While the ballroom community has become known worldwide for the creativity it displays at the self-organized competitions where houses compete for trophies and prizes, it also organizes when its members are suffering. And around the country, research and public-health departments have yet to catch up to the reality that black and Latinx LGBTQ people are increasingly suffering from growing numbers of crystal meth addiction.
Last week, Ballroom, We Care, a coalition launched by several legends of New York City's ballroom scene, held its first community advisory board meeting at New York City's LGBT Center. About 50 people attended, made up of members of different New York City houses, service providers, concerned community members, and some people who have battled crystal meth addiction. The stated goal of the community advisory board meeting was to get feedback from the community about some potential solutions to implement to address the issue of crystal meth use in the ballroom community.
The co-founders of Ballroom, We Care said that the project was launched in 2018 as a result of recognizing several people in ballroom who'd died from crystal meth overdose.
"At that point the question was, 'Whose responsibility is it?' asked Mike Haynes, Ballroom, We Care co-founder and a leader of the House of Ebony. "If people see us as leaders in the community, then it becomes our responsibility to figure what has to be done."
So they began reaching out to other members of the ballroom community, several of whom also work in social-service agencies across New York City, to discuss what they were seeing in their houses and in their social-service agencies and to mobilize the community for solutions. In addition to hosting community forums, they have also developed a website, which houses resources for people to find access to culturally competent substance-use and mental-health providers. But one of the things that Ballroom, We Care organizers thought needed to be at the core of any approach was currently missing -- research.
"There's absolutely nothing out there, as far as research is concerned, that talks about crystal meth and ballroom," said Tim Tobias, social worker and co-founder of Ballroom, We Care. Tobias mentioned that there were a lot of research projects over the past two decades that have looked at HIV prevalence, risk factors, and prevention interventions for the ballroom community, but next to none about meth use. So he is currently reviewing the findings from an initial community survey that Ballroom, We Care implemented to determine how much of an issue the ballroom community perceives crystal meth use to be, and what resources people would like to help combat it.
It was stated by many attendees that they didn't think that there was necessarily more crystal meth use among people in the ballroom community, but the use is reflective of larger patterns of use among black and Latinx gay and bisexual men and transgender women, who make up the vast majority of members of the ballroom houses.
According to data published in 2017 by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, rates of crystal meth use among black and Latinx gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men (MSM), have climbed in recent years. In 2017, 12% of black and Latinx MSM reported using crystal meth in the past year, compared to only 6% of white MSM.
But there was a lot of conversation at the two-hour meeting about why the crystal meth epidemic -- and when had it become so endemic in black and Latinx LGBT communities, particularly among gay and bisexual men and transgender women? Several participants (including myself) recall the organizing that happened in the early 2000s in New York when white gay men mobilized around the use of crystal meth. And while there were definitely black and Latino gay men who were using the drug then, they were seen more as outliers than as being impacted by a situation that was causing overdose deaths or other problems. And in the interim years, nationally and in New York, more attention on drug use focused on opioid overdose deaths -- but all the while, the rates of crystal meth overdoses continued to rise.
"What's invisibilized in this moment of the opioid epidemic is this [crystal meth] epidemic," said Michael Roberson, M.Div., community activist, ballroom legend, historian, and theologian. "But outside of here [not just ballroom], but outside of the LGBT community, most people have no idea that this is happening."
Attendees at the meeting spoke a lot about what they saw as some of the issues causing the rise in meth use. Issues of homelessness and housing instability, social isolation, depression, and mental health issues -- sometimes because of the stigma associated with living with HIV -- were all mentioned as root causes.
"I think we often get confused, when dealing with the issue of crystal meth, about what it is people are looking for," said Kairo Brown, founder of the three-city faith-based initiative, ReNewed Sundays, which has a monthly service in Brooklyn, New York. "We think people are looking for education. We think people are looking for resources, and that's great. But I think we have to realize what people are really looking for is significance. When it comes to reaching people, we have to come together and come with that approach -- what will make our people feel significant and whole? That's where the healing starts."
Not only did attendees cite lots of root causes to the problem, participants also discussed a lot of solutions. People wanted to see the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene take a more active role in funding and supporting programs to address the crystal meth epidemic. There were a number of providers from the community who wanted to make sure their substance abuse treatment programs were known to the ballroom community as resources. Many attendees also offered up harm reduction models -- trying to create safe spaces where people could detox, sleep, eat, drink water, and have their needs taken care of by people in the community if they weren't interested in abstaining from drug use. Whatever the approach, attendees committed to continuing to meet to develop more networks and systems of care to support people in the midst of crystal meth addiction, and to support one another as members of the ballroom community.
"Public health doesn't save people -- community organizing saves people, especially those from marginalized communities," said Roberson. "ACT UP wasn't a public health initiative, it was a community organizing initiative to address a public health problem."
To learn more about Ballroom, We Care, or to find their list of resources, visit their website.