J. Donté Prayer is NCAAN’s Health Access Coordinator, as well as the founder of R.O.L.E. Models, a program that utilizes fashion as a tool for health promotion and HIV awareness in the black community. We sat down with Donté for a Q&A about his HIV advocacy, House/Ballroom culture, and his favorite categories.
Where were you this weekend?
Birmingham, Alabama at the Love Brings Change Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Ball.
Who hosted the ball?
The Southeast Region Ballroom Alliance.
How was the event?
The event was great! It was a great way to highlight HIV education, specifically for Southern states. It was also very eye opening. Some of the categories really prompted the need to reinforce HIV interventions, and awareness and advocacy. One of the ball categories, in order to get redemption, you had to answer questions about HIV, but several people got basic questions wrong. It really highlighted the need to have more awareness and interventions within the House/Ballroom community. I was telling some colleagues that we really have to get back to the awareness and education piece. Everyone’s pushing testing, testing, testing, but a lot of people really don’t know the reasons why to get tested. I think we, collectively as healthcare providers, need to do a better job of, yes, pushing testing, but also making sure we have the education piece.
Can you talk a little bit about Southern House/Ballroom?
Historically, Ballroom was started up North in New York, but there’s a big House/Ballroom presence in Southern states like North and South Carolina, and in the deep south, Louisiana, and Alabama. People just think it’s a Northern thing or West Coast thing, but truly the most Ballroom participants come from the Southern region of the United States, so the promoter and I decided to collaborate and promote that and Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Why having balls that also promote HIV awareness is such a passion project for you?
For one, I am a part of the community and I see the need. That’s why it’s a passion, and one of the main reasons why I want to engage the community. But like I just mentioned, people didn’t even know the basics like what HIV is an acronym for. I want to bridge the gaps and make it relatable, so the information will stick. We get the chance to advocate and educate through ballroom categories. It may be written into the category, but also at points throughout the night. There’s a category where the participants had to do research about organizations in specific areas, and then during the event, they had to tell people about the agency, which provided a live directory of where people can go for resources. People are going to read the categories because they want to compete and get the cash prizes, and at the same time they can get that knowledge.
What was your favorite category?
My favorite categories are Sex Siren and Runway. Because it’s all about sex positivity and stuff like that, so I’m kind of biased. And runway, well I’ve always loved runway because I’m a runway guy myself. There’s so much creativity.
So, I understand that you also got an award this weekend.
Yeah, I was actually surprised. It was called the Vanguard Appreciation Award, to show appreciation for my continuous support for Ballroom throughout the nation.
Vanguard means kind of like on the forefront of things. Do you consider yourself a pioneer in this space?
I can’t really say pioneer in this space because in Ballroom history if you walk runway or Vogue, they have what they call legends, icons and pioneers. Pioneers is the highest. That means you skillfully mastered your category. So I wouldn’t say I’m a pioneer because it has a specific meaning, but I do feel that I am that dude when it comes to House/Ballroom engagement and trying to bridge the gaps between health equity. I think a lot of people are going to call on me to be there to support or even do capacity building. They came to me this time and said, we need a study guide for HIV terms because they know I’m a content expert in HIV and well-versed in Ballroom culture. So I wouldn’t use the word pioneer, but I would say I am exceptional in the regards of bridging the gaps between House/Ballroom community and HIV education.
Why is the intersection of Ballroom and health equity such a perfect avenue to do the health advocacy work that you want to do?
Because a lot of the community is marginalized, and historically we know that marginalized people get the brunt of health disparities. There’s so many marginalized people or intersections that have been oppressed within the LGBTQ community, especially in Ballroom.There’s so many trans individuals. One of the reasons why House/Ballroom was formed was because LGBTQ or queer people didn’t have a safe space to do anything. A lot of times when teens or adolescents found out that they were gay, their biological families, ostracized them or kicked them out of the house, so they have to find refuge in a chosen family. Houses are structured like a family. There’s house mothers, house brothers, house sisters, house fathers, house aunties, house everything, it’s your chosen family. Another reason why I want to bridge those gaps is because the community as a whole, the queer community has been oppressed, and even more so with the Ballroom community because there’s so many more nuances or disparities that happen, like when it comes to housing. Like I said, you may have gotten kicked out, and with that comes food insecurities, because if you don’t have a place to live, you might not even know where you’re going to get your next meal from. That can lead to implications for your health because don’t have the nutrients you need, which can lead to so many health disparities. If you don’t have stable housing, you might not have the ability to get the medications you need, or services, or insurance because when you apply for insurance or other supportive services, typically the first thing they ask you is your address. There’s just so many layers. That’s why I want to make sure that I am highlighting the House/Ballroom community because they’re a marginalized community.
What’s next for you as a vanguard?
Just continuing to be supportive and show up. I think that’s really what means the most. For me, it’s more than just a testing number or a grant deliverable. I really and authentically care about people’s quality of life. Ultimately, I do want to throw a big elaborate ball of my own, but until that happens, I’m going to support smaller balls and really focus on the quality of life for people involved in the community. Humanity is my ministry, so that’s what I want to figure out and navigate. Also, just being consistent. You have to build that trust with people, so they can advocate for themselves. I heard members of the House/Ballroom community say at events like HIV speaks on Jones Street, that one reason why they came was because NCAAN or R.O.L.E. Models were at these balls tabling. I’m definitely going to support as many as I can and continue to be that advocate and safe space for people to have.
Is there anything else that you want people to know about House/Ballroom, about R.O.L.E Models, about Southern HIV and AIDS awareness?
I would just say, do research. In the House/Ballroom community there is more than just entertainment. House/Ballroom is a connector and a lifesaver for so many people. I’ve listened to people say if it wasn’t for Ballroom, I don’t know where I would be because this is their chosen family, and a trusted source where they’re able to find supportive services. I always tell people don’t think that Ballroom is, or black people are, a monolith, because we’re not. Don’t have a certain perception of Ballroom, really, truly try to engage Ballroom for yourself. That’s my charge to people. Get to know people for themselves, get to know the communities for themselves, and I think the world would be a better place.