In Baltimore, ballroom culture is transforming the fight against HIV

The Baltimore Sun

It's about pomp but also power -- not only to become a YouTube sensation or niche-culture legend, but to provide a family to those without one and to drive HIV awareness in a youth demographic identified by city health workers as being particularly vulnerable to infection.

This is the vogue ball scene in Baltimore in 2014, almost 25 years after the 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning" vaulted the then-nouveau performance dance style into the national and international spotlight. Born of the creativity, athleticism and flamboyance of often-disenfranchised black and Latino gay, transgender and queer youth in New York City in the 1980s, ballroom culture has awakened into an increasingly recognizable influencer of broader pop culture, with its mannerisms mimicked by pop music divas (remember Madonna's "Vogue"?) and its slang often lofted from the lips of reality TV wannabees.

In Baltimore, the ball scene -- in which performers belong to family-like "houses" and compete in runway balls -- has also become the unlikely home to several of the city's most influential and effective HIV ambassadors, and the backdrop to several focused efforts to bring HIV messaging to members of the city's broader black gay and transgender community.

Just ask Keith Holt, a.k.a Keith Ebony of the House of Ebony, a.k.a. youth outreach coordinator in the city health department's division of clinical services.

"Within the ballroom scene we have so much talent, and even in the broader gay scene we have so much talent," said Holt, 28, at a panel discussion on Baltimore's ballroom culture on Thursday night. "In the outside world, this underground scene has so much to offer."

Holt was one of four panelists from the city's ball scene who spoke as part of the "SPEAK FIRE!" panel series event "What Do You Know About House?," held at Chase Brexton in Mount Vernon as part of this week's Baltimore Black Pride celebration. The event, which also offered free HIV testing, drew a couple dozen people as interested beginners listened to stories from Holt and other established local ball personalities -- some with enough years in the scene and victories on the runway to have earned what is known as "legendary" status.

"We think it's important for people in the community to have the opportunity to see themselves as leaders in their fields," said Saida Agostini, director of LGBTQ resources at Free State Legal, a legal services provider for LGBT community members, on why her group partnered with the Center for Black Equity Baltimore and the University of Maryland's Star Track youth HIV awareness program to host the event.

"I think tonight was a breaking point, a breaking of the bread," said Kurt Ragin, 25, a health educator at Star Track and one the Center for Black Equity's four "Icon" award receipients this year for his work breaking barriers to reach HIV-vulnerable youth in the city.

"It was a coming together of the past and the present [in the ball scene], along with people in the community who aren't in the scene," said Ragin, a.ka. Fhallen Revlon of the House of Revlon. "Conversation is powerful, especially when people want to listen."

For Holt, that's the point. He has helped push a new HIV campaign from the city health department that has looked to local ball personalities for help pushing the message of smart sex and the importance of getting tested to younger black men and teens coming up in the scene.

"The proof is really in the pudding. We know this is a community we need to put resources into," Holt said, mentioning health department focus groups that identified the ball scene as a prime target for HIV awareness. "These people are like celebrities in Baltimore. You will listen to that person more than you will listen to a random model on a poster saying, 'Wrap it up.'"

While Thursday's panel discussion ranged widely from how the panelists came into the scene, how they gained notoriety and how their individual houses operate, it came back time and again to the topic of HIV awareness, and how leaders in the ball community are taking up the cause.

"I've had friends who say to me, 'You got condoms?' And I'm like, 'Hell yeah,'" said Trebra Taylor, a.k.a. Legendary Father Trebra Blahnik, of the House of Manolo Blahnik. "I'm so happy they ask."

As the "father" of his local house, Taylor says he tries to give younger members guidance and love -- things he believes will keep them from making bad decisions.

"Sometimes I think we want to feel love so bad, we feel like, 'If I let him have sex with me without a condom, he's going to be with me,'" Taylor said. "If [we] as leaders can make these people feel loved, they'll take better care of themselves."

Eric Jenkins, a.k.a. Legendary Enrique St. Laurent of the House of St. Laurent, agreed, saying older members of ball culture can use "education and communication" to lead younger members onto a healthy path. The younger members will still do what they want to do, he said, but if they have additional information -- like who in the scene may be bad news -- they can make better decisions, including in the bedroom.

"They can say, 'OK, I was warned about you. We're going to go ahead and do it, but we're going to do X, Y and Z before we do it,'" Jenkins said. "Or, 'We're not going to do it at all.'"

Older members with more resources at their disposal can also help younger members who are scared to get tested, he said.

"If you don't want to go to a clinic here in Baltimore, I will drive you to a different one in a different state," he said.

Marco Gray, 29, a.k.a. Marco Blahnik of the House of Manolo Blahnik, said he entered the scene when he was 13 and has watched HIV messaging ramp up in the last few years. He gives a lot of the credit to big Baltimore ballroom names, and to the city health department identifying the need and sending ambassadors like Holt -- a known face in the scene -- out to build bridges.

Toward the end of the discussion -- and before moderator James Rowe, a.k.a. Boom St. Laurent of the House of St. Laurent, gave a flashy course on voguing to those gathered in the room -- the question was asked: Where do you see the ballroom scene in 25 years?

Holt said he sees it continuing to grow and "get huge," but he also said he worries that it will lose its meaning for so many as a place "underground to provide safety and security."

"Everybody that walks balls is not out," he said. "We have to remember that."

Taylor, of Blahnik, said the scene is already "transforming so fast," but he sees that continuing -- with more money involved (victories at big balls can already bring up to $10,000 in winnings) and celebrities showing up in limos and getting table service to watch their favorite performers.

"It's just going to get real buck," he said.

If it holds on to its growing role as a platform for HIV awareness, as well, the panelists all agreed, the growth will only be a good thing.

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