Balls originated in the 1960s as underground drag competitions, where participants were mostly black and gay. Since, ball culture has evolved into huge events where performers compete in categories like Exotic European Runway, Pretty Boy Realness, Woman’s Face and Femme Queen Performance.
The June 18 ball will feature performers competing during the evening hours on the Andy Warhol Bridge, which will be closed down for the event. And while the Ball on the Bridge is meant to bring ball culture to the public, it’s also a way to highlight the need for adequate health-care services for the LGBT community.
“I am very excited, and also nervous and anxious,” says Deedee Mizrahi, leader of Pittsburgh’s House of Mizrahi. (Performers battle in groups known as houses.) “It needs to be here now. I want to showcase what we can do and what we have been doing for decades.”
Dalen Hooks has been involved in the Pittsburgh ball scene for years and currently works for Central Outreach Wellness Center, which provides health-care services to LGBT individuals. He is a main organizer of Ball on the Bridge. Balls in the area have progressed from being held in derelict warehouses, to event centers like the August Wilson Center and now on one of the city’s iconic bridges. Hooks says this is Pittsburgh’s chance to legitimize ball culture.
“One of the perks of having this outside is, it is taking something that is underground and making it mainstream,” says Hooks.
Ball on the Bridge, which the Delta Foundation helped to organize, will have 28 different competition categories, and Hooks says the sidewalks on the bridge will be left open; he encourages passersby to take in the action. To accommodate newcomers, the ball begins earlier than usual (8 p.m., or “daytime” for the ball community, according to Hooks).
Hooks adds that beyond mainstreaming, throwing the ball is meant to help “bridge the gap” of health-care access for members of the LGBT community. “We are challenging all the local health-care providers to come and support this community that is often overlooked,” says Hooks.
Central Outreach will have a mobile wellness center on site, and will be providing free check-ups and offering information on PrEP, medication that can prevent users from contracting the HIV virus.
Jason Herring, program director of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, agrees that better communication is needed between health-care providers and the LGBT community. He says stigmas concerning LGBT individuals requesting and receiving treatment remain. Herring adds that such stigmas are further compounded for queer and trans people of color.
Allegheny County statistics show that black men are more than three times as likely as white men to have HIV. Black trans women fare even worse, with 56 percent testing positive for HIV, according to federal studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Herring says stigmas contribute to these figures and that improved communication between doctors and LGBT patients could go a long way. “We need to tell everyone to ask for what they need, and inform doctors how to properly respond,” he says.
Brian Lamb, an internal-medicine specialist with Allegheny Health Network, says a lot of work remains. “No one should ever feel marginalized when they talk to their doctors,” he says. Lamb says Highmark, in partnership with AHN, is hosting an event the same week as Ball on the Bridge, designed to introduce individuals to LGBT-friendly physicians, which is the first time one of these events is geared toward a specific community.
Says Lamb: “We want to say, ‘You are included in this. You are part of our patient population. You are part of Western PA.’”