Being part of a ballroom community can have a positive impact on health, according to a review of studies presented at the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care conference in Portland, Oregon. The research project was presented by Martez Smith, LMSW, a doctoral student at the University of Rochester School of Nursing and a member of the ballroom community since 2008.
Smith's research centered around black gay and bisexual men who were part of different gay family networks, including ballroom houses, and how their place in these families affects their relationship to HIV prevention. Gay family networks are alternate family units that are often a cornerstone of black LGBTQ life.
"If you look at the African diaspora and how families are created in certain parts of the world, the gay family network falls within the lineage of the diaspora," Smith said in an interview. "It's choosing to be in a familial bond with people who support and love you and want only the best for you."
These families are especially on display in shows like FX's Pose, where Mj Rodriguez's Blanca acts as the mother of House of Evangelista and Billy Porter's Pray Tell is a father among the ball community. In the first season of the show, Pray Tell also brings some members of the House of Evangelista to get tested for HIV, something that Smith says is pretty common among families in ballroom.
How exactly do these types of alternative families make an impact when it comes to HIV prevention? Smith himself comes out of the ball scene and emphasized that these gay family networks come with values that can serve as protective barriers. He said that health and wellness is "innately valuable" to his own house.
"I think any type of family, when it's affirming and they support your autonomy in life decisions and they promote health, they really help people self-actualize," Smith said. "They help you become the best version of yourself."
He went even further and said that living a healthy lifestyle is often emphasized by house elders. Legends in the community dole out advice on how to do well in ball categories, but that often includes telling house members how to stay healthy, do well in school, and maintain a job, as "getting your life together" is important to competition prowess. This work, Smith asserted, is a kind of grassroots HIV prevention that most don't know about and hasn't really yet been studied at length.
While the ballroom community is home to its own form of grassroots HIV prevention, in comparison to the larger population of black gay men who have sex with men, black MSM in the ballroom scene do have a higher prevalence of HIV and a higher undiagnosed rate. Does that contradict the other data we know about this gay family network? According to Smith, that's not the case. Smith says we might see a higher prevalence in the community because these are people who are often extremely marginalized and in need of a family network like ballroom.
"Gay families largely provide social support," Smith said. He added that we have to think about the social determinants of health and the multiple layers of oppression many people in ballroom face. "You almost always find that when you're a black gay man or a trans woman, the likelihood of you seroconverting goes up exponentially."