[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he International Ballroom Convention [A&U, June 2014] took place in New York City, in the spring of 2014. The weeklong event opened at Chashama Gallery in Harlem, New York, and was organized by and large by award-winning activist and filmmaker Wolfgang Busch. The convention brought together many activists and artists associated with the ballroom scene, and also outreach workers from Housing Works HOUSE Project, to have a candid and open conversation about the history of the ballroom scene, and also about HIV/AIDS, as it’s so tightly related to this community.
As some might be aware, the ballroom community (or scene) represents a subculture of the LGBTQ community, and primarily includes individuals who, while not accepted by their biological families, find new families, homes and acceptance in the “houses” so iconic to the ballroom scene—the House of Ultra Omni, House of Ninja or the House of LaBeija, to name only a few.
A subculture of the ballroom community is represented by the Kiki scene—Kiki means “shade,” which comes from “reading” as interpreted in the ballroom scene as reading a person to highlight all of their perceived flaws. Throwing shade has been a longstanding rhetorical strategy, often playful but always cutting, and informed by the need to empower oneself and survive as a person of color. As mentioned in a Vimeo video on the subject, the Kiki ballroom scene is a much younger scene, in terms of history—it has been around for only about ten years—and also in terms of members, which are mainly young African-American individuals, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four.
Housing Works HOUSE Project works with young people, ages eighteen to twenty-nine, and also offers programs that specifically target a slightly younger population, thirteen to twenty-four years of age. Based in New York City, the nonprofit helps its clients find housing, medical care, HIV prevention and/or treatment, and also jobs. “We’ve been developing youth services for the past five to six years,” explains HOUSE Project’s own program coordinator Lindsay Slay. “[We’re] just now getting traction with the ballroom community and the Kiki community more specifically, because that’s a way for us to connect with a community of young people that are often not seeking out care.”
Housing Works’ annual fundraising event Fashion for Action raises money for youth programs that, in turn, help support these young individuals. “It’s about being aware of how young people, in particular young African Americans, are disproportionally affected by HIV, still,” says Slay, explaining the decision for Fashion for Action proceeds to go to these programs, “and how high the HIV infection rates, and also substance and mental health issues are within this community.”
She adds that it’s a little different working with the Kiki community, because, Slay says, “the Kikis have formed out of the need to address the issues that they saw in a community with high HIV rates. So, early Kiki members have connected with service providers and nonprofits that were supportive in order to create these collaborative relationships,” hence, the collaboration with nonprofits such as Housing Works. What stands out is that the Kikis are actually more exposed to HIV services than others, and they are offered to be tested everywhere they go. Through its outreach program, members of the Housing Works HOUSE Project go out into the places where these young individuals might hang out. It might be out on the street, at drop-in centers and clubs, or places popular with those who escort.
Housing Works HOUSE Projects works with members of the Kiki scene who have knowledge and understanding of this community. They stay connected primarily using social media, like Facebook, for example.
“Keeping people in these [HIV prevention] services [means] staying in touch,” Slay emphasizes. “And when some of these people don’t have a stable [physical] address, being in touch on Facebook has been key for us, and maintaining these relationships and checking in with people, reminding them that they have services available or that if they have housing needs they just need to send our outreach staff a message. They can always reach us on Facebook, no matter where they are.”
While Housing Works primarily works with individuals from and around New York City, at least in part because of social media the organization has started to receive messages from all over the country, from people in need of care. “We focus on people in New York,” Slay reiterates, “but we know that this young population is moving around a lot, and just by chance, we started to get a steady referral stream from the South.”
People from around the country can check to see if they’re eligible for housing or while trying to get their names on the list, to receive medications paid for by ADAP, for example. Maybe these individuals find themselves in an environment where they cannot be openly gay or about their HIV status and don’t have a supportive community. So they contact Housing Works, which, in turn, helps facilitate their transition to the New York City area, and helps them get housing and treatment, if needed. Usually then word goes out to those they leave back home, and so others get to find out about the services Housing Works has to offer. Many people are willing to move to New York City area for housing and healthcare.
The work that Housing Works and HOUSE Project do to support the community is interconnected, in a way, with the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re almost working exclusively with African American youth,” Slay explains. “Our program focuses on this [particular] population. We see people come in with all kinds of trauma [caused by] family or others—homophobia, transphobia, but also harassment on the street or police violence. This is a part of young people’s life, [young people] which we’re working with. And we hear stories from our youth being gay-bashed or harassed in all kinds of ways. It’s something that we’re very aware about. We want to support young people, connect them with counseling and mental health services that are sensitive to the things that they go through around their race, sexuality, and gender.” She goes on to say, “If we can’t help them feel safe here around these needs, it will be challenging keeping them engaged in HIV care or help them stay HIV negative. We have to be aware of how all that trauma impacts [our clients]. I think [Black Lives Matter and our work] are very connected.”
To emphasize this connection, Slay shares an example. Housing Works was working with a young man from the South, who was HIV-positive and struggling with health issues, shuttling in and out of healthcare. With the help of Housing Works, he was able to move to the New York City area and find a place to live. But, as a recent transplant here, he felt isolated, having a difficult time adjusting to his new environment. In addition, he heard that another black gay man who was living in that same building had been beaten up. So, he decided to go back to the South, where he did not have access to healthcare.
Stories like this are too common. They are real-life stories of young people facing harassment and stigma, lack of access to housing or jobs or healthcare. They are stories Housing Works deals with every single day, and problems the organization tries to better address by reaching out to connect with the communities at risk, learn from them, and work with them to solve their needs.
The youth, represented by members of the Kiki scene, were highlighted at last year’s Fashion for Action fundraising event. “Instead of just talking about the youth,” Slay says, “that we’re raising money for the youth, we [got] to have some of them come out and be the guests of honor, and share a little piece of their talents and interests.” This way, people could better connect and understand these individuals. “We’ve chosen [to feature] leaders in the community,” she adds, “[leaders] who have cooperated with us, helping us. We successfully work with this community because we let them lead and give us an insight of what’s going on in the community.”
When Kiki community members bring up PrEP or jobs, Housing Works takes notice. “We’re very excited about PrEP,” Slay says. “We have just now expanded the PrEP services to increase our PrEP involvement and education, displacing some myths. We have a new patient navigator to help patients have access to PrEP and help destigmatize [it], which I think it’s already happening.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.