YBOR CITY — Nightlife was meant for escape, and the expanding hub of gay clubs on Ybor's west end is no exception. Inside places with sexy names like Steam and Engine, worries fade into pumping rhythms and strong shots. It's easy to let go, to feel invincible, until the reminders come into view: The fishbowl of condoms by the restroom door. The mobile testing unit parked outside. The pamphlets and signs with the scary statistics — one out of 22 gay and bisexual men in Hillsborough County is infected with HIV. These and other efforts abound to keep the disease from spreading in Tampa Bay, as the entertainment stretch along Seventh Avenue increasingly positions itself as a gay district. At the forefront are men who know the dangers all too well.
David Karst faces a challenge every night the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas drives a mobile testing unit into Ybor and parks across from the main strip on Seventh.
Karst is project coordinator for the group's $377,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control to test gay men for HIV who have had unprotected sex. Where better to catch their attention than facing the lines at their favorite clubs?
For five years, ASAP tested men at the popular gay Suncoast Resort in St. Petersburg. When the resort closed last year, ASAP increased its mobile testing. Along with spots in Pinellas and Pasco, organizers expanded to Ybor City's emerging gay district.
Around the same time, a group of businesses formed the GaYbor District Coalition, promoting Ybor as gay-friendly. The area has become an incubator for gay clubs and has attracted national attention, including appearances by gay celebrities and a country dancing convention.
The ASAP unit visits Ybor City at least twice a month, averaging six tests each night.
A rainbow flag drapes the hood of the RV, and a sign out front announces that it's free. A screen shields the entrance. Curtains inside separate testing booths. The hum of the generator masks intimate questions.
In a quiet voice, Karst asks how many people his client has had sex with. Men? And women? Why didn't he use a condom?
He pricks the man's finger and extracts two drops of blood. They wait 20 minutes for the results. One stripe is good. About 3 percent reveal two stripes, a 99.6 percent chance of HIV.
Some expect it. Others are blown away. Karst gives them time to breathe deep or to cry. Then he tells them what's next: doctors, meds, the responsibility of protecting others.
Sometimes, the 58-year-old feels led to share his own diagnoses: HIV in 1989, AIDS in 1994.
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Soon, on TV screens throughout the district, another group will unveil a bolder, more colorful approach. After all, when you're called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, serious isn't exactly your style.
The Sisters are a nonreligious group of men who call themselves nuns, partly because of their focus on community service. They're hard to miss when they hand out condoms in Ybor City. They dress in drag and paint their faces. Some have PG-13-rated nicknames.
They've filmed a public service announcement to be broadcast in gay and gay-friendly clubs throughout Ybor late this month. It opens with "nuns" sitting on a red velvet bed.
"Mother Superior," one says in a demure voice, "can we play a game of safe sex trivia?"
"Now, Novice Sister Scarlett, you know there's no such thing as safe sex," Sister Agatha Frisky says.
"Right, right," the novice answers. "It's safe-er sex."
A few seconds later, shirtless men in leather harnesses bring condoms on a silver platter. They all conclude in unison, "Wear a condom, every time."
Sister Shirley B. Medicated, in face paint, joins in. Behind the facade is Jeff Haynes, a soft-spoken 47-year-old who has spent days editing the video — and eight years fighting the disease.
Haynes thought he was safe. His partner of five years told him he was negative, that he routinely got tested for HIV. But around Christmas 1999, Haynes said he learned the truth: His partner had infected him.
They broke up. Haynes still takes three pills a day and carries the burden of knowing he could infect someone.
Haynes had to come out of the closet all over again. He has told all his friends and tells every man he considers dating. He hopes he's setting an example but is still discouraged.
"There are a lot of people I know who are positive and simply don't tell. And some of them pretend to be negative," he said. "One in five people who are positive don't know it, which should scare the hell out of everyone."
When Haynes came up with the video idea, he hoped it would serve as an icebreaker, a lighthearted opening for people to get tested or reveal their status.
"I have no secrets," Haynes says. "I find that keeping secrets is too difficult."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 226-3354.