On a hot summer evening 10 years ago, 14-year-old Michael Brookins stood — in shoplifted designer clothes — at the entrance to what looked like a vacant building in Homewood.
What was going on inside would change his life forever.
From the sidewalk, Brookins recalls today, "It look[ed] like there's nothing going on. But when you walk in there's this whole party."
It wasn't the blaring house music or multi-colored disco lights that overwhelmed him. It was the blur of men in rhinestone blazers, high heels and v-neck shirts that opened to the base of their chests. Some men wore makeup — and some of the women looked a lot like men.
Yet by the time he made it upstairs, where he saw men in heels strutting in front of a wall of mirrors, the strangeness morphed into a sense of familiarity.
"I don't know what took over me, but I was way too comfortable," Brookins recalls.
Brookins was well-liked at school: He played football at Wilkinsburg Middle School and served as a mentor to other students. But he sometimes found himself attracted to teammates or the brothers of girlfriends. And sometimes, when his mom was at work, he'd put on a pair of her heels and parade around the basement.
"I just considered it being goofballs and clowns," Brookins says. But now he was watching other men do the same thing — and they weren't clowning at all.
He watched one person after another strut down the runway. It was, he would later learn, a European-style competition — lots of spins and tricks. "It's about your personality and your walk and how you bring it to the floor," Brookins says.
And though he didn't quite understand the rules governing the competition, "It didn't take no hesitation. I just went out there," says Brookins. Even as he took the stage, his mind swirled.
"You're being gay right now," he thought. And then a switch flipped:
"All the shit I was doing this whole time — this is why."
The judges and audience "really, really liked me," says Brookins. "I never thought of myself as being gay before then."
Brookins had stumbled into the ballroom community, a world populated mostly by black and Latino gay men and transgender women — and invisible to most other Pittsburghers. The scene revolves around "house balls" where members compete against each other in a variety of events, ranging from fashion-model runway posturing to the acrobatic angular dance style known as "voguing."
With a few exceptions — like Madonna's 1990 song/music video "Vogue" and Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning — the scene has drawn little mainstream attention. But some local public-health experts have been taking a closer look, partly in response to an ongoing national health disaster: By the time a black gay American male reaches middle age, his chances of being infected with HIV are about the same as a coin toss coming up "heads."
Trying to lower those odds, in fact, has become a central part of Brookins' life. It's the reason he helped devise Project Silk, a unique attempt to provide a community space where members of the local ballroom community could get an HIV test, practice dancing and hang out in a safe place. Because a decade after walking his first ball, Brookins hasn't forgotten the feeling of belonging that came from that performance — or the uncertainty he felt afterward.
"I just kept having in the back of my head, like, ‘I can't get caught doing this,'" Brookins says. "‘I love it, it's awesome, but if I get caught doing this, what's going to happen to me? How's my world going to change?' I wasn't prepared for that at all."
‘I was dying for family'
Kenny McDowell is serving up questions along with the green beans, potatoes, pork chops and chicken he's been preparing in his small North Side kitchen.
"Who was the founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of Revlon?" he asks some of the handful of Revlons gathered in his apartment on a Sunday evening in May. "What year did Revlon win best house of the year?" Answers are offered — and debated — until McDowell responds with an approving nod.
Such questions are common during meetings of the House of Revlon, one of a handful of local "houses" that act as touchstones for Pittsburgh's estimated 100-member ballroom scene. Quizzing members is "all about keeping them down to family," says McDowell, who is the "overseer" of the local chapter of Revlon.
Overseers handle the logistics of preparing for competitions — one of the agenda items at tonight's meeting. Chazie Bennett is crouched on the floor in the center of the living room, reading from an agenda in a spiral notebook; there are upcoming balls in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Also on the agenda: whether to admit a new member who'd had problems showing up to meetings and paying the $15 monthly dues that subsidizes everything from travel costs to costumes, known as "effects."
McDowell and others stress the importance of ballroom's history. As Michael Battle explained at an April gathering of ballroom members, Pittsburgh's scene emerged during the 1990s, though the culture has its roots in New York dating back to the Harlem Renaissance. Black drag queens often "couldn't go to white gay bars, so they created their own scene," Battle says. Social life was defined by contests in which participants "walked" — competed — for trophies, in an array of categories. A vocabulary emerged, with candidates receiving "tens" from judges — or being "chopped" and eliminated — in a slew of performance categories.
The categories are often built around different representations of gender, mixing dance, costumes and attitude to appear in the desired role.
McDowell, for instance, often walks "thug realness," which rewards strict adherence to straight male gender norms. And along with "school boy" and "executive" realness categories, it's increasingly popular in the Pittsburgh scene. It offers "a chance to be that executive or that thug or that straight person society said he couldn't be," McDowell explains.
That's in contrast with categories like female figure performance, a voguing category where gay men ("butch queens") or trans women ("femme queens") can vogue in a style that plays up female gender norms. Other categories — "realness with a twist" — mix the two.
The performance and house cultures are intertwined — and the houses themselves are like college fraternities or sororities, with regional chapters in cities across the country. And the houses become part of its members' identity: Participants often substitute the house name for their own last name, and travel to each other's cities.
At competitions, houses provide a cheering section for their members: Early on, Brookins noticed that house members had "the whole family yelling and cheering them on." Meanwhile, "Being a 007 — meaning I wasn't in a house — I had my friends cheering me on, but it was like, ‘I want to be in one of those houses.'"
Houses provide support off stage as well, with house "mothers" and "fathers" caring for "children" often discarded by their biological parents.
Younger members "come to me for advice, whatever they're going through," says McDowell. "It's good that they can get advice on how to be gay."
That support is part of what draws people to the scene. John Easter grew up in Erie, where being gay was "a big taboo." And then, as a freshman at Pitt taking a course in gender, race and class, he saw a screening of Paris Is Burning. Watching the film, Easter recalls, "I was sort of jealous" of the support offered by the houses (Easter would later join House of Krayola) and the voguing itself.
"You can be a character; it involves dancing and it connects you to other gay people," says Easter, who today works at the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. "It's not like you against the world."
Brookins, too, needed that refuge. His own mother was addicted to drugs — "I was there physically, but emotionally I wasn't," Kelly Brookins says today — while his father was absent.
"I was dying for family — to feel like I had family again," Brookins says. "And when I found the ballroom scene, it was like, ‘This is the road to take so I can be who I want to be.'"
A few months after his first ballroom performance, he joined a house, the House of LeBeija, and grew close to house mother Lucky LaBeija.
"I couldn't talk to my mom about sex," Brookins says. "I couldn't talk to my mom about wanting to fight somebody." But with Lucky, "I could talk about anything I wanted."
And when Brookins was outed by a family friend, his mother kicked him out, beginning a stretch of periodic homelessness. "I was mortified, devastated," his mother recalls. Brookins began relying on his new family, which "gave me a place to stay. I was able to eat."
But life in Brookins' adopted home was troubled, too. For one thing, he says, "People were catching HIV before my eyes."
‘It's almost turning into a national scandal'
"It's pretty clear [...] that young black men who have sex with men have been ignored in HIV-prevention efforts," says M. Reuel Friedman, a University of Pittsburgh public-health researcher who has spent nearly two decades working on HIV prevention.
What's less clear, though, is what to do about it.
Though African Americans make up only 12 percent of the population nationally, they accounted for 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Especially troubling are HIV rates among young black gay and bisexual men ages 13-24, who account for twice as many new HIV infections as their white and Hispanic/Latino peers, CDC data show.
"If black gay American men could be turned into a country of their own, they would have the highest HIV rates in the world," says Ron Stall, director of the Center for LGBT Health Research at the University of Pittsburgh. "What hasn't happened is a unified, carefully constructed public-health response. It's almost turning into a national scandal."
Stall cautions that these high HIV rates are not the result of riskier behavior. In fact, he says, research suggests that black gay men are actually more conservative than their white peers.
"You have to be a saint as a gay black man to be HIV-negative," agrees Stacy Lane, a West End Health Center doctor who often works with the LGBT community.
There isn't much research on why the disease is so prevalent within the black community.
"There's a lot we don't know," says Anthony Silvestre, an investigator at the Pitt Men's Study, a longstanding effort to understand HIV infection. But he cites a range of likely factors: poverty, homelessness, discrimination, stigma and lack of access to education and health care. Another factor is that the odds of infection are higher simply because the pool of possible partners is smaller, and has a higher infection rate to begin with.
Brookins himself worked as a "dancer," a job in which he'd take his clothes off for cash. ("If somebody tells you they've never sex-worked — shame on them because they're lying," he says.) And living on the margins often brought elevated risk.
"We never had nowhere to go," says Brookins. "We didn't have access to condoms, so we had sex without because we didn't have money to buy them."
"There were other agencies that didn't treat us that well," says Brookins, noting there wasn't much outreach to the black gay community. "We felt like it was about time we had something specifically for us."
In high school, Brookins had been involved with the Young Adult Roundtables, an effort by the state Department of Health to involve youth in HIV prevention, especially in high-risk populations. It was a venue for expressing frustrations about the lack of resources available to young gay black men. Along with Terrance McGeorge — a friend who'd convinced Brookins to go to his first ball — Brookins began to imagine a space where the ballroom community could hang out, feel safe and compete all they want ... and where you could get an HIV test, condoms and access to other services.
They'd talked about the idea with Friedman, who'd also participated in the Roundtables, and who "kind of became an uncle to me," Brookins says. Together, they proposed a unique approach to public health, which they called Project Silk.
The premise of Project Silk — so named for the "web of social support we're trying to build," Friedman says — is simple: If you're trying to communicate a health message, "people respond much better to their peers," Silvestre says.
Project Silk opened its doors in February 2013, with a $1.3 million "demonstration" grant from the CDC that passes through the state Department of Health to Pitt. The funding recognizes a problem that "for 30 years, no one has been able to fix," says Silvestre, the principal investigator of the project. And it makes people "more willing to consider new approaches" — starting with the space organizers rented on Penn Avenue Downtown.
Anyone from the community can drop in to the eighth-floor space, which is furnished like a living room — save for the HIV-prevention posters and condoms. There's warm lighting, couches, a TV, faux hardwood floors and a full-length mirror propped against the wall. Four nights a week, Silk offers space for voguing, but also mentoring, testing and connections to other health services.
Through a partnership with Community Human Services, Project Silk also provides help finding housing and employment – and just over half of the 323 unique visitors to the space reported at least one of those needs, according to an abstract posted on the American Public Health Association website.
"I assess [its success] by looking at the fact that kids are coming in and are getting tested [and] getting other services, [but] HIV is only one of the issues," Silvestre says.
"We're talking to kids who are homeless, kids who may have been abused," adds Silvestre, emphasizing the range of social support Silk offers.
But the space isn't staffed just by people with academic or social-work experience. Roughly half of its 11 employees come from the ballroom community itself (though all of them have public health-related experience), according to Friedman, now Project Silk's director. That includes Brookins, who does both HIV prevention and mentoring work.
"Houses have this really familial structure to them," Friedman says. "One of the things we wanted to do is really build on that."
"It's not just about, ‘Oh, we need to tell someone to use a condom.' It's a lot more complicated," Friedman adds. The challenge, he says, is "How do we make it feasible and acceptable to those in the community?
‘One foot on the street and one foot in the clinic'
Chazie Bennett crashes to the ground, and in unison, the room lets out a collective "OH!"
Bennett springs back to his feet and struts down the platform where dozens of voguers are watching. "Hey — hey-hey — hey REV-LON!" the crowd yells, clapping to the beat.
"Ready for the rhythm are you ready for the ... Ready for the rhythm are you ready for the," the emcee is rapping continuously into the microphone, playing off the beat that fills Cruze Bar.
The judges are perched in front of the stage facing Bennett. He collapses back to a crouch and his feet slide in opposite directions, his legs alternately kicking out from under his body. He momentarily appears to be balanced on nothing but the air under him. Sweat drips from his forehead — one of the few signs this isn't at all effortless.
"Start over — I don't even know what I'm judging," one of the judges interjects. Bennett collapses into a heap on the ground, a wave of frustration crosses his face. But it's only momentary: This is just a kiki ball.
Kiki balls are supposed to be lower-pressure events. The prizes here are gift cards, nothing like the $7,500 in cash prizes that can be scored at balls in bigger cities. Sponsored by the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force — which holds a kiki ball every two months and offers HIV testing at them — these are mostly for fun.
"It's kind of just a way to kill politics" and drama, says Dalen Hooks, the overseer of the House of Ebony and a staff member at the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.
But drama is often unavoidable. A few hours into the event, an argument erupts among a few judges, which Bennett explains as "drama going on between the houses." And there are significant rifts in the ballroom community. Last year, a Project Silk "town hall" meeting — called to discuss the past and future of the community — devolved into a fight.
Such tensions are a real challenge for Project Silk, which as the West End Health Center's Dr. Lane puts it, has "one foot on the street and one foot in the clinic." The same social connections that help build the mission also complicate it.
"When we were doing HIV screenings at Project Silk, we were finding kids who knew they were HIV-positive, but weren't getting care anywhere," Lane says. Part of the problem, she says, is that young people "don't have a sense of mortality." But there's also "just a lot of misinformation that people with HIV are dirty or bad people."
More than a year ago, Lane says, an Instagram account went up that showed the faces of certain members of the community and claimed some were HIV-positive, among other accusations. It has since been taken down, Lane explains, but incidents like that play off a profound sense of stigma.
"There are people in the black gay community who would die before they let anyone know" they are HIV-positive, Lane says.
And since Project Silk's own mentors are drawn from the ranks of those they serve, they too are susceptible to rumors — about HIV status and much else. "People perceive [peer leaders] as king of the hill," Lane says, "and you have people who want to knock them off the hill."
That's an experience Brookins knows first-hand. He's found himself being accused of "telling people's HIV status, which wasn't true at all," he says.
To minimize such drama, Brookins says, he avoids some of his old hangouts and gave up his house earlier this year, becoming a "007" again. "You have to deal with being a professional, then having your own personal life — being on the ballroom scene, being a leader," he adds. "It's way easier said than done."
‘I trust some of these people with my life'
From the time he sneaked out of his house in Michigan as a teenager to attend balls in Detroit, Chris Robinson has been interested in building ballroom communities.
"I was very surprised at how small the [Pittsburgh] community was," says Robinson, who teaches social work at CCAC and who came here eight years ago for graduate school. He later founded the local chapter of the House of Infiniti. "One of my goals was to help Pittsburgh become nationally respected as a ballroom city," but he says the effort is hampered by "a big differential between ‘I'm born and raised here, and you came here' — that's been the most damaging part of the city."
Transgender participants face challenges of their own, says Michael Battle, who is transgender and was brought in by Project Silk to encourage more trans people to participate. Battle says that the ballroom scene can reinforce conservative ideas about gender roles: The "realness" categories, after all, encourage participants to "pass" as the gender they've transitioned to. Battle worries that, at times, it "furthers the stereotypes" defined by gender. "The tension starts when people start telling you [...] ‘I'm going to teach you how to conform in the world out there,'" Battle says. "There are people who are starting to realize it's a problem."
Still, he acknowledges, having to practice presenting your gender identity can be good training for life outside the ballroom community. "Everybody wants to fit in," says Battle, and "as a person of color, you already have a strike against you."
And Quiyanna Carey, a 29-year-old African-American trans woman who competes in the ballroom scene, is proud to call herself a "realness girl. ... I take realness to a higher level because I work 9 to 5 every day [as a woman]."
And even though she acknowledges that it can be demoralizing when judges at a ballroom event don't think you're "real" enough, she's "found more acceptance in the ballroom community" than from her family or the outside world, Carey says.
"I trust some of these people with my life."
That trust, says Friedman, is the foundation Project Silk hopes to build upon.
"If it works someplace like here," he says, "maybe it will work in Cleveland, or Harrisburg, or Allentown" — smaller communities "whose populations are experiencing similar issues."
But first Project Silk must establish itself here. Battle, for one, says, "We have to come up with better programming [to] bring people here, so the image shifts from it just being a community center to a space for education."
More pressing is the fact that Silk's funding runs out at the end of this year, and it's not clear if it will be renewed.
"There are a lot of open questions" about future revenue, Friedman says, noting the CDC funding is "time limited" and that Silk might need to be "supported in another context."
"We're looking everywhere" for funding, says Silvestre. "Ideally, health departments and children- and youth-services agencies should be providing these kinds of services. ... There's definite need."
Project Silk staffers, Dr. Lane says, are "the only people who are really engaging this population in this area well." The problem, she says, is "They're running in brand-new waters [and] nobody really knows what they're doing."
For his part, Brookins is optimistic about Project Silk's future. He has, after all, been in tough spots before.
"The scene is about being yourself and being proud of that," Brookins says. "I feel like I made it. My road is just beginning."