Vogue, Runway, Sex Siren, and Realness—the categories for prizes at the Test Your Might Mortal Combat Ball, presented by HIV Equal on February 8 at the Reach LA Dance Studio in Los Angeles attracted fierce competitors from the local house and ball community. They did not just come for the chance to show off how well they could represent. They came for the sense of community. They came for the celebration. They came for each other.
Taut bodies adorned in signature magenta and black for the occasion electrified the runway while Father Jamari Blahnik, host and emcee chanted house names and provocative prose and DJ BJ kept the tracks spinning. Camaraderie and supportive cheers filled the room. Taking home trophies that night were Viper Lanvin (Sex Siren), Legendary Mother Devine Chanel (Realness), Jaylen Blahnik (Runway), and Ballerina Chanel (Vogue Battle).
A ball co-sponsored by Reach LA is nothing new. Reach LA, a non-profit that provides services and resources to LGBT, particularly urban youth and particularly those most at risk for HIV, has long supported the house and ballroom community with its own ten-years-strong Ovahness Ball. It has also created a dance studio to help nurture the creativity of its members. What was new at Test Your Might was the presence of HIV Equal, a testing initiative sprung from World Health Clinicians, an organization that strives to prevent the transmission of HIV and sexually transmitted infections as well as to destigmatize knowing your status through its we’ll-take-your-pic-if you-test-for-HIV campaign that has set social media sites aglow with its signature magenta color. Each photo, snapped by campaign cofounder and photographer Thomas Evans, allows the participant to claim a status beyond positive or negative in order to dismantle the notion that we are more than our bodies and to support the notion that we can define ourselves in empowering ways.
HIV Equal has been successful in its efforts. It has held nearly two dozen testing events thus far in major cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and San Diego, as well as other smaller meccas and resort towns such as Norwalk, New Haven, Palm Springs, and Provincetown. HIV Equal has also traveled globally to the villages in and around Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It has attracted support from celebs and personalities such as Greg Louganis [A&U, February 2008], Mario Cantone, Sandra Bernhard [A&U, October/November 1993], Scott Nevins, nightlife icon Amanda Lepore, comedian Nadya Ginsburg, and the late Joan Rivers [A&U, October 1996].
Says Evans: “This was our first time collaborating with Reach LA, and they were amazing to work with. They are really involved in the house and ball community, so I knew that a collaboration would make a good fit.” And, as the house and ball community is made up primarily of those whom HIV Equal is trying to reach at present—young black and Latino gay, bi, and same-gender-loving men and trans women—the collaborative event made sense, Evans shares. “Our goal is to normalize testing in that community. We want people to know that knowing one’s status is prevention, and it’s the not knowing that keeps this disease alive and well.”
The testing happened across various sites. “There were over sixty people who attended our mini ball. Twenty-two people tested a week prior to the event through Reach LA. AltaMed tested twelve people the day of the event and there were about thirty people that [already] identified as HIV-positive,” says Evans. One individual tested positive and he was connected to care. “That is a success for us. If we can get one person who wasn’t in care into care, then we have done our job. That is one less person who is HIV-positive and doesn’t know it.”
Reach LA is eager to connect more individuals to care. At thirty-three, Reach LA’s Greg Wilson has seen his fill of new cases of HIV infection and the deaths of too many peers—young, vibrant individuals within the house and ballroom community, people he considers family.
Wilson, now Deputy Director and Manager of Health Programs for Reach LA, has been an active member of the house and ball community since he was twenty years-old, aligning himself with the Iconic House of Ultra Omni. “I initially became a part of a House because I felt that I needed a ‘family feel’ and the support that goes along with that—something I was missing. I had many people around me that could identify with my struggles, my sexuality, they were my age and my peers and I finally felt that I belonged when before I would feel invisible.”
The nurturing Greg received from his non-traditional family began filling the void in his life and through this process Greg began to discover his own self-worth. “I began building my confidence and self-esteem and I was also able to speak with [other] people my age and gain perspective on things that I was experiencing in my own life. I walked European runway for about seven years, and after that, I began feeling a little unfulfilled. I found myself wanting to make a greater impact and I wanted to be more of an advocate. Once I began working in the HIV field [ten years ago], I started to see where the missing gaps were in services to this community that I am a part of. I wanted to make sure that my peers knew they had someone they could turn to and to trust, especially being that in our culture, trust in the medical systems has not been something often seen.”
Wilson explains the importance of testing—and testing that is tailored to the needs of the individual. “When you read the statistics and or the research that is being done internationally, honestly, the readings begin pointing towards the population that represents me. Young, Black, gay… and a high percentage of the participants from the house and ballroom community are Black and Latino gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender. So this is the very reason it has been a goal and mission of mine to bring comfort to my community as it pertains to getting tested, knowing your status, and getting the resources needed to get linked into healthcare services.
“Testing at events normalizes it,” he adds. “Individuals do not need to avoid known testing or HIV healthcare sites for fear of being judged.”
Making it easier for individuals to stay in care once linked is essential. “One other thing that we began doing years ago that is different is allowing the people who already know their status to come check in with us so that we can assure that they are being provided quality healthcare. If [they do not have quality healthcare], we will do an assessment with their provider and also transfer their services to a place that will better accommodate their needs,” he shares. “All it takes is one bad experience for a client to decide never to go back, which leads to dropping out of care [entirely] and we want to avoid that.”
As an innovator in the field, Reach LA is also eager to share what they’ve learned about linkage to care. From an initiative spearheaded by Reach LA’s executive director Martha Chono-Helsley in 2011, the National House/Ball HIV Leadership Convening “White Paper” was authored to address the urgent and bleaker side of ballroom life. “Observed rates of HIV infection and mortality among House members are extremely high; few members are tested and treated for HIV; and few, if any, are living beyond their thirties or forties. In response to the alarming HIV infection rates among this population, a national mobilization effort is needed for immediate intervention.”
A&U had the chance to speak with Martha Chono-Helsley, Executive Director, about Reach LA and the ball community, right after the HIV Equal event.
Sean Black: Can you describe the unity, creativity and inner beauty that you witness within the members of the Ballroom community?
The Ballroom scene is comprised of talented and resilient African-American and Latino LGBT individuals who come together in an arena of competitiveness to fully express themselves in a safe and supportive environment. The history of the underground Ballroom scene dates back to the Harlem renaissance drag ball circuit and shows. “Balls” are the common terms for the competitive dance and performance events that occur throughout the year in urban cities like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Miami, and Charlotte.
In the 1970s, “houses” began forming, not only as a means to nurture and support talent, but as a formalized LGBT family structure. All Ballroom houses are connected at the root to the first iconic houses of New York and in essence some way are related. The tradition of Ballroom, such as the call-out of individuals or LSS (Legends, Statements and Stars), chanting and runway categories, are universal in Ballroom communities and individuals and houses take great pride in participation and personal achievements. Runway achievements build stature within the Ballroom scene; based upon years of winning categories and creating a series of memorable moments in Ballroom, an individual can earn status of “star,” “statement,” or “legend,” with the ultimate title of “icon” being the crown jewel of achievement. Ballroom is often where new fashion statements and dance trends are created long before they are appropriated by mainstream society. And within the Ballroom community there is a fierce resilience; the community rallies in support of social injustice and HIV/AIDS because these issues have impacted the lives of many community members.
What makes Reach LA a vital part of this community?
Reach LA is a unique entity in the HIV world. It is neither an ASO or LGBT center—but its own hybrid of services and resources that cater to the needs of community most at risk for HIV. Although our focus is on youth and young adults, everyone is welcome.
Back in 2006, the L.A. Ballroom community reached out to Reach LA to help educate community members about HIV/AIDS and, since that time, Reach LA has been a loyal partner and collaborator. We began by throwing the first Ovahness Ball hosted by the Legendary Sean Milan Garcon, which has become an annual event for over ten years. Since then, Sean Milan Garcon has joined our staff, along with Deputy Director Greg Wilson, formerly of the House of Ultra Omni, which has enabled Reach LA to establish and maintain relationships with key community leaders and house members for HIV service support and personal skills development. Reach LA launched R-LA Studios, which was created to provide the Ballroom community with a place to develop artistic talent and gain experience in teaching, choreography and performance. This connection helps us with HIV testing and client retention.
Reach LA began community mobilization work on a national scale in October 2011 with the hosting of the National House/Ball HIV Leadership Convening in Los Angeles, which brought together fifty Ballroom leaders, public health officials and researchers to discuss the impact of HIV on Ballroom communities. In 2012, Reach LA, the House of Blahnik and House of Comme de Garcon joined forces to create the National Institutes of Health-funded Be the Generation Ballroom Community Outreach Team, which utilized the runway to educate about PrEP, PEP, and treatment as prevention (TasP) at major balls throughout the country. Reach LA was instrumental in the development of the National House/Ball Community Change Coalition, which was developed to build the capacity of House/Ball communities through resources, research and advocacy.
What does it take be successful in your efforts?
So—to be successful it takes a large commitment to resources and a profound level of cultural competency to truly understand the individual needs of each community member. It also takes time and commitment to build trust with community leaders and members in order to be successful. The community is more than HIV testing numbers; they are individuals with specific needs and desires. Reach LA’s goal is to help build successful and self-sustaining individuals who positively impact the wellness of our community. That is how we can impact the epidemic.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.