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When HIV Testing Requires a Runway

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Condoms up for grabs at the "Know Your Status" ball.

November 25, 2013

Approximately 18,000 people in the Baltimore metropolitan area are living with HIV. The city also has one of the highest rates of new infections in the country.  Many of those new cases occur among African American men who have sex with men.  

That’s a group of people that’s often reluctant to get tested.  As a way to reach them, the city decided it would host a ball as part of its "Status Update" campaign, where people can strut and dance on runways—but also get tested for HIV.   The ball took place last week, and senior producer Stephanie Hughes went to check it out.  A heads up—this story acknowledges the existence of sex.  And sex toys. 


STEPHANIE HUGHES:  One thing about parties that have a sex and public health theme—people are not shy about showing you how to put on a condom.  

SARAH WALKER:  Ready, guys?  All right—on your mark, get set, sheath that dick! 

CORONADO DYER:  Oh my god. 

HUGHES:  Two health care workers race to put condoms on dildos at the “Know Your Status” ball.  It’s at the Patapsco Arena in downtown Baltimore.  One of them has a distinct advantage—namely, that he’s dealing with a smaller model.  

WALKER:  And we have a winner.  

DYER:  But mine is ten times bigger.   

KURT RAGIN:  But mine still functions right.  

HUGHES:  Condom races are one possible activity.  But the real reason people are here—is for the runway.  

ANNOUNCER:  If you’re walking virgin runway, line up behind Mr. Dreads right there, please. 

HUGHES:  The runway is a place where people are able to show their stuff—in whatever form or fashion they want to.  There men in drag and transgender women, all competing for prizes in different categories.  This is a community that has given to birth to fashion designers and choreographers, that is thought to have influenced Madonna and Beyoncé.  And the judging can be pretty harsh.  

Judges look on at the "Know Your Status" ball.ANNOUNCER:  Girlfriend, this is just not going to work.  It’s just not going to work. Walk this way.  

HUGHES:  These kinds of ball have been around for more than a century.  They’re places where young men and women could go as they figured out questions of gender and sexuality.  Most people who attend belong to a house, which is kind of like a fraternity.  Most of the houses have high fashion names, such as Balenciaga or Ebony.  Bam, who lives in Baltimore, first joined the house of Ebony when he was 16.

EBONY:  What attracted me to them was that it was a corps of real dudes that I really felt comfortable with being around.   I'll be an Ebony until the day I die.  They're me.  I'm them.  

HUGHES:  Balls take place all over the city—and the country, for that matter.  But they’re not usually paid for by city governments.  This is the fourth one held by the Baltimore’s health department.   They’re hosting because they really want the people here to get tested for HIV—and it’s a group that can be hard to pin down.  

PATRICK CHAULK:  They don't go to places where testing is easily available.  A lot of prevention messages are not necessarily geared towards them.

HUGHES:  Patrick Chaulk is with Baltimore’s health department.  He says that over 40 percent of new cases of HIV in Baltimore are among African American men who have sex with men.  

CHAULK:  The men who have sex with men community is a close knit community, so we have to go to their venues where they have clubs, and begin to build relationships with those club owners and the people who are there.  

HUGHES:  So, beyond the runway and the people dressing, a line of health department employees is at the ready.  Deborah Macklin is one of them.  

MACKLIN:  This gives us your consent to draw your blood and test you.  I need your signature and today's date.

HUGHES:  Macklin is testing for syphilis and HIV.  That requires a blood test, as opposed to a cheek swab, and it means people won’t get their results back for a few weeks.  

MACKLIN:  Have you ever been tested for an STD before—syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea?

HUGHES:  She also asks about drug use and sexual preference.  The whole test takes about five minutes all together.  Nearly 500 people attended the ball this year, and about one-fifth got tested.  Jazzee, who lives in Baltimore, was one of them.  

Two men watch the runway at Baltimore's "Know Your Status" ball.

JAZZEE:  Getting tested, I'm a little nervous.  Not because I think I have anything, but it's just like, it's like oh my gosh—I just got tested.  Whether it comes back—oh lord please negative.  God forbid if anything comes back…it's still really good to know.    

HUGHES:  Last year, 7 percent of those tested were diagnosed with HIV.  The year before, it was about 5 percent.  That’s a really high yield compared to other venues where the health department offers tests.  The ball costs the city about $7,000—that’s just a fraction of the city’s overall outreach budget, which is $1.4 million.  But it’s clear that testing at the ball is still a hard sell.  People are there to dance and have a good time.  Andre Mizrahi, who’s a leader in the ballroom scene, said that it’s hard to get people in the testing mindset.

MIZRAHI: I don’t think at 11 at night you would want to take a test to think about that for a few hours if you're going to come up positive next week.  So I think sometimes it's hard even to do it in here. 

HUGHES:  Lots of people in the ballroom community are also dealing with poverty and tough home situations.   And while it’s a very open community, there’s definitely still stigma around HIV.  Kali Lindsey is with the National Minority AIDS Council.

LINDSEY:  When HIV came on the scene, it was something that was killing everyone.  The way we dealt with that was by putting up a resistance or attack on HIV, because we just wanted to avoid it at all costs. That transformed to avoiding all people with HIV as well. So. because people fear HIV so much, it's really hard to move past the stigma because nobody wants to get the virus. 

HUGHES:  Lindsey said that a lot of people don’t realize that it’s possible to live a long, healthy life with an HIV diagnosis.  He was diagnosed with HIV himself when he was 23, and he said it was one of the hardest things he’s ever dealt with.  That’s why he said following up with people who do receive positive diagnoses is really important.  

People who get tested at the ball find out their status a few weeks later.


LINDSEY:  We do a horrible job of losing people once they get to their first visit.  We don’t know why.  But we can’t just think about the event.  This event just has to be the beginning of a relationship with individuals who may be diagnosed with HIV that night because we have to make a commitment to those individuals that if we provide information to them in this format, that we’ll do everything we can to get the services and treatment they need with the information we give them.  

HUGHES:  Andre Mizrahi said that if people do receive a positive diagnosis, then they have to accept it—and move on with their lives.

MIZRAHI: Accept it, grasp it.  Just like if you catch cancer, you have to accept it, sugar diabetes.  Whatever you do in life, grasp it, get a hold of it, let's fix this.  Do what you got to do. Don't just let it take you.

HUGHES:  So, this ball is about runways and dancing, gettung condoms, and getting tested.  But more than that, it’s about learning who you are, whether that’s a legendary drag queen or someone who’s new to the runway, a transgender woman or an HIV positive man.  And it’s about being comfortable with who that person is—both on the runway and beyond.

Produced by Stephanie Hughes - shughes@wypr.org


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