This weekend, REACH LA’s annual fundraising ball Ovahness takes place at 356 S. Mission Road. To learn more about the ball and the organization, we spoke with Adrienne Adams, a Critical Theory and Social Justice major at Occidental College who is in the process of building an archive for REACH LA.
Ethan Swan: Can you start with a brief introduction to REACH LA and the work they do?
Adrienne Adams: Since 1992, REACH LA has looked at how to connect youth cultures of color and queer subcultures with information regarding HIV and AIDS prevention or treatment. This has included things like theater of the oppressed, using those techniques to facilitate a shift in the internalized and externalized oppressions that dictate sexual habits and behaviors. It also includes the annual Ovahness ball, where different categories might involve using different materials and artistic techniques, like voguing, to express an HIV/AIDS message. There’s been a range of ways to do HIV education in non-didactic ways.
ES: How did you get involved in building an archive for REACH LA?
AA: So the archive project started because I was a teaching assistant for a queer archival class at Occidental College. We were building this digital book about queer subcultures in Los Angeles. One of the professors working on it was connected to Joe Stewart who is a current board member of REACH LA. Basically we go there, and I kind of fall in love. You know there’s magic there, but it’s just this plain office, totally sterile. We did this preliminary archival survey, just to look through things. Fast forward to the summer, I get this grant to basically build their archive. So I conduct this archival survey, which entails counting all the different things they have before starting an order. REACH LA has never been scared of printing, even in the early days, so you’d find two thousand copies of something printed in 1996. I got another grant to continue working with them and I conducted 18 oral histories between September and today with the forefounders, the first peer health educators, various staff, and a few of the ballroom folks who are part of it.
ES: The first time we hosted Ovahness at 356 Mission, one of the things thing that really stood out to me about REACH LA is the focus on empowering their clients. Like there isn’t a mandate to host a ball every year, there’s a mandate to work with the clients and figure out what they want to do every year. Did that idea always exist? Is it something that developed along the way?
AA: That started from the get go. I think it’s important to start off by acknowledging that it was never meant to be a nonprofit and it was never meant to last 25 years. It was really these numerous political and personal moments overlapping that allowed for it. It started out when Tessa DeRoy, Eve Luckring, Diane Bromberg, and Laura Owens met at the Women’s Action Coalition. They get into this subcommittee to increase the diversity in WAC as it was primarily upper class white women who are very intelligent and artsy, but they wanted younger folks. They get in contact with a few youth through the California Youth Theater and the youth are like, ‘we want to have a club’ so they were like, ‘yeah, let’s do that.’ And that was really to address the increase in HIV rates among young women and also to increase membership in WAC to be this younger crowd. From there, they get positive feedback, they’re like, ‘wow, this really did have an impact.’ They had clubs until 2001. So from the get go, it was always pinpointing what the particular cultural, political climate is, and then sort of seeing who’s really affected by this and going with that person’s vision.
ES: Can you tell me more about these clubs?
AA: Club Prophylactive (Pro-Feel-Active) was an event that happened about once or twice a year. It would take place in a warehouse Downtown, a gang-neutral territory. The event consisted of youth ages 12 and up going to this nightly event where on one side of the club they could dance and witness live performances of LA underground house and Hip-hop artists of the time such as the Black Eyed Peas and DJ Richard “Humpty” Vission. On the other side, in the “Latex Lounge,” youth would be able to access information regarding sexual health via fun games such as “Lube Thumb wrestling” put forth by health care agencies.
ES: So the first ball was in 2006. How does that begin?
AA: In the end of 2005, the CDC, which is a primary funder for REACH LA, was like, ‘okay, you work with young women but in the next fiscal year you have to work with black men who have sex with men and Latino men who have sex with men, two groups who are disproportionally affected by HIV and AIDS.’ And so the leadership at the time were like, ‘oh my god, this is not our ballpark.’ The reason that Carla, Gina and other folks had joined in 1998 is they really wanted to focus on young women and girls. So they were like, ‘we have to do this shift? How?’ It was through certain connections, like Rick Wilson, that they began to figure it out, but also Sean/Milan comes in and starts volunteering at that time. He basically connects it to the ballroom scene, which really wasn’t done at that time. The first one was July 2006, and that was Sean’s ball. Now they’re returning to that idea of working with a leader in the ballroom community such as Gia, who is hosting this year, or next year will be Jamari, as the center of the ball. They’ll work with REACH, but they’re really the ones developing it.
ES: I’m glad you brought up Gia – when she spoke at the World AIDS Day event earlier this month I was surprised to hear how long she’d been involved with REACH. Are those long-term connections common?
AA: Yeah, Gia’s been with REACH since she was 17. I think it’s the fact that REACH really allows for people to not feel like a statistic. It really allows for artistic innovation as well, and that format of, if people have an idea and it’s thought through and they’re willing to pursue it, REACH will find avenues to pursue it. I’ve found the age bracket that REACH targets just gets larger and larger. I think REACH is really unlike other nonprofits because it’s really focused on the personal development of the individuals more than meeting their institutional goals. I think that’s why people stay. It really does become more of this queer alternative family structure. REACH in a lot of ways, is sort of like a House which is how I’ve been thinking about it in my research.
ES: This gets at the heart of what’s so important about the archival work you’re doing for REACH, since this kind of family structure can be really difficult to illuminate. Has this been a challenge for you?
AA: An archivist is an extremely political and ideological position even though people see it as this neutral gatekeeper. One challenge has been ‘what do I actually think I’m learning about the organization?’ I have to reconcile that fact that I actually won’t reveal through the REACH LA history a shift in sexual behaviors, or a model of effectiveness. I think what we have to focus on instead are the relationships that are more ephemeral. It really is sort of a kiki in some sense.
ES: What’s a kiki?
AA: Kiki, it’s a time in which you spill tea, gossip, and you really have that family reunion-esque feeling. Catching up. I think that’s what emerges more out of the archival record than say, what a lot of HIV and AIDS funders are interested in: shifts in sexual behaviors. REACH is not like typical nonprofits, but it has these similar tensions. Productive tensions. They still have to respond to funders, it’s not exceeding these capitalist responsibilities that are in place. So how do they make the work legible so there’s buy in from numerous people, including funders, but then also be able to do that transformative work they want to do?
ES: I think the underlying goals of Ovahness are helpful in thinking about this. It’s ostensibly a fundraiser for REACH LA, with a $40 ticket price, but then it’s also free for anyone who gets an HIV test at the REACH LA offices. So it raises capital for the organization, but also gets a bunch of teenagers tested. And everyone is welcome, provided they can pay or will get tested. This is one of the things that’s been exciting about hosting Ovahness at 356 Mission, but also there’s a challenge because of the difficult history of the art world exploiting drag and queer culture. We’ve talked a lot internally about how we can present Ovahness in a way that retains the safety, that family feeling you mention, but also brings in our audience, which might not have an inroad to ballroom culture otherwise. What benefit is there to having Ovahness at 356 Mission, and how do we make sure it’s done respectfully?
I think it’s a question of whose voices are centered. In terms of what I’ve seen of 356 Mission in collaboration with REACH LA, is its these specializations really coming together rather than the art world taking over and providing a creative direction. This deemphasizes the fact that it’s in a gallery, or the spatial ordering of the gallery or that certain etiquette. In terms of your question of what happens when this very contained yet loose network or culture might get to a wider audience, I think the primary benefit is resources. Sustaining the vision and mission of the people who are most adversely affected by the different things that REACH addresses, that’s when the reciprocal dynamic fits in. The thing that happens with Paris is Burning, the primary example, is Jenny Livingston gets this cultural relevance, but then, interestingly enough, the primary characters, a majority of them, are dying from AIDS. The knowledge about them may enter the mainstream audience, but their access to mainstream resources, such as housing or healthcare, go by the wayside. It’s almost like they are still operating with the same means that they had primary to Paris is Burning. So it’s like who really benefits?
(all images courtesy REACH LA)