City seeks to reach those at risk of HIV infection in unconventional ways

Published: April 20, 2011

The party for some 400 of Baltimore’s gay and transgender community of color, held at a downtown hotel, included fishnet stockings and stilettos, music and dancing — as well as bowls of condoms and free HIV testing.

Inside the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel, workers from the city and local universities were stationed at tables, armed with pamphlets about dental services, food stamps and housing, plus free goodies such as water bottles. Before guests could enter the main hall, workers approached them, promoting the benefits of HIV testing.

"If you have not gotten tested, they’re doing HIV testing out there," said one of the emcees, known as Jay Blahnik, reminding partygoers to take advantage of the private tests in a quiet room off the main hall. "Please know that condoms do not protect you against everything," he added. "I’ll be giving you public service announcements all night."

The November event, held for an underground scene called the "ballroom" or "house and ball" community, was sponsored by the Baltimore City Health Department in hopes of making a dent in stubbornly high HIV infection rates among young, black, gay men.

Make testing and other services easy and even fun to access, the thinking goes, and you might make inroads with this normally hard-to-reach group.

"Instead of asking for people to come to the Health Department," said Keith Holt, a 25-year-old youth outreach worker who has spearheaded the agency’s initiative, "why don’t we take its resources to the community?"

About 45 percent of a sample of black men who have sex with men in Baltimore were HIV-positive, a 2008 Johns Hopkins University study found, and in at least one federal study, Baltimore ranked highest among other cities in the proportion of young, black men who have sex with men who have HIV.

"It’s a public health emergency," said Carl Latkin, a Hopkins epidemiologist who studies HIV prevention. In Baltimore, "if you’re an African-American man and having a same-sex partner, there’s a good chance, whoever they are, they’re going to be infected."

Frequented largely by black and Hispanic gay and transgender youth, the ballroom scene has long been a prime target for prevention efforts in other cities. The scene is structured around "houses," groups that compete in dance and performance at "balls" for cash, trophies and status. Established in New York in the 1970s, the scene expanded to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Atlanta, and was chronicled in the 1990 documentary "Paris Is Burning."

"Mothers" and "fathers" lead each house as a loose association, an alternative family in which members share an adopted, often fashion- or beauty-related last name such as Revlon, Milan or Mizrahi.

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