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."