As a young man, Greg Wilson began exploring his sexuality.
“I knew I was gay but it was a long time before I acted on my feelings,” he said. “I had no one to talk to about it.”
At 15 and still seeking answers, Wilson turned to the underground LGBT subculture of the house and ballroom community.
“Those places were more accessible and safe for individuals who lived an alternative lifestyle,” Wilson said. “It was always a party going on but more importantly, I related to the people.”
The houses are home to alternative lifestyle families, led by “mothers” and “fathers,” providing guidance and support for their house “children.” The subculture began in Harlem more than 50 years ago out of necessity and survival. Now, houses exist across the United States in more than 15 cities.
Wilson did not come out to anyone until he was 18.
“My outrageous fashion style became a way of demonstrating who I was without putting it into words,” he said. Wilson caught the attention of house members.
“I was told I had runway potential and was invited to a house meeting,” he said. “There were about 16 people who formed a supportive system that resembles a family. I immediately felt a sense of belonging and relief to find a place for me to thrive.” Becoming a part of the house was his saving grace.
“When you feel invisible, the house community recognizes you as a talented person, which helped me find my purpose and embrace who I am,” Wilson said.
He was 21 years old before he fully submerged himself into the culture.
“I was fascinated with people who were not judgmental and understood me,” Wilson said. “I was in a state of confusion, depressed about my gay lifestyle and suffered from low self-esteem along with suicidal thoughts.”
To give the public a glimpse into the ball scene, music and videos by Beyoncé and Madonna have been inspired by the confidence demonstrated by the people from the house circuit. One of the most memorable songs and video was “Vogue,” by Madonna. The moves were a variation of highly stylized, posed dance forms.
“When I begin to compete, known as ‘walking much like a fashion catwalk,’ I needed to become familiar with the people in my category of ‘walking’ and learned to slay the runway,” Wilson said. “In my quest to be the best in the house ball culture, I studied the legends such as Pepper LaBeija, who is depicted in the iconic 1991 documentary ‘Paris is Burning,’
“LaBeija said, ‘A house is a family for those who don’t have a family.’’’
Wilson was a late bloomer and when he finally found love in his early 20s, he was hopeful that it would last. Not long after the relationship blossomed, he became very sick, but thought it was a bad cold or pneumonia.
“For more than a month, my symptoms were a persistant cough, bloody stool, loss of appetite, fatigue, weakness, night sweats, unexplained weight loss,” he said.
His mother noticed the change in his physical appearance and insisted he see a doctor.
“I went in January 2005 to get a series of tests including blood work,” he said.
Two weeks laters, on Valentine’s Day, he got a phone call from a doctor and was told the grim news, he had HIV. Coincidentally, Feb. 7 is designated as National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
“I had no idea what HIV was and his phone call was difficult to comprehend what that meant,” said Wilson, who was 23 years old at the time. “I immediately thought I was going to die.”
He remained a member of the house community but no longer competed because he needed to focus on his mental, physical and emotional health.
“My mother was concerned about what people would think of me,” he said. “She told me that no one needs to know what you are going through.”
A few days after his doctor’s visit, Wilson reached out to his love interest, who reacted defensively, blaming him for the diagnosis, and rejected him.
“He was my first sexual partner so there was no way I had infected him,” Wilson said.
The heartbreak made him determined to get the help he needed.
“To my surprise, there were no services in the Antelope Valley,” Wilson said. “I had to move out of my mom’s home to be close enough to access the services I needed to cope with my HIV status.”
Wilson also needed housing, food resources, counseling to combat my suicidal thoughts and treatment.
“I was in a transitional living program for about eight months,” said Wilson who was working two jobs because he knew it would be a temporary situation. “I could only remain in the program until I turned 24 years.”
He was able to save his money and because of his HIV status he was eligible for Section 8 housing.
Today, Wilson is 35, studying psychology at a local community college and working at In the Meantime Men’s Group, where he is the senior manager.
“When I realized that there were hundreds of others who were in the same situation, I had a moment and wanted to provide peer counseling,” he said.
“The organization focuses on the mental, physical and spiritual well-being in intergenerational black men regardless of sexual orientation through community outreach, social, health and wellness programs and services,” Wilson said. “We offer free testing, health care services, referrals, educational workshops, weekly support groups and social activities.”
“I have worked in the nonprofit sector for 12 years,” Wilson said. “My journey began at the In the Meantime Men’s Group for two years and then I moved to other agencies in my quest to reach young, African American gay men who are part of sub-cultures such as the house and ballroom communities.”
Wilson said, “People knew my status but I was still embarrassed to discuss it on a bigger platform.”
His book, “The Metamorphosis Of A Heart: The Butterfly Effect,” was born out of his journal entries from over the years about his experience living with HIV.
“The hardest part was building myself up while I watched others in the community struggle with the stigma of being African American and gay,” Wilson said.
HIV is more manageable than it was when it first became known in the 1980s. Infected individuals are living past 50.
Organizations like ACRIA, a not-for-profit community-based AIDS research group, addressed the issue of older people getting HIV and AIDS. ACRIA launched a campaign, “Age is not a condom,” to bring awareness that the graying population is in denial when it comes to practicing safe sex.
The access to sex-enhancing drugs such as Viagra allows men to continue an active sex life but the message of testing for STDs, HIV, and knowing your status is lost in the ideal that the “thrill is not gone.”
At the same time, older women may only think about menopause serving as a protection from pregnancy but may not consider that it does not prevent you from getting a sexually transmitted disease.
The alarming truth is based on ACRIA’s Research on Older Adults with HIV estimates that 50 percent of people with HIV in the U.S. will be age 50 and older by 2015 — and by 2020, more than 70 percent of Americans with HIV are expected to be age 50 and older.
The National Resource Center of LGBTQ Aging reported in 2014, adults age 50 and older account for 15 percent of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses and 29 percent of all people living with AIDS.
“We have to remember that we are the artists and the world is our canvas and we can paint with any color or contrast that we choose,” Wilson said. “I choose to be hopeful that the disease would be eradicated and the world to be more accepting of those who can’t change.”
Since 1988, Dec. 1 has been World AIDS Day. It was established to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and to remember those who have lost their battle against the disease.
“World AIDS Day is a reminder that this disease is affecting all of us directly and indirectly, no matter your age or gender, and knowing your status is the beginning of ending this epidemic,” Wilson said.
AIDS Community Research Initiative of America – www.acria.org
AIDS Healthcare Foundation – www.ahf.org
AIDSVu – www.aidsvu.org
Children’s Hospital – www.chla.org
In the Meantime Men’s Group – www.inthemeantimemen.org
Los Angeles LGBT Center – www.lalgbtcenter.org
Minority AIDS Project – www.minorityaidsproject.org
Paris is Burning documentary – www.documentaryheaven.com/paris-is-burning
The Black Church & HIV: The Social Justice Imperative – www.theblackchurchandhiv.org
World AIDS Day – www.worldaidsday.org
Marie Y. Lemelle, MBA, a public relations consultant, is the owner of Platinum Star PR and can be reached on Twitter @PlatinumStar or Instagram @PlatinumStarPR. Send “Health Matters” related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and look for her column in The Wave.