The 2009 Grand Masquerade Ball 

The Halloween season offers up its best opportunity for delight and decadence this weekend with the city's largest and most lavish party — the 22nd Annual Grand Masquerade Ball.

As they do each year, organizers have created an excuse for adults to live out a few fantasies, if not fetishes, and don costumes and personas that might otherwise lie dormant. This year, it's an opportunity for the Cinderella and/or Prince Charming in us all to attend Her Majesty's Royal Ball in the highest of style.

More than an excuse to play dress-up, however, Grand Masquerade is also the leading fundraiser of the year for the Damien Center, the city's most important provider of HIV/AIDs services to residents of Central Indiana.

Since 1987, the Damien Center has offered education, counseling and support to those affected by HIV/AIDs. The name and the mission of the center are in honor of Father Damien, the 19th century Belgian priest, who is expected to be canonized this month for his work among the lepers of Hawaii and his insistence that those inflicted with disease have a right not only to medical treatment, but also to be treated with respect and dignity.

It was a fitting role-model for those who founded the Damien Center in Indianapolis back in the 1980s, a time when few Americans understood HIV/AIDs and even fewer were willing to afford respect and dignity to those who found themselves afflicted. In 1987, Earl Conner, an Episcopalian minister, became alarmed at the growing AIDS crisis in Indianapolis. With the support of the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral and Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, he coordinated a community response to the HIV/AIDS crisis by uniting existing groups within one facility.

For more than twenty years, Damien Center has provided care to thousands of persons affected by HIV and has become a leader in HIV prevention, education, awareness and advocacy. Public response to HIV/AIDs and those infected has greatly improved since the Damien Center was founded, as have medical treatments and prognoses, but many Indiana residents are still struggling to fight back against the disease.

"We have 1,200 clients right now," says Elisa Rogowski, Director of Development for the Damien Center, "but there are more than 9,000 people in Indiana infected with HIV."

HIV/AIDS cases can be found in all 92 Indiana counties, but more than half of all those living with HIV/AIDS are in Marion County according to Indiana AIDS Fund. Approximately 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of Hoosiers infected with HIV and AIDS are women.

And while African Americans make up on 8.4 percent of the state's total population, they account for approximately 29 percent of the confirmed AIDS cases in Indiana. HIV/AIDS occurrences are also disproportionately high among members of Indianapolis' Latino community.

Which is why the annual Grand Masquerade Ball continues to be an important fundraiser for the Damien Center and those it serves. Education and awareness remain the key factor in ending the spread of the disease and the disproportionate number of lives it disrupts.

It's also why we have all been invited, summoned really, by Her Majesty the Queen, in all her incarnations and double entrendres, to spend a night dancing with the prince, princess, king, queen or even court jester of our choice. Costumes are preferred, without one black tie is required, for the gala which organizers hope will raise more than $50,000 and provide a great night of entertainment in exchange for the generous price of admission and some silent auction action.

"We want to create an experience for all of our guests," pronounces Jeremy York, Mistress of Ceremony and event chair, "when they walk into the room, the decorations, the costumes, the table settings, everything is aligned with the theme. It will be a real experience."

"We had people walk in last year," said York, "and their breath was just taken away at how beautiful everything was. That's what made them have such a great time. It set the stage for what they were going to experience that evening."

Event 411

What: 22nd Annual Grand Masquerade

A benefit for the Damien Center

When: Saturday, Oct. 24; 6 p.m.

Where: Marriott Ballroom, 350 W. Maryland St.

Tickets: VIP $200, Individual $160

Info: or Sandra Windsor (317) 632-0123

The evening will begin with VIP cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at 6 p.m. At 6:30, the doors will open for general admission, but the free drinks will continue to flow for the VIPs until 7:30. Dinner will follow, during which time the entertainment will begin.

Alanna Steele, celebrated local drag queen, will perform, as will Taylor Martin and Indy Magic Monthly, the Indy Pride Bag Ladies, and Audrey Heartburn. At 10 p.m., the royal dance floor will officially open. The evening will culminate in a Parade of Costumes, and the promise has been made that there will be a beheading at some point in the evening. It simply would not be a royal event without one.

The silent auction will feature a number of fabulous items, including a trip to Hawaii, airfare and tickets to the Ellen DeGeneres show, and a guitar autographed by John Mellencamp.

A special mention should be made concerning the Bag Ladies and their significance for this event. Twenty-eight years ago, about seventy men dressed in drag, hopped on some buses, drove from bar to bar, and raised some money for a new disease that would soon make its presence felt in a devastating way.

Recognized as one of the first groups in the country to organize and raise money for AIDS, their bus tours and benefits have generated tens of thousands of dollars and can be said to be directly responsible for events such as the Grand Masquerade. Their efforts should surely be applauded and it's good to see them get the royal treatment!

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