By Dianna Douglas
The goal of World AIDS Day 2011 is not to make the public aware of the disease. That was the goal in 1988, back when the international health threat was still new, infections were rising every year, and there was no hope of a treatment in sight. This year, World AIDS Day marks the sunset of the public panic about the virus. The stated goal this year is “getting to zero” — or bringing the number of AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections down to zero and ending all discrimination against people living with the virus.
The University of Chicago has various ways of reaching that goal here in Chicago. There’s the STI/HIV Intervention Network (SHINE) based at the School of Social Service Administration, which brings interventions to neglected groups such as men who have sex with men, people in the criminal justice system, minority youth, and young couples. There’s also the Medical Center’s Living Positively program, in which HIV-positive young people act as advocates to their peers who are at risk.
Now, in honor of World AIDS Day, the Medical Center is trying an innovative approach to this public health issue. Instead of doing what he calls the “typical academic thing for World AIDS Day” — a panel of researchers talking about AIDS in Africa in an auditorium full of other researchers — John Schneider, MD, MPH, has organized a ball. “This year, we want to collaborate and fully engage with the community,” he said. In gay culture, a ball is where people dress in drag to show off their moves, a lot like a fashion show. The community he hopes to reach with this ball is the young GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer) minorities who have the highest HIV infection rates in the city.
While the tide may have turned in the AIDS epidemic, the infection rates of several groups remain stubbornly high. Around 22,000 people in Chicago live with HIV or AIDS, and the infection rates among African Americans and gay men are particularly sobering. Since 2005, 57 percent of new HIV infections in men have been a result of men having sex with infected men. Among African Americans, the HIV infection rate since 2005 is more than double the general population’s infection rate.
A partnership with the young people striking a pose at underground balls may seem unusual, but it may also be the best way to reach Chicago’s most vulnerable populations. “We know where the epidemic is, and we have the tools to take care of it. What is needed now is hard work using traditional case-finding methods to reach these vulnerable groups with health services,” Schneider said.
The ball tradition, subject of the award-winning documentary Paris is Burning, has long been a safe place for young black gay and transgendered people to express their creativity and build communities. The World AIDS Day mini-ball will celebrate the support that the members of this subculture offered each other during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.
“These are the people most impacted by AIDS in the United States,” said Keith Green, MSW, co-director for the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus and a co-sponsor for the event.
Everyone at the ball will see their peers promoting safe sex and healthy behavior.
Contestants — many of whom are gay, transgender or bisexual — will compete against one another in the lobby of the School of Social Service Administration this Friday night. Participants will display their dance skills, costumes and attitude in a variety of events, similar to a runway show. In some events, they will be judged on the “realness” of their drag. In others, on the beauty of their clothing and overall style. Each of the seven walk competition categories has a cash prize for the winner.
“Every category requires the creative integration of the AIDS ribbon, the color red, or latex,” said Matt Richards, outreach program manager for pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
The group with the best table decoration on the theme “Most Creative Safe Sex Message” will win $300. “The more over the top, the more likely you are to win,” Green said.
Green and Schneider have high hopes for the mini-ball as a way to build bridges where there is a history of suspicion and misunderstanding. “We want a stronger relationship between the university and the community,” Schneider said. “That kind of relationship is the only way we can get mutual trust and end the epidemic.”
Richards knows the power of support networks. He is among the many AIDS researchers who believes that suggestions for changing risky behaviors are more credible when coming from a trusted friend than from a doctor. Richards helps HIV-positive young people act as mentors to their friends through the Living Positively program. It uses positive peer pressure to keep young people with HIV on their medication, disclose their HIV status to their families and practice safe sex. “This is cutting-edge behavioral intervention,” Richards said.
It’s also effective. The Living Positively program was initially funded for a year by the Chicago Department of Public Health. Six months ago, it was re-funded for an additional three years.
“These are people who have a lot of strikes against them in our society,” Richards said. “We can’t use a public health megaphone to speak into those communities. We need partners within these communities to get across the message,” Richards said.
All of the researchers involved with the World AIDS Day mini-ball from the School of Social Service Administration and the Medical Center say that the University of Chicago has the capacity and the knowledge to help treat the HIV epidemic in Chicago.
“In my lifetime I suspect that there will be a day when there are no new cases,” Schneider said. He believes that a good relationship between the Chicago ball community and the Medical Center will make that day come a little more quickly.