LGBTQ Life

Fighting the spread of HIV by posing on the dance floor

A performer competes during a vogue ball in Baltimore, where the city's health department hosts the annual event as part of an HIV outreach and education effort. Patrick Semansky, AP

A performer competes during a vogue ball in Baltimore, where the city's health department hosts the annual event as part of an HIV outreach and education effort. Patrick Semansky, AP

A performer competes during a vogue ball in Baltimore, where the city’s health department hosts the annual event as part of an HIV outreach and education effort.

BALTIMORE — Beneath the neon lights of a banquet hall on an industrial stretch of the city, models strutted across an elevated stage in homemade evening gowns and tuxedos adorned with sequins, lace and something atypical for the runway: Trojan condom wrappers.

This particular contest — part dancing, part modeling — had just two requirements. Incorporate condoms and the color red, a universal symbol used in HIV prevention ads.

As the night marched on, men in fluorescent Lycra competed in a series of dance contests, pirouetting, high-kicking and duck-walking. Meanwhile, others went behind a white curtain strung up in the back of the hall, emerging with red bandages in the creases of their forearms. They had been tested for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

Welcome to the biggest “vogue” ball in Baltimore, where the stakes are high both on and off the runway. Performers here hope to walk away with bragging rights, trophies and cash prizes. Baltimore’s health department, which organizes the ball, has a different incentive. It hopes to administer as many HIV tests as possible to curb the troublingly high rate of new infections.

With a population just over 622,000, the city ranks sixth in the country for highest rate of AIDS infection. According to 2012 estimates, roughly 2 percent of Baltimore’s population, or approximately 13,000 people, is HIV positive. This demographic of dancers and their friends, made up almost entirely of gay black and Hispanic men and transgender women, is at the highest risk.

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And so, in an effort to reach a community that typically comes alive after midnight in darkened downtown clubs, the health department meets them halfway and hosts dance competitions, called vogue balls.

“People said they weren’t comfortable, that they didn’t know about the various resources the health department has,” said Keith Holt, the youth outreach coordinator for the Baltimore City Health Department, and one of the ball’s organizers.

As both a health department employee and a member of the LGBT community, Holt was able to bridge the gap between two worlds. “We decided instead of them coming to us, we’d go to them.”

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