When Brendon Huffman steps behind the bar at The Manor, an LGBTQ bar in Mount Vernon, he has a number of things going through his mind: being friendly to customers, pouring well-balanced cocktails in a timely manner, and making sure that drinks are not unattended.

The first two priorities are important to any bartender; increasingly, Huffman is paying special attention to the third.

The 25-year-old Abingdon resident said he has been “roofied” — or unknowingly drugged with sedative or hypnotic substance such as Rohypnol in a drink — four times in the past seven years. The first time was at a popular gay bar in Baltimore. He likens the feeling afterward to a bad hangover — but far worse.

“It’s a feeling that you never want to … have,” he said. “You don’t remember anything that happens past a certain point. It’s just black. You feel like shit the next day. Your body hurts. Your head hurts. Everything feels like a blur. You feel gross about yourself. You feel like you blacked out, but you didn’t.”

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Baltimore police don’t have any data showing an upward tick in such crimes, and bar managers play down the frequency of the incidents. But such actions have been linked to sexual assaults and robberies in other cities, and advocates and some Baltimore-area patrons say the problem is real.

The Pride Center of Maryland has been tracking drugging reports at gay bars for the past year. The group said that based on 1,200 surveys, 11% of respondents have reported being drugged in gay bars.

The center’s director, Cleo Manago, calls this “an epidemic waiting to happen.”

“It’s a problem,” he said, adding that the crime is usually combined with robbery and/or sexual assault. “It’s not a small problem. It’s going to get worse. It won’t change unless the conditions changed. There has been no focus on it.”

Nationally, drink-spiking at gay bars has made news with a string of high-profile incidents.

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In New York City, a slew of deaths that were once treated as isolated drug overdoses by LGBTQ members are now being investigated by the Police Department’s homicide unit for a connection to drugging attacks and robberies. In one case, the mother of a Washington, D.C., political consultant who was found dead on New York’s Upper East Side discovered that more than $20,000 had been removed from her son’s accounts, the newspaper reported. She took the information to police.

In August, the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan to purchase drink-spiking test strips and distribute them to businesses and patrons. The strips are designed to detect the presence of drugs used to incapacitate victims, such as Rohypnol (flunitrazepam), GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) and ketamine. Distribution of the kits followed reports from individuals feeling they may have been drugged at entertainment venues in West Hollywood — including the famed gay bar The Abbey.

Verna Severin, the LGBTQ+ liaison officer for the Baltimore Police Department, directed questions to the agency’s public information office.

Lindsey Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Police Department, said the agency has not received any reports and does not have any statistics or complaints about incidents of drugging at gay bars. “We continue to work with all of our businesses organizations to thwart illegal activity and will continue to support these organizations in crime-fighting efforts,” Eldridge said.

Some say that a mistrust of law enforcement by the LGBTQ community — or the feeling of shame associated with sexual assault, especially when many of the victims are men — leads to the crime often not being reported. Complicating the discussion is the fact that many of the drugs used to spike drinks, like GHB and ketamine, are also recreational drugs consumed by gay partygoers. Some may fear prosecution associated with drug use.

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People “are apprehensive to report it, or they didn’t want people to know that they had anything [of value] to steal,” he said, which could make them future targets.

How often the crime is occurring is subject to debate.

In Baltimore-area gay bars and clubs, where there is often an expectation that bartenders will make strong drinks (called the “gay pour”), some bar owners and managers say that patrons unfamiliar with the heavy-handed serve will get more intoxicated than usual and attribute it to being drugged.

Robert Gay, owner of The Manor, the establishment where Huffman is employed, said that while he believes that patrons are roofied at gay bars, he also suspects that other factors are at play in some cases.

“Does it happen? Yeah, I think it does. But I think it’s over-exaggerated,” he said. “I think some people over-consume. And the next day they can feel good and say it’s out of their control. It’s a nice excuse. I have seen their bar tab. They drank $100 worth of tequila. It makes people feel good the next day to say they were drugged. It wipes away the shame.”

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Gay, who has lived in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Florida and said he has never been roofied, added that he would like to see bars obtaining test strip kits similar to those being distributed in Los Angeles.

At Leon’s, which claims to be one of the nation’s oldest continually operated gay bars, staff members there were also skeptical of the claims of widespread druggings in Baltimore.

Tina Wallace, general manager at Leon’s, suspects that a combination of alcohol and marijuana use can result in someone feeling like they have been drugged.

I think that sometimes people are really drunk [and] they will take a puff of a joint and they will think they are really roofied,” she said.

Wallace said it’s been seven years since she encountered a person claiming to have been roofied.

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“It was completely random. I knew they were drunk already,” she added.

Longtime Leon’s bartender Joseph Bryan said he was shocked that anyone would find the need to drug the drink of a bar patron. He doesn’t think it’s prevalent in gay bars.

“It’s nothing that has happened to me,” Bryan said. “I haven’t taken it all that seriously.”

6/7/22 — Cleo Manago, director of the Pride Center of Maryland, sits for a portrait outside of the Pride Center’s temporary location. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Manago scoffs at the bar owners’ theories. He said The Pride Center of Maryland first started tracking incidents after the documentary “parTy boi: black diamonds in ice castles” shined a light on the epidemic of crystal meth addiction in LGBTQ communities of color. The movie premiered in Baltimore in 2020. Manago said the movie features young men being drugged.

“They’re used as race-based sex toys for rich white men,” he explained. “After the film was shown, a couple of people ambushed us, saying that they had gone through that in Baltimore.”

Those who have participated in the Pride Center survey and have reported being drugged run the gambit — crossing racial, age, gender and socioeconomic lines, according to Manago.

“Some of them don’t know what happened. They have awakened but didn’t know how they got there,” he said. “In some instances, if they had something of value, it was gone. Some people are waking up in their own home but did not remember going there. Parts of their body were sore, and they did not give consent.”

Manago wants to see an public awareness campaign launched, similar to what he saw in response to the monkeypox, or mpox, virus.

“The Health Department jumped on it so that it could remain relatively low,” he recalled.

Shawn Grogan, 41, said that he was first drugged when he was 19 and living in Toledo, Ohio. The second time was on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, when he was 22. There was another time in 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. And most recently, he was drugged seven months ago in a gay bar in Baltimore. Two of the drugging incidents resulted in him being raped.

“Like, you are more drunk than usual,” the Mount Vernon resident recalled. “The room spins, and your stomach starts to get sick. That’s the sensation. The sensation is more drunk than you should be. Because you are in that state and you become a yes man.”

The days after being drugged are “hell,” according to Grogan.

“It is difficult to stay awake. You have a painfully sick stomach. You can’t sleep. You have the sweats. It’s back and forth. It’s like a 24-hour flu. You take off the blanket. It’s too cold. You keep on repeating that cycle. It’s like the flu. It lasts a day. It feels like death,” he said.

He said it wasn’t a case of him having too much to drink.

“We all know our body depending on our age. We know how fast we get drunk depending on what we drink,” he said, adding, “I have had one drink and I know I have been roofied.”

Brendon Huffman, a bartender and manager at The Manor, has been roofied four times in the past seven years. He is vigilant in making sure that the same doesn’t happen to others. He is pictured here at The Manor, a bar in Mount Vernon. (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

Kaya Vision, 28, believes he was roofied in early December while out at a gay bar.

“I’m fine. But I’m never putting my drink down again,” Vision said. “I had three glasses of wine that were about four ounces. And I can handle my drinks more than that. There’s no way that I would be blacked out.”

This was Vision’s third time being drugged, he said.

“I was freshly 21,” Vision recalled of the first drugging. “Thank God I was surrounded by people who cared.”

The last time he was drugged, he has no recollection of getting home.

“That’s scary to me,” Vision said.

One 30-something gay bar patron who declined to be identified said that the possibility of getting drugged is terrifying.

“These are supposed to be safe spaces,” he said. “It’s bad enough we have these terrorists coming at us. But now we have to worry about attacks from within our own community.”

The Mount Vernon resident got drugged in New York City a year ago, he said.

“There was this space and blur of time. I had a few. But it was after a certain drink that I don’t remember. And I can usually hold my own alcohol,” he said.

Meanwhile, Huffman said he will continue to remain vigilant to prevent patrons from getting drugged.

“When people walk away from my bar and leave their drink on my bar, I throw it away because I never want anyone to be roofied,” he said. “Or I’ll put [an unattended drink] behind the bar so I know that their drink was not touched by anyone else. It’s a serious issue for me. A napkin on top of the drink doesn’t cut it anymore.”

“I feel like any person can get roofied in any bar,” he added. “It’s just that we should all be aware of each other and watch out for the people around us. It’s a universal thing.”

johnj.williams@thebaltimorebanner.com

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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