Project Silk takes an unorthodox approach to serving an often-invisible community

July 9, 2014

From Pittsburgh’s City Paper

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.” [...] 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.”

Read the full article on the City Paper Website.

Filed under: News


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