Friday, April 24, 2015

From the Archives: Have a Ball!
Wolfgang Busch, Director and Producer of How Do I Look, Showcases the Ball Community and Its HIV Outreach
Article originally published in A&U Magazine, December, 2006

Wolf Busch, the opening night of The Flow Affair documentary, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Wolf Busch, at the premier of A Flow Affair. Photo by Alina Oswald.
From Madonna's "Vogue" video to films like "Paris Is Burning," the Harlem ballroom community has always been a playground where young, talented gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people can build their self-esteem by competing in categories like fashion or dance as an art form. The "illusion of a runway" that ball events provide for performing members don't only allow them to live out their fantasies, but also to freely express themselves artistically. Organized in "houses" with an (usually) elected "mother" and "father," the ballroom (or ball) community looks after its members and nurtures their talents.

Flagging in NYC, at the opening night of A Flow Affair, a documentary by Wolfgang Busch. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Flagging in NYC, at the premier of A Flow Affair, a documentary by Wolfgang Busch. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

"Some houses are like gangs," artistic activist Wolfgang Busch explains during our phone interview about his new film on the New York City ball community, "in the bad sense." "Paris Is Burning," a film about the house with the same name, has been criticized as exploiting these negative aspects of the ball community. That's why, in his new documentary, German-American filmmaker Wolfgang Busch offers a fresh image of the ball community, concentrating on houses that make a positive difference in the lives of their members. "How Do I Look," which took ten years to produce filming and interviewing community members at various ball events, focuses on educating the upcoming "ball" generation in the positive assets of houses dedicated to helping their members to get an education and a job. These houses also organize balls specifically dealing with HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and outreach. "How Do I Look" also focuses on members of the ball community who, while socially marginalized by racism, perform in the balls for fashion and artistic awards, thus creating their own arenas of standards and success. Many of them, like Tracy Africa, Willi Ninja, or Jose Extravaganza took their runway walks to a professional level.

"What I respect so much about the ball community is its inclusiveness," he says, commenting on what he considers its most important quality. "No matter if you work on the Fourteenth Street or as a fashion designer or [if you are a] celebrity, everybody can walk a ball: People of all shapes and forms have a place to compete."

Busch takes the knowledge that the ball community is all about fashion and glamor and how its members look a step further in his documentary, using "How Do I Look" to show how the ball community members look on the inside, because it's obvious that they look "fabulous" on the outside.

Rev. Charles A. Gilmore Jr, filmmaker Wolf Busch, group picture at the premier of A Flow Affair, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Rev. Charles A. Gilmore Jr, filmmaker Wolf Busch, group picture at the premier of A Flow Affair, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Looks are important for one's self-esteem, especially for male-to-female transsexuals who transition and sometimes look as "feminine" as they would like. For them it's really important to get accepted in real life, in their community. So, being part of various ball events and competing for various awards pull them through the hard times.   

Wolfgang Busch's first contact with the ball community was an actual ball at a club called Tracks, in 1987. Yet it wasn't until 1989, through a fundraiser for the Gay Games in Vancouver, when he met assistant director and lifetime achiever in the ball community, Kevin Omni.

As a cultural gay activist, Busch has dedicated his life to empower LGBT artists. He plans a meeting with Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons, both very outspoken in the arts and its role in the political arena because the artistic community is "the most powerful community on the planet," because the "stars," when they unite, can determine major changes in most aspects of our life.

NYC artist Davey Mitchell and Wolf Busch, at Imaginary Eyes opening night, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
NYC artist Davey Mitchell and Wolf Busch, at Imaginary Eyes opening night, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
When it comes to HIV/AIDS, the ball community was maybe the most hit by the pandemic. In 1998 the ball community lost Fila Omni to AIDS. Since 2001, the community has also lost Gerald Dupree Labeija, Kenny Ebony, Eriq Christian Bazzar, and Marcel Christian to AIDS, and Pepper Labeija to diabetes. 

Wolfgang Busch with contributing artist at the opening of Imaginary Eye art show, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NY. Photo by Alina Oswald
Wolfgang Busch with contributing artist at the opening of Imaginary Eye art show, Chashama Gallery, Harlem, NY. Photo by Alina Oswald
"I think [that's] a scary statistic. That's a really alarming number," Wolfgang Busch comments. That's the reason why he's focusing on houses and balls that make HIV/AIDS prevention, education and awareness their priority.

For more about the amazing journey of Wolfgang Busch as he continues to make art from the heart, check out Art, AIDS & Others post

Friday, April 17, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Waking Up

by Alina Oswald

Although gay characters populate American television-see Queer As Folk or Will & Grace-the black gay character is something of a rarity. Although a few gay characters of color appear in shows like Showtime's The L Word or HBO's The Wire, what makes Noah's Arc unique is that it raises two kinds of awareness-black gay awareness and AIDS awareness.

"Noah's Arc is a vehicle through which to break down the stigmas and phobias in our country around black sexuality while at the same time educating the community around the importance of HIV/AIDS," says Phil Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute, the only national policy and research organization in the United States focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS. The Black AIDS Institute sponsored Noah's Arc together with the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest gay and lesbian organization providing a national voice on gay and lesbian issues.

For those who are not yet familiar with it, Noah's Arc is "America's First Black Gay Series," as its press materials proclaim. Created and independently produced by Patrik-Ian Polk (with Jasmyne Cannick and Carol Ann Shine), the series will air this June on LOGO, a new cable television network targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers. LOGO will be launched by MTV Networks then, too, and will initially broadcast in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Francisco. 
Using humor, in-your-face yet not offensive sexuality, and hands-on advice about HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, Noah's Arc is a daring, tell-it-like-it-is lesson in love, friendship, and commitment. The story introduces its audience to the lives of four black gay Angeleno friends-Noah (Darryl Stephens), a struggling twenty-eight-year-old screenwriter, who is convinced that his new and newly out boyfriend, Wade (Jensen Atwood), is the one for him; Alex (Rodney Chester), an HIV/AIDS counselor who "suffers from insane jealousy" because his boyfriend, Trey, is too good-looking; Ricky (Christian Vincent; pictured opposite page right), the owner of a trendy and hip clothing store on Melrose who's afraid of commitment and knows the rules of safer sex; and Chance (Doug Spearman), a college professor who has recently married Eddie (Jonathan Julian) and adopted his partner's three-year-old daughter, Kenya. In the first episode, newcomer and successful screenwriter, Wade, struggles for acceptance from Noah's friends who have yet to trust him because he is "a down low brother [they] don't want to mess with."

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald.
"If it takes a show like Noah's Arc to open people's minds that black gay people...are respectable people, that it is possible to be healthy and gay, I hope [people] see the show," Darryl Stephens comments, knowing that the entertainment industry can do much to change the misconceptions the general public has about AIDS and black gay realities. The actor, who has appeared on a season of MTV's Undressed, warns that with gay awareness also comes responsibility toward family, friends, and lovers. He emphasizes the importance of staying informed about AIDS by making it a part of a conversation that people are not afraid to have in public. His message? "Stop making [AIDS] a secret; start making it a fact of life and, no matter what, keep a condom on!"

To deliver the right message-be it regarding AIDS or any other topic for that matter-actors need to be informed first and foremost, in order to inform their audience. This is what Stephens calls "an actors' mission;" it is part of the important role that the arts, and entertainment in particular, play in raising AIDS awareness, and, thus, fighting the pandemic.

Darryl Stephens calls AIDS "the eighties' ugly disease," something the general public could dismiss because it was a primarily gay disease. "If [people] were not gay, they felt not at risk to be infected. That mindset sorta stuck." The general public did start to listen, he says, when well-known figures like Magic Johnson came out about being HIV-positive and started to give AIDS a voice.

Besides creating a real-life scenario in which friends and lovers share opinions about life and true love, writer and producer Patrik-Ian Polk sees Noah's Arc-its story and message of HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and prevention among African Americans-as a means to reach people, especially the young population, who may be at risk of getting infected with HIV. Polk, who made his feature film debut with Punks, says: "I think there's a whole new generation that didn't grow up fearing [HIV/AIDS] and watching people die, a whole new generation that's grown up hearing that AIDS is a manageable disease now. So, they are not getting the [same] safe-sex message and all these kids are having unprotected sex like it's no big deal [and] are getting the disease in record numbers now."

To emphasize the importance of this issue, he identifies with today's parents while talking about the ineffectiveness of abstinence programs imposed on kids: "If I had a kid and there's any possibility that the kid might be sexually active, I'd like them to know what to do; I'd like them to have condoms-I mean, it's not just pregnancy anymore." He is a true believer in the benefits of more innovative ways-versus many of the abstinence-based ones the federal government uses to reach communities where AIDS numbers are rising.

Polk also believes that the traditional methods the government uses typically exclude African-Americans and hopes that his work is a non-traditional way that can reach out to the community with safer-sex messages. I want to know why he talks about exclusion and I get an honest, straightforward answer, full of excitement: "We're the last on the totem pole; they don't think of us, really. We might have to employ other methods to reach these other groups." Patrik-Ian Polk explains that Big Business understood how to market products to specifically target African-Americans and others; yet, for some reason, when it comes to government and issues like health, "they don't seem to get it."

Now that AIDS is starting to affect people they can identify with (read: not gay), Polk says many are starting to pay attention. "Unfortunately this is what it takes for people to wake up." This has often been a rude awakening to today's AIDS reality in the United States, especially in black communities. Says Polk: "It is sad that it comes to this-to AIDS starting to affect our sisters and nieces, the middle-aged black woman who's going to church every Sunday and her husband is leading a secret life and sleeping with men on the side, bringing AIDS home-for people to finally wake up." 

Talking about AIDS issues in the black community, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Vice Presidential debate of last year's election campaign for both Polk and Stephens. "[Cheney] is just completely unaware and [doesn't] even know that the numbers, the infection rates, are so high among black women. This shows lack of interest," Polk comments. "[AIDS] is an issue not high on the list." Darryl Stephens adds his opinion about the lack of AIDS information prevalent in America: "It has to be fixed [and] entertainment is the best thing to send the message, so that Dick Cheney can see it also."

To get "it" fixed, Polk encourages everybody to get involved and confront the AIDS pandemic, mentioning the influence the church can have now, especially in the black communities. He also encourages people to educate themselves about how not to contract HIV. On a personal level, he went to work with the Black AIDS Institute and with AIDS patients because he believes this is the only responsible thing to do to fight the increasing AIDS numbers in the black community. "I do whatever I can do," Polk notes, whether that means participating in fundraising events or award shows recognizing people who've done good work in the field, "because the numbers speak for themselves." The infection rates are increasing: Based on 2002 figures, close to sixty percent of HIV-positive children are black; among women, more than seventy percent of those newly infected by HIV are black. "Obviously it is an issue," he concludes. "In the black community, the numbers continue to rise."

For more details about the series, check out the Web site,, and subscribe to the newsletter for the latest updates. For more information about the Black AIDS Institute, log on to

Friday, April 10, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Blood Relations
by Alina Oswald

An interview with photographer Kathy Seward MacKay and writer Stacy Milbouer about hemophilia, HIV/AIDS, and their new book, Dying In Vein

Of all the HIV “high-risk” groups, hemophiliacs arguably received—and continue to receive—the least amount of media attention. Despite that, the hemophilia community and its experiences with surviving loss and grief, and finding hope, has inspired many artists. Photographer Kathy Seward MacKay, writer Stacy Milbouer, and art designer Kathy Bouchard are three of these artists. Their book, Dying In Vein, is a collection of candid moments, captured in pictures and words, of only a few of the thousands of hemophiliacs infected with HIV and hepatitis C virus through tainted blood products.

The base of a waterfall in red hues. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Bloody Falls. Photo by Alina Oswald.
As Stacy Milbouer explains, choosing the most representative subjects for the book was a difficult task because they all had interesting stories. It was important to show the reality of the situation, “not sugar coat [it], while showing that it’s not all bleak,” she explains.

The tainted blood crisis left an inerasable imprint on MacKay’s life, taking away her husband—David MacKay—who died of hepatitis C at the age of thirty-three. Early in her career as a photographer, MacKay started to work on several health projects with writer Stacy Milbouer. They’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.

While the two artists talk about their experience of making Dying In Vein happen and share their thoughts on tainted blood crisis and HIV/AIDS, MacKay also comments on the effect the two crises—tainted blood and AIDS—had on her personal life.

Alina Oswald: What is the idea behind Dying In Vein?
Kathy Seward MacKay: My husband died in June ’97. The idea for the book came late Fall ’98. I started to work on it in January ’99. It was an overwhelming task, especially as a single parent. Stacy joined the project two years ago and conceptualized the way the book will look like.

How did you find and choose your subjects?
Right after my husband died I was not connected to the hemophilia community at all. Ten thousand other hemophiliacs in the U.S. infected with HIV and I’d never met a single one of them.

Then there was some legislation that was introduced to compensate the families of the victims….I just started networking and meeting a lot of people by lobbying, visits to Washington, D.C., the organization called the Committee of Ten Thousand (COTT) []. When I went on my first trip, there were hundreds of people out there who were just like me. Through them, I made some really good friendships and got to know people. I would just meet people and then someone would say, ‘Oh, have you photographed Ken Baxter? He protests in front of Bayer Pharmaceutical every month.’ So I called Ken out of the blue.

I would look for people who might have interesting stories to tell and would want to open and share their stories. I probably did solid shooting for two to three years. About that time I was constantly meeting more people; it was kind of a snowball effect.

What was your experience working with your subjects?
[Hemophilia] is one of the stories of the AIDS epidemic stories that hasn’t really been told. People felt betrayed. Ninety percent of the people agreed to let me into their lives, eager to tell their stories. Some of them were in their closet. Lots of the interviews turned into friendships and allowed me to know the people and get certain candid moments that otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten from people who lost a loved one.

The one shot that was particularly hard to take…a shot of Steve Savoy, near the end of the “Afflicted,” [taken] six days before he died. Stacy had written a paragraph on him, we had four pages on him. I didn’t know if [his wife] Kathy, who is one of my closest friends right now, was going to let me photograph him or not, but she thought it was important. It was the most difficult picture I took in my life.

One beautiful thing that I saw in the subjects: They saw AIDS as a whole picture and it shaped their lives. Others are doing a lot of outreach work with AIDS foundations.

Persecution, harassment, stigma, phobia—they all affect your subjects’ existence, sometimes even costing them their lives….
My husband was in the closet. He was a schoolteacher. He feared that people would find out and he would lose his job. The closet may have helped in a way, but it was a tough thing and he couldn’t be who he really was; he tried to live in denial.

I met a few people who asked if we [MacKay and her two sons] are okay. We are. I have a moral obligation to try to do something about it, not that that would change the world. I thought best thing to contribute was a book—it has been a positive experience.

Why mostly black-and-white photos?
Black-and-white conveys the mood of the story. When I met Ken [Baxter], I decided to use that photo in color for dramatic effect. Originally, I wanted Ken in color on the cover. It was a surprising effect, mimicking his techniques; red is significant. He’s been on a mission for a long time, inspired by the death of friends around him. The last pictures are in color because color gives a positive, uplifting attitude.

What about the tainted blood crisis?
The blood supply is fairly safe right now. Still, infections with HIV/hepatitis through tainted blood are still happening. It is important for people to have their personal responsibility. Stay vigilant.

The politics of health do concern us—mad cow disease, Vioxx. It should be a wake-up call. The problem is: What’s the next blood-borne disease?

For more information about Dying In Vein, visit the website

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Is Poetry Month

April is Poetry Month
From the archives: Balance, a poem

Many, many years ago, I used to write poetry. And since April is Poetry Month, I'd like to share with you a poem I wrote (only) a few years ago, inspired by a fantastic photographer, mentor, and great friend. Here's a poem I ended up including in my book, Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS.

(For Kurt)

Cover for JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY, by Alina Oswald w/ photography by Kurt Weston

Angels and Demons,
Saints and Sinners,
Modern crucifixes,
Stigmatizing Life and what follows it,
Our Journey through Darkness and Light
And the shades of gray in between,
Matter and Antimatter
Make us whole and leave us empty
Creatures of a dual nature:
Surrenders and Survivors,
Seeking a balance
In a world disturbed by shadows.

With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
With one of my favorite angels. Dark Angel photograph by Kurt Weston
To learn more about one of the most amazing photographers (and one of my favorite photographers), Kurt Weston, visit his website, at, or read Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography about his life and art.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Happy Friday!

Alina Oswald