A “kiki” is commonly understood to mean a queer-centered, laughter-filled party.
In 2016, the excellent documentary Kiki introduced outsiders to a new generation of ball-walkers and house members — a generation for whom the historic AIDS crisis of the 1980s is beyond their memory, but for whom AIDS itself is still a potent and looming threat. Like the ball culture famously profiled in the 1990 film Paris is Burning, the contemporary underground kiki scene is driven by black and brown queer youth — primarily those under 18. But unlike previous eras of drag balls, the kiki balls of today trace their genesis to the community parties hosted by LGBTQ+ health action groups, primarily in New York. These social gatherings provide queer youth with testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, while creating a safe space for building friendships and strengthening communal ties. As the more traditional ball culture became codified and appropriated in popular media, the kiki subculture emerged as a place for social, political, and aesthetic innovation. It’s also a key component in the continued emphasis on safe sex. Recent statistics from the CDC are shocking:
HIV disproportionately impacts segments of the LGBTQ community. There are 1.2 million people living with HIV (PLWH) in the United States, and approximately 40,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2015 alone. While the annual number of new diagnoses fell by 19% between 2005 and 2014, progress has been uneven. For example, gay and bisexual men made up an estimated 2% of the U.S. population in 2013 but 55% of all PLWH in the United States. If current diagnosis rates continue, 1 in 6 gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. For Latino and Black men who have sex with men, the rates are in 1 in 4 and 1 in 2, respectively.
Clock that: 25% of Latino men* who have sex with men*, and a staggering 50% of Black men who have sex with men, are living with HIV.
Additionally, according to the CDC, “African Americans make up 12% of the US population, but 44% of new HIV diagnoses. Hispanics/Latinos make up 18% of the population, but 25% of new HIV diagnoses.”
Why have I added the asterisks above? Well, I don’t know how the CDC defines “men” in these statistics. Given the fact that it’s a government agency, I suspect they mean humans with penises, but the IRL non-binary nature of gender and sexual identities, and seemingly constant erasure of trans individuals, means I’m not sure who they’re counting. Even so, the numbers reveal a true community health crisis, one that is centered among black and brown youth.
Watch Kiki on all the major streaming services (Vudu is cheapest), and check out the movie’s music video below.