The facts are relatively straight forward. A man is found dead at a space known for hosting “private parties” for gay men. It’s not clear how he died and no one seems to be talking. Reporters can’t even seem to figure out how to find the owner of the townhouse where the parties are held.
That’s the challenge for Washington, D.C. local media covering the death two weeks ago of a man at the “Men’s Party” house in the heart of the D.C.’s gay neighborhood Logan Circle. So how has it been covered?
The LGBT press, with fewer resources and focused on the National Equality March, have given limited coverage. A story in the Washington Blade gave the basic details. MetroWeekly has provided even less, largely relying on blogs and D.C.’s alternative newspaper.
The bulk of the reporting has been done by Amanda Hess at the Washington City Paper. Hess has filed at least four stories on the alternative weekly’s Sexist blog about the death on Oct. 4. She’s covered a neighborhood commission meeting, reported on the police report, and tried to track down the owner of the building.
The man’s injury was sustained during the regular activities of the club, which include nightly gay sex events called “Men’s Parties,” as well as meetings of the “Jack Off Enthusiasts of Washington and Baltimore.” The accident has drawn public scrutiny over the private meetings, as well as a defense: Following the death, the club’s organizer told police that his establishment provides “a safe place for gay men to have consensual sex.”
How does a club meant to provide a “safe place” end up hosting a member’s death? By working off a creative definition of “safe.”
At Men’s Parties, safety doesn’t mean ensuring that the apartment’s stairs, surfaces, and exposed metal pipes provide a secure sexual landscape for party attendees. It doesn’t even mean encouraging members to engage in protected sex. At 1618 14th St., “safe” means ensuring anonymous sex for a group of gay men sporting wedding rings, sensitive careers, or shame.
For a “men’s social club,” the regularly scheduled activities included little socializing. “There is very little to none, in terms of conversation,” says one visitor to the club, who says he has attended Men’s Parties over a dozen times in the past six years. “Everything is kept strictly anonymous. No one asks for phone numbers, and no one ever really leaves with someone else,” he says. “People come there, do their business, and leave.” The club reinforced the anonymity with a cover of darkness. “The steps leading down to the basement floor were very, very dark,” he says. “I think your eyes, under normal circumstances, could adjust. However, the place was still very dark and the steps were very steep.”
Despite some overheated prose, Hess provides an interesting glimpse into a side of LGBT life that often doesn’t get reported outside of the LGBT press (and even then, fairly rarely). Hess also took a swing at the Blade for being protective of the identity of those involved with the infamous Men’s Party.
Twelve dollars may be a bit pricey for stale pretzels, but it’s a small price to pay for anonymity. And no one has benefited from the club’s secrecy more than its organizers. In a 2005 item on the fire, the Blade declined to print the organizer’s name because “he is not openly gay at his regular place of work.” The Oct. 4 death prompted the Blade to get a little bit more specific: “The organizer of the men’s parties…asked that he be identified only as David.” Even the run-down conditions of the club may have benefited the organizers. “A lot of people, gay and straight, don’t know the place exists,” says the partygoer. “Among those that do, there is such shame attached to go to the place—not because of the sex, but because it is so dirty, grimy, smelly—that most don’t talk about it openly.”
The story has also gotten play on local blogs, including Borderstan. The only mainstream press coverage of the death was done by WRC-NBC4. The TV crew interviewed neighbors about what they knew about the events going on in the building.
There is no question that a story about a death at a sex party is a story that requires careful handling because the risks of sensationalizing it are great. It’s also a difficult story to cover because everyone is so, well, anonymous about anonymous sex. But it’s still a story that needs to be told to determine how the man died and whether the “hosts” of the party are liable. It will be interesting to see if the Washington Post ultimately latches onto the story and how the LGBT press will continue to monitor it.
Journalists need to ask hard questions, even if it may result in a less-than-flattering look at the LGBT community. Fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues sometimes means asking about what happens at venues like this and whether problems exist.