Emily A. Arnold
Marlon M. Bailey
Publication Date
January 1, 2009

Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, University of California, San Francisco (Arnold), Indiana University, Bloomington (Bailey)

"This article focuses on the construction of homes and families within the ballroom community, a prominent feature of urban GLBTQ communities of color in cities across the United States.”

This research explores the importance of gender and sexual identity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) youth in informing community practice around HIV prevention and treatment in two "ballroom communities" in California and Michigan, United States. The researchers first describe the potential reasons for higher rates of HIV in young African American men who have sex with men (YAAMSM), including: "[a]long with lack of rigorously evaluated, culturally appropriate interventions for YAAMSM, very few interventions have utilized existing social structures within communities....[M]any public health approaches do not take into account existing social structures and the various forms of "intravention" that are organically taking place within the community. Furthermore, there has been little research into notions of kinship and 'home' with YAAMSM, particularly in examining how these salient social structures can play an active role in the effort to prevent HIV transmission." [Footnotes are removed throughout by the editor.]

As stated here, there is dearth of research on kinship practices among African Americans, especially GLBTQ. This research draws on the concept of "kinscripts", the interplay of family ideology, norms, and behaviours over the life course that is passed from generation to generation. Drawing on Queer kinship studies, as well, this study of the ballroom community attempts to address gaps in the research so that culturally appropriate, sustainable HIV prevention interventions can be developed that will better serve YAAMSM.

The study introduces the ballroom community: "Ballroom culture, sometimes called 'house culture,' is a clandestine community consisting of African American and (in some locations...) Latino/a GLBTQ people.... Ballroom culture consists of two primary features: anchoring family-like structures, called houses, and the flamboyant competitive balls that they produce. Houses are a part of a national social network and many have several chapters throughout the country. Led by house mothers and fathers, houses function as families whose main purpose is to organize elaborate balls and to provide support for their children to compete in balls as well as to survive in society as marginalized members of their communities of origin. Houses offer their children multiple forms of social support, a network of friends, and a social setting that allows free gender and sexual expression....At balls, members of the ballroom community draw from existing traditions of African American cultural performance to create an alternative world...." The balls are "...based on the deployment of performative gender and sexual identities, vogue and theatrical performances, and the effective presentation of fashion and physical attributes....The intense, often collectively competitive performances create a space of celebration, affirmation, and critique."

This study discusses the role that the houses and balls play in providing HIV-related social support to YAAMSM. Through ethnographic interviewing of the "children" of several houses, house mothers, and house overseers, and working with The Men of Color Motivational Group Inc.'s ballroom community HIV prevention programme, data were collected between 2001 and 2006. The data contribute to: defining gender as an organising principle in the communities; describing the function of the celebration of the ball as an act of acceptance of diverse genders, as well as promoting membership; and showing the degree to which individuals find a home and sources of support and friendship. The data describe the roles of house mothers and fathers, including nurturance and guidance.

HIV protection can fall under those roles of "parenting": "Mothers provided safer sex advice based on life experience, their involvement in professional HIV-prevention work, and also (in some cases) sex work....Thus, house mothers were the primary providers of information and support for seeking out HIV testing, and they were also seen as a good source of support for relationship and sexual advice.....The approach house fathers took differed from that of house mothers. Fathers often focused on structural factors pertaining to vulnerability to HIV, such as improving the socioeconomic circumstances of their children. The fathers’ interventions were concerned with the lifelong personal development of their children....According to the house father, house members had to be ‘actively bettering themselves.’ Thus, his children had to be pursuing careers or educational goals to better themselves, with the expectation that they would give back to the community, through volunteer work or through material support of younger house members....Addressing vulnerability to HIV by reducing the structural oppression that YAAMSM may experience by virtue of their race, educational status, homosexuality, and lower economic status typically fell under the purview of house fathers."

The study offers recommendations on how to make the collaborations between community-based organisations (CBOs) and the ballroom community more effective at reducing HIV incidence rates among YAAMSM, including the following:

  • Tap into the structure of ballroom culture as a network of support. Staff members should work with house parents to devise strategies for prevention within the house such as organising special house meetings and events focused on information about sex and HIV/AIDS prevention.
  • Given their central roles as nurturers and providers of information regarding negotiating sexual relationships and encounters, collaborate more closely with house mothers. Work with house mothers to get their children tested and to make sure that they know the best ways to avoid HIV transmission.
  • Collaborate more closely with house fathers to make resources more accessible for ballroom community members, including employment training, General Educational Development (GED) programming, and educational opportunities.

The research concludes that: "An awareness of and a commitment to work within the gendered division of labor within the houses can make linkages between CBOs and the ballroom community much more effective....House mothers, fathers, and siblings provided a constellation of support, some of it general support, and some of it specific to HIV. These organic forms of support, information, love, and acceptance often go unnoticed by health and social service professionals, who tend to define family and home in terms of biology."

African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS

Journal of Gay Lesbian Social Services, January 1 2009; 21(2-3): 171-188, accessed June 18 2013. Image credit: GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) Blog Spot