Grit & Glitter 

To be young, black, gay, and glamorous in Chicago's ball scene

Page 3 of 3

HOUSES MOSTLY OPERATE independently of one another, but there's one place where competitors from across the community gather to practice and prepare for balls. Every Thursday a subtle techno beat radiates from the Winnie Mandela Intergenerational Alternative High School in South Shore. In the basement, 40 young men move to the music, their loose shirts cutting the air as they vogue. This is the School of Opulence, the nonprofit arm of the House of Avant Garde.

The SOO has been holding workshops in runway and vogueing technique for nine years. And if you want to learn grantwriting or how to teach HIV prevention, there are classes on those topics, too. Mauren "Alyaze" Avant Garde and Tommy Avant Garde are the SOO's founders, executive directors, and primary funders. An Icon and House of Avant Garde housefather, Mauren is also considered one of the founders of the Chicago ballroom scene itself.

"We want to instill in our kids that the school is just a stepping stone," Mauren says. "We teach them how to market themselves as performers. We want them to build confidence as they move into the working world."

Mario Knowles, an SOO student whose ballroom name is So'nee Mischka, has been walking balls since early 2009, when he was 17. He lives with his dad and 15 other extended family members in two houses that share a front yard at 107th and Langley. The "Beware of Dog" sign hung on the front fence is an understatement: the family owns eight pit bulls.

"I use the ballroom scene as a place to express myself in ways that I can't in real life," Knowles explains, sitting on a jungle gym across the street from his home, wearing a T-shirt, thigh-hugging jeans, and lace-up knee-high Timberlands. "As a homosexual male it's hard to walk down the street on the west or south side. You get treated differently. The ballroom scene is the only place I can freak out."

Knowles grew up in his mother's house and only met his dad, Tim, a year ago. But he and Tim quickly became close.

"For me, it's strange," Tim says of the ballroom scene. "But it's my son and I love him, so I can't but support him. Your family should be your biggest support."

Tim often helps Mario think through his looks for balls and has even cheered him on at a few. "I've been learning a lot from my son," he says. "He's enlightened me on the gay lifestyle. And he's a person who has a lot of individuality and is determined to be the best at what he does. That's all I'd want for him."

Unlike Dixon and Kirk, Mario feels comfortable with his birth family. But his neighbors can be less accepting. He says two local men attended a family party with the intention of beating him up. His family chased them out, but the incident was a reminder of how violently homophobic the people around him can get. Understandably, he socializes far from home, in the gay enclaves of Jackson Park and Lakeview's Boys Town (See "No place to be somebody").

"I've come to terms with the rest of the world and I know the best ways to express myself," says Mario. "Being homosexual can sometimes mean life or death. But you've just got to brush it off and live your life."

"THE BALLROOM CAN BE THE BEST thing to happen to you, but it can also be the worst," muses Solomon Arnold. His House of Infiniti throws two balls a year, and at each he makes sure that somewhere between 50 and 100 participants get tested for HIV. The virus is a pervasive problem in the ballroom scene, he says, and the attentions of service providers such as Taskforce Prevention & Community Services, the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus, and the Howard Brown Health Center aren't helping much.

According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study using data from 2006, gay men account for nearly half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S. They're also the only group in the U.S. who've experienced annual increases in HIV infections since the early 1990s. And when it comes to black gay men, by far the most new infections occur among 13- to 29-year-olds. The study found that the infection rate for that group is roughly double what it is for whites and Latinos in the same age range.

"Service providers target the ballroom scene because of the prevalence of HIV and STIs in the community," notes Mauren Avant Garde. "But there's so much distrust. The kids have been let down too many times. They've been promised housing, jobs, scholarships, and it doesn't come through. And now I don't totally trust 90 percent of service providers to do what they're tasked to do."

The House of Avant Garde and School of Opulence have made efforts to improve the relationship between service providers and the ball community, holding public forums to make sure the voices of ball youth are heard. "The boys are starting to get educated, and they're starting to question the system and the way money is being used," Mauren says. "Things are going to change. It's time service providers invite the kids to the table and really listen to what they want."

In the meantime, there's some disturbing behavior among those kids.

Balls cost money. In order to stay competitive, ball participants need to cover $10 to $30 entrance fees, outfits, makeup, travel, and house dues. "You could spend up to $500 on a ball look," says Mario Knowles. "And you can never wear the same outfit twice because you'd get chopped."

As a consequence, Arnold says, "There are plenty of people who steal stuff. They'll prostitute themselves, sell drugs, create fake checks and credit cards. There's also a lot of violence. People fight, some have been shot at ballroom house parties." He trails off. "There are plenty of people who are in the ball scene to stay out of trouble, but there are also those who are in it to stay in trouble. But you know, with the bad comes the opportunity to see how it could get better."

Mauren Avant Garde also sees potential. "The ballroom scene is starting to come into its own and figure out who it is," he says. "Ballroom kids are breaking stereotypes. They're stepping up, and I'm very proud of that. For a passionate performer, the ballroom is a place of recognition. And for people who aren't privileged enough to get into a dance school, this is their outlet. I try to teach them that they should take what they learn here and move on."

STANDING IN THE CROWD at Family Affair, Justin Dixon is surrounded by scores of men. It's a relatively small group for the scene, but there's nothing small about the energy in the room. Each house shouts its own name. "Mizrahi! Mizrahi!" "Kardashian! Kardashian!" The competing chants collide in chaos. But it's chaos to a beat.

Dixon won't win tonight. He'll be back at the School of Opulence next Thursday, though, to work on his craft.

It's a slow climb to Legend.

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