For readers who may not know, would you mind describing what the House/Ball community is, the structure of the community, and why you came to think it might actually be a place that's quite conducive to doing this kind of intravention?
The House/Ball community is a very large culture within the black gay and bisexual community; it sort of started in Harlem in the '20s. Basically, the community is organized into houses. Each house is typically named after a huge fashion designer. There's Escada, Prada, all the big names. And the houses have a mother and a father. The houses come together to compete at balls. They compete in performance, aesthetics -- just a variety of different categories.
It's very gender neutral. Everybody is a queen. You are either a butch queen, or a fem queen, depending on your presentation, but everybody's a queen. Your house mother could very well be a butch queen. Gender norms kind of go out the window within this community, in some respects.
The interesting thing for me is that it became a community that was an escape from the oppression of being black, and a black sexual minority. But then the competition is so fierce that it is very status driven; you compete for trophies, cash prizes, etc., and for status within the community. You ultimately want to become a legend or an icon within this community, and you become that by winning certain balls. And certain houses have certain reputations for developing legends, and so you want to be in this house versus that house. It's very, very competitive.
HIV is still very much stigmatized within this community, because it is so materialistic and status focused. A positive HIV status is like, ich. You know what I mean? But it's filled with young men who have sex with men. And there is a high prevalence of HIV within that community -- probably more so than within another type of MSM population, and arguably sort of driving the numbers among MSM.
Do you think the HIV stigma in this community may be driving the HIV prevalence numbers among MSM because of the status-based aspect of the House/Ball culture, where anything that you disclose that could ruin your competitive chances is a no-no?
Absolutely. You're not going to disclose it. You don't want anybody to know. If you know, you're probably not going to take meds. A lot of folks don't know and don't want to know, because it means that you have to do something. So there's a higher community viral load.
The things that you may have to do for status, the things you may have to do to get into somebody's house that has a lot of status, and the things you have to do to compete at balls, these may also put you at risk. In this community, fashion is very important. Whatever the category is, you have to bring it in the latest 2010, 2011 fashions by certain designers. That stuff costs money, and people are doing very risky things to get these fashions.
Are you finding, in the early stages of being part of this project, that there's buy-in and participation from house mothers and house fathers?
Yeah. The amazing thing is that we walked into a very great setup. Because there is a house parents' alliance, if you will, that is at the surface of addressing a lot of different issues within their community. I've even begun work outside of this project, where house parents have asked me to come and have a conversation with their house kids about stigma. They are beginning to incorporate messaging into balls and things like that already. So we're already influential in that way -- where they are hungry for it, but didn't know how or what to ask for, prior to now.
It sounds as if you've jumped into this project with both feet, and there's a lot of potential to do, and be part of, really amazing work in this community. I'm glad that you and this work found each other.
Yeah, it's really good stuff.
Switching gears: Are you in a romantic relationship right now? How has that been?
Yes, I'm in a relationship. It is very good. I am enjoying it. I'm enjoying getting to know him, and looking forward to continuing to get to know him for years to come. We have a lot of fun together.
Do you have any advice, for HIV-positive folks in particular, who want to get out there and open themselves to the possibility of a relationship, or the possibility of dating?
I would say to keep it real. And keep it real from the very beginning. Because, at the end of the day, if you are going to be rejected by a person, you're going to be rejected. You either like who I am, you're either OK with my status, or you're not. It feels much better to be rejected by somebody I really don't know than it does to be rejected by somebody I have invested some time in. So if you're not completely real in the beginning, and then this other you comes out, and they reject you because of that other you that they don't like, that really is your fault.
I have really gotten to a place where I put all of my shit out there. There's a whole lot of other shit that comes along with me, where my HIV status is the least of our worries. Because that's just a small part of me, which I have in control. That's the least of our worries. I am flighty sometimes; I have a lot going on in my life; I keep a lot of big ideas in my head, and I might start working them and massaging them out slowly. I can be very busy and very distant at times. Those are the things that I have to put out in the beginning, with respect to my relationships, to just really be upfront with people about the kind of person I am.
Well, on that note, we can bring this interview to a close. It's been really, really good speaking with you, Keith. I'm so glad that we got a chance to talk today!
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.