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“This event has grown from just a little party in my house to a truly amazing event where this community comes together to party for a purpose. I am so proud of this event and cannot wait to see it continue to grow!”—Jason Elliott
As Jason Elliott stood paralyzed by stage fright in front of thousands of people at the opening of a central Virginia Pride festival, he knew he was not the first notable person to forget the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Christina Aguilera, James Taylor, and Cyndi Lauper are just a few celebrities who’ve bumbled their delivery of the national anthem. But Elliott, a seasoned performer, representing Mr. Gay Pride Virginia, was determined to play his flub differently.
After leaving the stage, humiliated, he waited for the end of the opening remarks. “The dignitaries spoke and I said, ‘Give me the microphone,’” he says. Elliott cued up the track, asked the audience to join him, and nailed it.
No stranger to second chances and reinventing himself, Elliott’s journey to becoming an activist, HIV/AIDS educator, model, performer, and online talk show host was filled with emotional obstacles and mental health challenges. But his story also speaks to self-determination and the power of community support.
On Saturday, December 1, Elliott joyfully engages that support at his annual Little White Party, a gathering held to honor World AIDS Day that pays homage to the circuit parties of the late ’80s and ’90s. It’s an event that has grown from a casual BYOB group of friends to a party drawing hundreds of revelers from Virginia and beyond.
In 2015, Thrive, Charlottesville’s AIDS service organization (formerly ASG), was dissolving. Funding had become unsustainable, and the board issued a press release stating that “better treatments mean HIV-positive individuals are living longer,” and there was less of a demand for a some of the services offered. But Elliott, a volunteer at the time, felt strongly about the organization’s disappearance, thinking “Once Thrive is gone, we have nothing in Charlottesville.” And not just the access to treatment and education, he says. The organization had also been a nexus for gay social life, with drag bingos and dinner nights.
For closure, Elliott “threw a little house party, invited ASG/Thrive to provide testing, and [everyone] had a great time.” A year later, people started asking if he would hold the party again, and that’s when he realized, “This needs to stick. This is a thing.” So, with his knack for reinvention, Elliott launched a new tradition around his own experiences.
Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, Elliott’s love of pageantry and performance was evident at a young age. But as a member of a “very conservative family,” he did not feel supported in pursuing what he describes as his secret bucket list.
“At one point, I really wanted to be a female impersonator,” says Elliott. “Even in my late teens, I thought, ‘I want to try drag.’ I wanted to compete in pageants as a male and as a woman. As a character and as me.”
Elliott came to Charlottesville in 2010 to study psychology at UVA, and shortly before leaving home, he was outed, which started a free fall in his life.
“Some took it well, some did not,” he says. “I myself had a very hard time with the process of coming out. I was very strong in my faith, and I actually planned to be pastor. When I came out, that got flipped upside down and I was told ‘you are not going to be able to do anything of importance, so you should just give up trying now.’”
What followed was a monumental struggle with bad relationships, depression, and an eating disorder. And for a number of months, in order to escape a physically dangerous partner, Elliott became homeless, living in his truck and sleeping at the UVA library, while still attending classes during the day.
When friends in his a cappella group noticed he kept wearing the same outfit and saw some bruises, they confronted him and pushed him to make changes, creating another turning point for Elliott. He credits Counseling and Psychological Services at UVA for his emotional recovery. “They are one of the few aspects that kept me alive,” he says.
That counseling, along with the support of friends, spurred him to another round of coming out. “I wasn’t out as someone who was dealing with depression. I wasn’t out as someone who was homeless, or as someone who was facing these trials,” he says. Elliott also got real about his childhood dream of competing in drag pageants.
He came across an ad for the Mr. Gay Roanoke competition. “I didn’t know where Roanoke was, says Elliot. “But, I thought I could secretly check this off my bucket list.” He drove to the western Virginia city, performed what’s now his signature song, the Michael Bublé version of “Feeling Good,” and won the first of several pageant titles. Shocked by the win, he thought “Now what?”
The path soon became clear. “I had already started to grow my passion for AIDS/HIV and sexual health. I wanted to do two things with this title, promote awareness, and…I also wanted to use it to show all the other guys—you don’t have to have a six-pack, perfect teeth—if you want to be on stage, you just have to have the heart.”
In one of the smoother segues of his life, Elliott began singing, making appearances, and performing in drag shows and as a solo act. And eventually, he joined the staff at the Thomas Jefferson Health District, where he runs a public health program that offers free rapid HIV tests.
It’s with the Little White Party that his flair for performance and health education combine to pull off “the hottest party of the year”—but not without controversy.
Elliott has never been to one of the legendary “white parties” of old, and he says that there’s nothing like it around. But he understands when people do a double take at the name, especially after the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, in Charlottesville.
“Last year I had a person say to me, “I’m sorry, the what party? You can’t do that,” says Elliott. But he says an African American friend turned to her and said, “Girl, you don’t know what you are talking about. White parties are off the chain.”
A major sponsor also told him, “you cannot host a Little White Party in Charlottesville, Virginia. You have to change the name.”
But Elliott decided he simply had to work harder to make people understand what the event is about. He remains firm about keeping the traditional name, which dates back to the ’70s, but was made popular by The Saint, an East Village disco in the 1980s that launched the New York City White Party as an annual February tradition with a requirement that partygoers dress in all white. When the AIDS crisis struck, the club membership was deeply affected, and The Saint was forced to close. Many cities around the country picked up the White Party as a way to fundraise for HIV/AIDS causes.
“I’m trying to pay tribute to the path that was laid out before I even existed,” Elliott says. “I think it still carries that same message [of support]. You look around the room and you cannot tell who has HIV and who doesn’t.” To date, he has 12 sponsors on board for 2018.
When Elliott gets up to the mic on Saturday night to hand out his Red Knight award for extraordinary contributions in the fight against HIV, he will be looking at a representation of activism greater than himself, but one that relies on his passion. Something it’s taken a lot of restarts for him to feel confident about.
And he’s had the right words all along. “We’ve all had to get back onstage and try again,” he says. “Be it in front of thousands of people or just by yourself. It’s okay to walk off and come back and try again.”