Photograph of Dr. Stephaun Wallace.

Behind the Mask: Public Health Innovator Dr. Stephaun E. Wallace

by Shann Thomas

Dr. Stephaun E. Wallace already had a lengthy list of job titles: the director of external relations for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s (Fred Hutch) HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), faculty appointments at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington (UW), as a staff scientist and clinical assistant professor respectively, in addition to launching the inaugural Office of Community Engagement for the UW/Fred Hutch Center for AIDS Research.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Wallace expanded his current job as director of external relations for HVTN to include the COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN), which coordinated all major COVID-19 vaccine efficacy trials except Pfizer-BioNTech’s. 

Wallace smiles, and says, “My mother and my team accuse me of … being a triplet; because they’re like ‘We don’t understand how one person can do all that you do and still … absorb as much information’ as I do, and have the mastery of having to categorize it and spit it back out without much concern or draw there.”

Wallace partially credits his encyclopedic memory and mind to a keen curiosity he nurtured as a child. “I was always … questioning everything around me, to understand it better, including its reason for being. I read extensively as a child … including collections of encyclopedias and reference materials.”

Coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s in Los Angeles as a young, bisexual Black man, Wallace witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of the HIV/AIDS crisis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on his communities. These experiences pushed him, at age 23, to co-found and direct the Atlanta-based My Brothaz Keeper (MBK), a completely volunteer-run nonprofit focusing on HIV/AIDS and STI prevention among young, Black, gay, bisexual, and queer men. 

Referred to in the community as “MBK,” Wallace credits decades of activism and mobilization efforts by elders who paved the way for him and his colleagues to create and nurture such a dynamic and relevant organization.

“It was really a labor of love; and so all the resources we pulled in — about $200 thousand that first year, went back into the community. Went back into paying psychotherapists to provide intensive counseling to our members who were living with HIV, … to provide food certificates to ensure that people were able to eat something, … and housing certificates. We had an outreach team as well … walking around the clubs and other social venues passing out condoms and education materials … it was so amazing!”

As an organization created by and for the people it intended to serve, focusing on young, gay, bisexual, and queer Black men, it was the first of its kind in Atlanta. It would be the first of many in Wallace’s trailblazing career in public health.  

In another first, Dr. Wallace seamlessly wove his passion for public health with the LGBTQ+ ballroom and house community in Atlanta.  

In 2007, as Board Chairman of the House of Blahnik and revered as a ballroom legend, Wallace threw a ball on World AIDS Day at the Georgia World Congress Center. The event was, “free to enter. There was a huge buffet of catered food, because I wanted to make sure that people actually had a chance to eat. We gave out money [$1500 for ball category winners], and we did not charge people to enter or compete. The goal was education, affirmation, and celebration.” 

HIV prevention education materials (including condom kits) were available on the tables and passed out to attendees, and speakers gave presentations on the significance of HIV prevention in the community, especially since the ball was held to commemorate World AIDS Day.

Over the years, Wallace has organized balls with specific public health objectives, from encouraging participants to get tested for HIV/AIDS and other STIs as a house in order to win significant cash prizes (sometimes up to $5,000) to creating specific HIV/AIDS prevention ball categories. 

For example, one ball included the category Butch Queen in Drags Transformation. In this category a young, cisgender man was required to walk as a blue-collar service worker. If he received a high score of 10 from the judges, he came back later in the competition presenting as a high femme CEO. The twist Wallace added to this category: The high femme CEO must invent an HIV prevention product or service.  

Wallace explains, “Props were encouraged, so the service workers really showed up in uniforms, badges, tools, etc. and for the transformation as a woman CEO … they presented in business suits, with briefcases, business cards, marketing and product development plans, and had to describe to the judges and attendees why their product to prevent HIV was novel, and what impact it was projected to have to prevent HIV. It was a very powerful category, especially considering this particular ball was focused on youth and young adults. And some of the people who walked that category now work in public health.”

In the Northwest ballroom scene, Wallace served as a keynote and co-organizer of the inaugural “Legendary Children” event series, now an acclaimed annual event celebrating the local QTBIPOC house and ball community. In the 2020 (virtual) version of “Legendary Children,” co-host CarLarans Jomar, repeatedly referred to Wallace as a cornerstone of the community.

Regarding his experience living through both the HIV/AIDS and the COVID-19 crisis Wallace shares, “I have witnessed how important effective messaging is in public health emergencies, and what happens when this is absent. I have witnessed what happens in responses to public health threats when a health equity lens is not applied, and marginalized communities are not centered … I also hope this pandemic has put into plain view that racism is a public health threat. Addressing racism and the impacts of it on communities of color should be a top priority in health care and public health.”

Dr. Wallace will be appearing as a panelist on “The COVID Conversation Clinic: Update on COVID-19 Vaccines in Black Communities,” Tuesday, April 13, at 3 p.m. PT.

Shann is a filmmaker and photographer born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Most recently, they are the photographer and project manager for a large-scale visual documentary project called Gender Gems, which honors the lives and work of two spirit, fa’afafine, transgender, and non-binary elders in the Puget Sound region. The installation is currently on display at the Vera Project and Gay City.

Featured image courtesy of Dr. Stephaun Wallace.

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