, the spokesperson said, "The Center provides free or low-cost addiction recovery services to everyone who needs it, which is why we are dismayed to learn that the sources interviewed for your story appear to fault our organization in this way." The spokesperson disputed the claim that its response to the meth problem among queer people of color is inadequate and cited its new facility in South LA for black and Latino gay/bi men, another for Latinx people and a wellness center for trans women of color. They also said, “40% of our senior management team are people of color.”
But other mainstream LGBTQ organizations are also inadequately targeting help for people of color, says King, who runs In the Meantime Men’s Group, a support organization in Los Angeles for black queer men. “It amazes me how such large, highly developed institutions still grab for what some people would consider to be crumbs to address the issues — but are committed to never doing anything about it.”
For Ramos, however, this is partly indicative of a wider denial. “We don’t want to see our demons inside,” he says. “And we don’t want to see the demons within our culture. We don’t want to look in the mirror. It’s not cute. We live in West Hollywood, the city of fashion and models and actors. So we don’t want that side of our story — the drug epidemic of gay culture here — to come out.”
Ramos has witnessed the ramifications of this denial spilling into his personal life too. “I had three best friends who all either committed suicide or died because of meth all within a year, about four years ago,” he says. One of them was found in a room at a bathhouse two days after overdosing — and only because a cleaner came in. Despite being in a terrible state, he was “pushed out of the bathhouse. He died in the hospital,” says Ramos. “There’s no responsibility. Nobody seems to care.”
“We don’t want to see the demons within our culture. We don’t want to look in the mirror.”
This, he fears, will ensure a rising death toll. “We’re embarrassed. We want to leave it in the closet, and in doing so it’s gaining momentum.” And whereas many regarded the allegations against Buck as an opportunity to finally broach the harm being done by meth, particularly to black and Latino queer people, his arrest has had the opposite effect.
“If anything is talked about, it’s like, ‘Ed Buck is finally in jail’ — like, ‘It’s done! Addiction is cured!’” says Davis. Even when it is discussed, he adds, it’s often laden with judgment, redolent of misunderstanding how addiction grips people. And for King, the center of gravity for the discussion — how to stop more men like Gemmel Moore from dying — is perennially skewed: “The focus becomes more on white people than it does about the very people that we're supposed to be focusing on.”
Meth abuse, therefore, is left to swell, while help to tackle it abates.
“We have gone backwards,” says King. Just when it is most needed, “We have made it difficult for people to get the treatment or services they need.” In the aughts when meth first spiked, “We helped to develop a task force here in LA County, and then all of a sudden that [response] went back down again. And a lot of that had to with funding from the county and the state.”
Latino organizations also suffered. The Wall Las Memorias Project established the Act Now Against Meth Coalition a decade ago with a 10,000-signature petition asking for help to stop more deaths. Some funds were allocated but, says Richard Zaldivar, executive director of the Wall Las Memorias Project, “the money went away.” He describes meetings with the LA County working group and the Department of Public Health as bureaucratic hot air. “They did nothing,” he says. Now, with meth resurging at alarming levels, “the county says, ‘We want to start addressing crystal meth’ — but we’re saying we need to do it more aggressively. And we need to get the community involved. We need harm reduction. We need prevention and community empowerment.”
Education regarding meth needs to plunge right into the lives of queer people of color, he says, and into their homes and families, “so that they can have conversations at … their dining room tables.”
“We can blame the Ed Bucks of this world, but there’s nowhere for our people to go to get what they need.”
But instead, all around in the fight against the drug’s proliferation, scarcity of services prevails now, says King. “We can blame the Ed Bucks of this world, but there’s nowhere for our people to go to get what they need.”
Prior to 2017, when Moore died, the law had changed, he adds, limiting how long people could stay at rehabilitation centers as well as the number of times they could be readmitted. For anyone relapsing more than twice, the doors were shut. According to data from LA County, the relapse rates are stark: for every 10 meth users admitted for treatment, only four are still abstinent after a year; after 13 years, only one is. Help needs to arrive not only once, therefore, but repeatedly.
The number of black meth users admitted for hospital treatment, meanwhile, doubled between 2008 and 2017, according to the California Department of Health Care Services. Hospital admissions for meth rose by 290% in that time, and admissions to emergency departments by 604%. Meth was cited in the toxicology reports following the sudden deaths of over 1,000 people in LA County last year, according to the LA County medical examiner — more than twice that of heroin or morphine-based drugs.
But King fears that the full picture is still not being documented — that there are deaths not being reported or recorded, with insufficient research being conducted to rectify this.
Differences in income, say former meth users who speak to BuzzFeed News, also affect how much they can mitigate its effects: those with money, a job, and property can take time off to recover and afford food, medical supplies, and therapy if necessary. Young black gay men are particularly at risk, says King, with many struggling to find employment to paying the high rents in the city, and then doing sex work to avoid homelessness: the very type of work liable to lead to meth use due to the numbers of clients demanding it.
Even those who can access help encounter a reality never intended to alienate: a scarcity of black and Latino counselors and therapists. Davis, who has been through treatment services, says he needed someone “that looks like me, that understands what it’s like to go through racism, to be sexualized and exposed to homophobia.”
Medication specifically for people with a meth addiction is also lacking, according to Manuel Rodriguez from the La Fuente Hollywood Treatment Center, particularly when they first arrive in acute states of psychiatric need, often in meth-induced psychosis. “There has been no effort from any pharmaceutical companies to come up with a solution,” he says, especially for the first five days. This contrasts with people experiencing opioid withdrawal, for which medication has been developed. The difference, suspects Rodriguez, is the populations affected: With meth, it’s disproportionately minorities and people living in poverty.
All of the above contribute to concern that meth will only spread further, fanning out through all ethnic groups and preying on the particular vulnerabilities of LGBTQ people.
King saw meth’s introduction into gay life — predominantly white West Hollywood — and, in his work with black queer men, he hears where it is heading. “Our younger people live in West Hollywood now,” he says, explaining that although many young black gay men live in Compton, Inglewood, and Crenshaw, West Hollywood is “the center of [all] LGBT life for Los Angeles now — which wasn’t the case [before].” On the weekend, he adds, you see black, white, and Latino gay men more integrated than ever and “the few black club promoters that exist for the LGBTQ community centered in West Hollywood.” The white men who for years have been introducing meth to black men, therefore, are now finding more black youngsters nearby.
In the groups King runs, he started encouraging discussion about what they had been through with meth. What kept arising, he says, was “how they found themselves in situations where they were at some guy’s house, he just happened to be white in West Hollywood, and it was a place where they could use drugs.” The situations of black men being given meth in white men’s houses are therefore “a lot more common than not.”
It is not only metropolitan areas. In his documentary, ParTy Boi, Micheal Rice captured some of the devastation meth was causing black gay men, mostly in New York and Los Angeles, in 2017, the year Gemmel Moore died. But since then, Rice has traveled across the country and witnessed a ripple effect.
“When I toured smaller cities like Jackson, Mississippi, the rural areas of Alabama,” he says, “they would tell me that it became so popular that the white johns [who often gave meth on to black men in exchange for sex] were no longer needed and black boys were coming out to smaller communities in rural areas and hosting sex parties and introducing it. Now you have black folks within their own communities selling it, distributing it, and promoting it themselves. It has spread all over.”
And in Brooklyn, meth has been finding new markets through alarming new methods. “Dealers have been crushing crystal meth and inserting it into weed that they roll up,” says Rice. “And they have also been putting doses of meth and liquid G [GHB, the illegal anesthetic drug] into lubrication and shaking it up. Then when they get people who are not familiar with meth, they’re inserting it anally and getting that person high — fucked up — and those same people end up becoming their clients.”
Such methods find the most vulnerable. “We’re seeing younger demographics, particularly Gen Z [teenagers] becoming affected,” says Rice. He recounts what happened to a 19-year-old black gay homeless man he had been mentoring.
“He met a guy on Grindr who invited him to his house, but when he went there, the guy also sold meth,” Rice says. When they began having sex, the teenager found himself drifting in and out of consciousness in a “dream state.” “He knew something was wrong, and next thing he knew he was already at this house for four days having sex with him and multiple of his friends. He just got out of high school and his first introduction into the gay world — into sex — was through this.”
On the gay section of Pornhub, the world’s most-watched porn site, a search of “meth” brings up over 900 videos. In these, the practice of slamming (injecting) is itself sexualized and, through its focus within the video, fetishized. So too is the smoking of meth — clouds swirling in front of faces, half cloaking naked bodies, intoxicating the performer directly and the viewer indirectly. The act of imbibing becomes entwined with arousal. Sex equals meth.
Davis has seen this mist descending on those close to him. One of the first men with whom he used meth “was one of those people that said he would never shoot up,” says Davis, but “now he not only shoots up but watches videos, porn, of people shooting up.” He has noticed too how slamming and smoking have moved into live adult webcamming. Innumerable men across America and the rest of the world now watch each other take meth while having sex or masturbating. “It’s this whole thing,” he says, “where it’s another way to connect with other people that are doing what you’re doing.”
On apps too — today’s primary tool for queer men to connect — crystal emojis proliferate. To escape meth entirely, then, means avoiding all dating apps and pornography.
But there is a path out of meth’s clutches — for some.
The Van Ness Recovery House is the only LGBTQ residential rehabilitation center in Los Angeles that treats people regardless of their ability to pay. It opened in 1973 — before homosexuality was decriminalized — and has fire-fought meth for years, treating its invasion into white gay men and then everyone else. Distinct from the empty halls of many 12-step meetings, the house on Hollywood’s North Beachwood Drive, with its squishy sofas and imposing hearth, conjures homeliness.
Kathy Watt has been its executive director since the 1990s. She speaks slowly and gently — and of her clients, almost maternally.
She begins where King left off: the clipping of rehab access, a change that threatened the future of the center. But in 2017, it was overturned by LA County. She says, “The drug and alcohol office said, ‘We want to be a leader in this [rehab provision].’”
Now, Medi-Cal — the program providing free health coverage for those with low incomes — has introduced Drug Medi-Cal, which enables people already eligible for Medi-Cal to use addiction treatment services such as Van Ness. “Our program is six months,” she says, before explaining why that duration is important: The meth-induced spikes of dopamine lead to a withdrawal in which the brain no longer creates this neurotransmitter, drastically inhibiting the ability to feel good. “It takes up until about six months after the drug for your body to start producing it again,” she says. By the time residents leave, therefore, they have a chance.
But it is what happens at the center that unlocks the first door to recovery. When queer men arrive addicted to meth, she makes them do something entirely alien: Along with art and writing therapy programs, she says, “I created these five pages of words — emotions — that they have to use five times a day to talk about how they’re feeling.”
“Many of them have lots of trauma, and lots of sexual trauma, childhood sexual abuse that they’ve never talked about.”
How many clients are accustomed to describing their feelings? “None,” she says. The effect is an outpouring. “An enormous amount of crying. We could be working with someone in a group, but eight of them could be crying at one time — which is great because you know they’ve got similar things going on. Most of the time, it’s not empathy tears. It’s identified tears.” They recognize the same damage.
There are other common denominators.
“Many of them have lots of trauma, and lots of sexual trauma, childhood sexual abuse that they’ve never talked about,” she says. “So when they’re having anonymous sex, secret sex, they’re repeating a pattern of sexual behavior that they’re learned many, many years ago. That’s where a lot of our treatment starts. We say, ‘Where did this pattern that is seemingly so familiar for you start?’
“Most are grateful to talk about it, because most of the men that end up here have been in treatment multiple times before and haven’t stayed sober.” From there comes a strange new life where, without meth or apps, they have to approach other men and talk in person. “It makes communication a part of connecting.”
Watt was the only white person at some of the meetings and protests about Ed Buck. She knows Jeffrey King and the work he does. What is needed now, she says, is more culturally competent treatment and providers. In other words, a replication of her and King’s work: one that’s both psychological and social, that understands the depths below — not only, she says, understanding men, black men, gay men, but also mental health, internalized homophobia, the effect of HIV on the person, and sometimes the effect of aging. “If it was just ‘get them sober and have them stay sober,’ it’d be easier. But it’s about how you help them connect with their soul that’s been lost, their heart that’s been lost.”
She begins to talk about older white gay men. The ones with money, sitting in their West Hollywood apartments, loading up on meth, bringing young black men to their homes for sex and more meth. Both groups can end up at Van Ness.
“No one ever stays at the top,” she says. “Their drug use continues and goes downhill, and then they become the guy that’s getting used. It doesn’t care how much money you have. If you get hooked on it, it’s going to take you to your knees.”
The only difference is velocity. “The guys on the street will hit bottom faster,” she says. So many young black men have told Watt their stories — of going to West Hollywood to find a man to “take care of them” only to be used and harmed — that there was nothing surprising in the Buck scandal that alerted the world to the surface of this.
“I could name 40 Ed Bucks. There’s probably one condo in every apartment building in West Hollywood where this is happening.”
“I could name 40 Ed Bucks,” she says, explaining that they have all been described to her. “There’s probably one condo in every apartment building in West Hollywood where this is happening.”
Watt saw it coming. In the late 1990s, after combination therapy transformed HIV treatment, when gay life became more possible for some, and sex an escape from the death all around, she saw white gay men “circling the street, picking these [black and Latino] guys up, getting whatever sex, and then dropping them off.” It seemed clear to her what was happening, although no one wanted to describe it.
“I saw it as an abuse of power,” she says. “I was going to write a book about it — how it felt like within the gay community we had re-created slavery. Our own community doing this to each other.”
Twenty years on, meth and cellphones and the internet entwined with increased inequality, greater detachment, and more people coming out. People think being gay is easier now, she says. “I think there’s more gay kids having a hard time. There’s more homeless LGBT youth, more youth of color.”
But there has never been the same increase in services, she says. Young queer black men will therefore continue to be lured into meth’s jaws. It might be the closest feeling to happiness available. “And then,” she says, “you’re back out in the cold again, looking for the next [hit].”
No treatment service can cure the causes of this addiction, however. Nor the twin sickness of racism and homophobia. Instead, like all secret abuse, only one response can begin to protect others.
“Believe what we’re saying,” says Thomas Davis as he stands on Santa Monica Boulevard waiting for his cab. His voice tightens, still grieving for his friends and for all that was taken from him.
“Believe us.” ●