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Local events producer fights HIV stigma with POZ parties

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Jacob Pring (front) with several local DJs who spin at his POZ D.C. parties. From left are Eric Evans, Ty Saifuddin, Jason Horswill, Erik Lars Evans, Bryan Yamasaki and Keith Hoffman. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Diversity is so much of a gay buzz word it’s almost a cliché but it’s genuinely reflected in the events of a local producer who says he was inspired by noticeable absences on the D.C. social scene.

“I just saw some holes in my life and decided to put my hat in the mix,” says 35-year-old Jacob Pring, a gay Philadelphia native who splits his time between Logan Circle and New York’s Hells Kitchen neighborhood.

After a false start last year, his Ruby Slipper Drag Brunch returns Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Tabaq Bistro (1336 U St., N.W.). The second that ends, Pring will be at Town for a “Celebration of Life” tea dance (admission is $5). CODE, a gear fetish party with a strict dress code, is the first Saturday of every month at EFN Lounge (1318 9th St., N.W.). And Indigo is every Monday from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., also at Tabaq on its glass-encased rooftop terrace.

But perhaps Pring’s signature event — or at least the one that’s generating the most community response — is POZ D.C., a weekly mixer at Green Lantern for HIV-positive gay men and those who support them. He does the same thing every Thursday in New York and has plans to “take it national.” Another incarnation debuts May 18 at the legendary Philadelphia gay bar Woody’s. Pring says Chicago is up next.

The idea came out of personal experience, says Pring, who has been HIV-positive for seven years.

“Every time I would meet people out, have a great evening, exchange phone numbers and then they would basically say, ‘Sorry, I can’t handle that,’ or ‘Have a good life, sorry.’ It’s really rude and obnoxious. … I wanted to create a positive environment for people who are positive and give them a safe place to go out and have fun.”

The community has been wholeheartedly supportive since Pring, an Air Force veteran who’s dabbled in mortgage banking, real estate, advertising and more, started it in November. It’s co-sponsored by the D.C. Center, D.C. Young POZ Socials, Hope D.C. and poziam.com. Pring says every bar he’s approached has been willing to host.

David Mariner, director of the D.C. Center, says POZ is more than a social event and provides an important service to local HIV-positive gay men.

“We know from the recent data that as many as 14 percent of the MSMs in the District and over 20 percent of MSMs of color are positive and about 40 percent of them don’t even know their status,” Mariner says. “So for me it’s really important for us to create spaces where people can be out and open about their HIV status where as a community we can talk about it and address it. Plus, you know, everyone deserves a safe space to hang out, to be comfortable. That’s what Jacob’s doing and I think it’s wonderful.”

CODE, which Pring calls a “new age leather party,” has been the bigger draw. It averages about 150 each month and costs $10 (Pring says he’s unfazed by turning people away who don’t follow the dress code). POZ, though, which attracts anywhere from 30 to 100 each week, offers a completely different vibe. The DJs who spin there are openly HIV-positive and say a sense of camaraderie is developing.

“It’s a little more relaxed,” says Eric Evans, a Silver Spring, Md., resident who spins for Pring. “People talk more, get to know each other a little better. There’s a sense of community developing.”

Several POZ DJs say anti-HIV stigma in gay dating and hook-up circles can be significant.

“Oh, if I had to guess a percentage of OK, not OK, I’d say 60 percent are not OK and maybe 40 percent are OK,” says Erik Lars Evans, another POZ DJ who uses his middle name to avoid confusion with the previously quoted Eric Evans. “To a certain degree, yes, it does affect dating and your social life. It’s not always an issue but it certainly can be.”

Keith Hoffman, who’s known Pring since the late ’90s when Hoffman worked at Velvet Nation, says it’s not about serosorting or hooking up.

“Just because somebody’s there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re positive,” he says. “We don’t have Whitman-Walker there testing at the door. It’s for people who are positive or for those who don’t have issues with dating or sleeping with positive guys. It’s not about having promiscuous, unprotected sex. It’s about acceptance. That’s kind of what we’re aiming for.”

Pring knows one couple who met at POZ and started dating. Hoffman says he’s been surprised at times by who he’s seen there.

“There’s a guy I know and had no idea,” Hoffman says. “Kind of a friend of a friend and I’d always found him attractive and nice but never really connected with. And goddamn it, he showed up Wednesday. I was like, ‘So are you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I thought you knew.’ I didn’t know. It’s not tattooed on your forehead. But yeah, it’s been really refreshing.”

But is the concept of segregating HIV-positive guys a healthy thing? Bryan Yamasaki, another DJ who spins for Pring, says yes.

“I think it’s a necessary safe space,” says Yamasaki, who tested positive two years ago. “Mentally, spiritually, gay men can put you down as damaged goods. Some people, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to talk, but here you don’t have to worry about it. You can talk. There’s a lot of people who care.”

POZ D.C.
An HIV-positive party for those with HIV and those who are supportive
Every Wednesday
8 p.m. to midnight
Green Lantern
1335 Green Court N.W.
www.jacobpring.com (coming soon)

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