Invitation to a Ball
AIDS Awareness Helps Bridge the Generation Gap in the Ballroom Community
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
Strike a pose. Vogue.” The command may have different connotations for individuals from different generations—a flashback to Madonna’s song, for some; and a dance form, for those too young to remember when the singer brought to the mainstream audience a form of dance that’s mainly associated with the ballroom community.
The ballroom community (or the ballroom scene) is an underground LGBTQ subculture of mostly young individuals who do not have strong ties to a biological family or who have been kicked out of their homes. Members of the ballroom community take on the name of the specific house they become a part of—House of LaBeija, House of Latex, House of Ninja (founded by Willi Ninja) or House of Omni (founded by Kevin
Omni Burrus). Those involved in the ballroom scene are often artistic individuals who express themselves through fashion, by creating glamorous outfits they wear when walking and voguing in judged events called balls. They walk in different categories, and sometimes win prizes and trophies. Those who walk in balls for at least ten years become legendary; after another decade, they become icons.
But not all members of the ballroom community are homeless, and not all of them compete in balls, as I find out from German filmmaker and LGBTQ activist, Wolfgang Omni Busch. He was an integral part of this year’s International Ballroom Convention and the House of Omni 35th Anniversary Ball that took place in New York City, March 29 through April 5.
“Kevin [Omni Burrus] and I go back since 1989. We both have an activism and historic background,” Busch explains his choice of being a
member of the House of Omni. Wolfgang Busch may be best known for his 2006 documentary, How Do I Look, in which he captures the vitality of the ballroom scene at that time. “Since How Do I Look has been released, we have lost so many legendary icons that have contributed tremendously to the ballroom community. The younger generation has not really been able to live up to those same expectations, [and] doesn’t seem to have the same kind of leadership that I am looking for,” he says, explaining the absence, still, of a sequel to his documentary.
The purpose of this year’s convention was not only to share the ballroom community history and culture with the public, but also to find new leadership for today’s ballroom scene—hence, the topic of the convention, Bridging the Gap. The event offered a stage for older and newer generations of ballroom dancers, also activists and artists to get together and discuss ways in which to empower their community.
The convention also provided a safe place for an open and honest dialogue about the ballroom scene, and its connection to HIV and AIDS.
The ballroom community has lost many creative people to the epidemic. And yet, while it has survived it, the ballroom scene is still one of the communities most affected by HIV/AIDS. So, it is not surprising that nowadays AIDS service organizations seek to connect with the ballroom scene, in order to reach those in need of testing, education, prevention, or medical services. That’s why Housing Works was present at the convention, offering free HIV testing, and also brief counseling sessions.
It is also not surprising that it’s still vital to have a dialogue about HIV/AIDS with and within the ballroom community. In that sense, the convention did help reignite this much-needed conversation about HIV/AIDS as it relates to the ballroom community, a conversation that would continue well after the final night of the event.
Some individuals associated with the ballroom scene avoid talking about AIDS. Others consider it vital, not only to have this discussion about AIDS and the ballroom community, but also to pass it on from one generation to the next.
Gerard H. Gaskin is a photographer who has covered balls for twenty years. Talking about his new book, Legendary: Inside the House of Ballroom Scene, he explains how he used his camera to capture the ballroom community and, ever so subtly, the subject of AIDS within the community. “I didn’t want to hit people on the head with anything,” Gaskin says, “but I wanted to touch on subjects that deal with [the AIDS] issue.” He points at a picture in his book, an image showing a person’s hands holding a condom, to suggest HIV prevention.
Legendary Milton Garcia Ninja contracted HIV at the age of twenty-two. Now, at forty-three, he has survived his doctors’ prognoses, and become a mentor to those wanting to make a name for themselves in the ballroom scene and to those living with HIV today.
“Death was so imminent, and it could happen at any moment for someone living with my virus at the time,” Garcia recalls, talking about the height of the epidemic. “Being diagnosed with HIV has been a tremendous wake-up call [for me],” he adds, “about learning to deal with humanity and respect between people, [and to see them] not only as human beings, but also as spiritual beings, [because] we are spiritual beings living in a human existence.”
A common feeling that washes over ballroom community members of an older generation is that of sadness to see history repeat itself—that is, to see individuals contracting the virus today, at the same young age as their friends were, back in the eighties. And they hold today’s complacency regarding HIV/AIDS responsible.
But not all young people are complacent when it comes to AIDS. Amber Drew, Care Manager at Housing Works HOUSE Project, believes in the importance of grass-roots work, especially when it comes to HIV and the youth. She points out the duality between AIDS-related complacency and stigma, as a catalyst for the increasing HIV infection rates among the youth. She also brings into focus the distorted image of today’s AIDS, an image sketched out by misinformation in a time of social media, and, most importantly, by the lack of plain, old-fashioned conversation between partners.
“No one ever talks about having [safe] sex, about condom use,” Drew reiterates. “And then you have people in their twenties come in, and they don’t understand how HIV affects [their] life, and [believe they know their status.]”
Drew emphasizes that there is not only a lack of correct information available online, but also a depletion of services, because of lack of funding. That’s why HOUSE Project tries to access a particular demographic—individuals affected by HIV, risky behavior, substance abuse, and mental health, especially those ages eighteen to twenty-nine—to provide them with a counselor, a doctor or any other kind of help, through outreach work. This is work that still needs to be done because, Drew says, “AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but stigma [that helps fuel the new infections] is still out there.”
Truth is, the ballroom scene and HIV/AIDS remain closely related to this day. AIDS is still often a taboo subject within the ballroom community, one that members of the community feel comfortable discussing only with individuals from their particular house. So, when it comes to HIV/AIDS as related to the ballroom scene, there is still work to be done. Some do this work by becoming mentors, and also by remembering those lost to the epidemic. They do it to ensure the legacy of those who’ve passed away from the virus, as well as a legacy of their own.
To learn more about Housing Works, visit www.housingworks.org. Read more about Kevin Omni Burrus at www.iconkevinomni.com. For information about Wolfgang Busch, log on to: www.artfromtheheartnyc.org. Check out the work of Gerard H. Gaskin by logging on to: www.gerardhgaskin.com.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.