Voguing while you learn: How CHOP is bringing sexual health to Philly’s house and ballroom scene

Voguing while you learn: How CHOP is bringing sexual health to Philly’s house and ballroom scene

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Wearing an Oxford shirt, blue Bermudas and aqua aviators, Pamela 007 from the House of 007 wielded his arms like a Swiss Army knife. The 26-year-old went limp at the knees and dropped until his back was parallel with the floor.

A nearby table of people erupted with stomping and snaps. Many caught the action with their smartphones, streaming it to Facebook Live.

The performance took place the last night of June in the recreation room of the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia in Fairmount. It was part of the first-annual Philadelphia Kiki Youth People’s Choice Awards.         

Dozens received plaques for outstanding work in everything from realness and runway to vogue femme. The event capped six months of Kiki Lounges organized by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). They aimed to get youth together to have fun and learn about sexual health.

Organizations like Bebashi, COLOURS, Mazzoni Center and the University of Pennsylvania had representatives deliver 15-minute presentations at each Kiki Lounge in a conference room in University City. The young people then blasted bass beats to practice their categories.

Most at the people’s choice awards chatted about the top $1,000 prize. But, when asked, they could recall information about pre-exposure prophylaxis, called PrEP, a daily pill regimen that’s been shown to be effective at preventing HIV; and Do You Philly, a campaign launched last month by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to provide free condoms, lube and STI tests to young men who have sex with men.

Tyrall Williams, 21, was part of the Do You Philly campaign. He modeled for some of the promotional materials and said he had a good time doing the photo shoots.

“If you put a little fun with it, you’ll get things done,” said Williams, who’s part of the House of Patron. “If we don’t inform people about their health, then we fail as a community.”

Pamela 007 said the health information sticks in people’s minds better when they talk about it with their friends.

“This is somewhere safe for the gays, basically,” he said of the ballroom competitions and Kiki Lounges.

Monte Woods, 23, of the House of Gabbana, agreed. He started coming to the Kiki Lounges because of a mutual friend from the House of 007.

“They were talking about things you wouldn’t just know on the regular,” Woods said.


‘Nothing out there like this’

CHOP is one year into a five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health. The funds support the Kiki Lounges and people’s choice awards as part of Project POSSE.

The goal is to develop a behavioral-intervention method that would make young people more knowledgeable about their sexual health, help them take fewer risks and develop mentors.

“Hopefully we can say, ‘Hello, CDC, you should package this so other people in the house and ballroom scene can use it,’” said Dr. Marné Castillo, project director at CHOP.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already endorses intervention methods based on “popular-opinion leaders,” or people with sway in a given community.

Castillo and her colleagues Richard Laboy, clinical research assistant, and Bevin Gwiazdowski, clinical research coordinator, spent about a month assembling a Community Advisory Board of 75 local opinion leaders, including the heads of 13 active houses in Philadelphia.

CHOP researchers also work closely with their counterparts at Cook County Health and Hospitals System in Chicago. Laboy said the Chicago researchers have run a version of Project POSSE for two years in their city’s house and ballroom scene and have seen significant impacts.

“There’s nothing out there like this,” Laboy said, “nothing that’s targeting these young people. We need more data.”

Laboy was a founding member of the House of Prodigy in Philadelphia in 2002. He has since reached legend status. Laboy noticed a disconnect between what his personal connections knew and what his professional connections knew. The CDC released statistics this year that found one in two black men who have sex with men will become infected with HIV.

“I’ve seen my house kids and friends affected by this epidemic,” Laboy said. “I want to make sure these kids have resources that when I was younger I didn’t have.”


Calling on the community

Michael Melvin, a member of the Community Advisory Board, described houses as “gay fraternities.” Mothers and fathers establish them, children join them and the competition is known as ballroom. House members walk in different categories, which are selected by the house that’s organizing the ball.

In the Kiki scene for young people, Melvin goes by Icon Michael Unbothered Cartier. He’s the father of Unbothered Cartier. In the real scene, he’s the father of the House of Xistence.

“If it’s like school, Kiki would be middle school before mainstream high school,” Melvin said.

Melvin helped plan the Kiki Lounges and the people’s choice awards. He likes that Project POSSE relies on existing social networks to share health information.

“It’s like, ‘OK, if he’s doing it, I can too,” he said. “It definitely gives them resources, things they might not get if they were just voguing in someone’s living room. And this project is not just coming to sit in a room and get tested. They get to bring their friends and have a party.”

Caitlin Hoffman, communications and policy coordinator with the Philadelphia health department, said it also normalizes the conversation.

“If we’re talking about sexual health at a clinic, there’s a different tension and stigma,” she said. “At a community event, it’s more positive.”


The talk

Laboy said the STI tests at the Kiki Lounges are optional. But he likes to advise people that a urine test for gonorrhea and chlamydia, which is most common, does not provide information on possible infections in the rectum or throat. Laboy said people should make sure to test all areas.

“With the presence of another STI, the likelihood of HIV infection doubles,” he said.

Laboy said the Community Advisory Board would undergo training for four weeks starting at the end of the month. It will teach them how to start conversations about sexual health in their houses.

Every six months, CHOP will conduct follow-up assessments of the young people who participated in the Kiki Lounges. The Community Advisory Board will meet monthly for “reunions” to discuss if CHOP can provide any resources to better facilitate sexual-health conversations.

CHOP researchers want the Community Advisory Board to take the lead when it comes to training each other and discussing what works in sharing sexual-health information.

“It is very community-based at every single level,” Laboy said. “We wanted [the house leaders] to be involved in giving this to their kids.” 

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