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Breaking the silence surrounding HIV

Every year, Michael Tambon remembers those hopeless feelings of not knowing where to turn.

The South Philly resident and drag performer known as “Cherry Pop” has been living with HIV since 2012.

“Back then the stigma was real strong with HIV and not many people were talking about it because of the fear factor surrounding the virus,” Tambon recalled. “I was 24. I was young and didn’t know anyone to talk to or what resources I had in the city. It took about six months until I met somebody who was also HIV positive and he introduced me to the Mazzoni Center and got me into his doctor’s care. He started me on the journey of getting to undetectable.”

More than a decade later, Tambon is in good health, living a normal life thanks to advice and treatment he received at the Mazzoni Center at Broad and Bainbridge streets. But Tambon didn’t travel his journey alone. The knowledge he picked up and the resources he discovered were shared through a mission of Tambon’s called Code Red. It’s a night of entertainment, information and sharing that is now in its 11th year. Through Code Red, Tambon has now raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for area nonprofits that help people in situations like Tambon found himself trying to navigate in 2012. 

“During that time, I was hearing of some of my friends getting diagnosed with HIV and I knew Philly was going through an epidemic at that time because no one was talking about it,” he said. “I had a name. I had a platform with drag. I figured I would bring my drag character Cherry Pop back out and create a little drag show where I would use the stage to bring awareness about HIV infection and how to prevent it (and) tell about the resources that I found if someone was diagnosed. Just so no one felt alone or didn’t know where to go for HIV care.”

Tambon, an experienced flight attendant, un-retired Cherry Pop for the first Code Red that included 13 performers at the Voyeur Night Club in Center City. 

“It was a fun night and we raised about $2,500,” Tambon said. “But more importantly, we broke the silence surrounding HIV. It became a successful show and the next year we went to $5,000 and keeps going up.”

The popular show quickly outgrew the Voyeur Club and the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street and will be held this year at Brooklyn Bowl, 1009 Canal St., in Fishtown on Dec. 3.

Ticket options are seating at $45 or standing room at $30, with doors opening at 5 p.m. The festivities kick off with local singers performing, followed by a welcome and the main show, which runs until 9:30 p.m., with an intermission. Tickets for the event can be purchased at https://www.ticketmaster.com/event/02005F5BDF005605.

During the show, there’s a special segment called Breaking the Silence, in which Tambon performs a song and opens up about his experience. He invites other people with HIV to join him on stage to show the community it is OK to be known as HIV positive and to show a friendly face to the audience so they don’t feel alone in their HIV journey. Tambon focuses on sharing HIV prevention and treatment available in the community and encourages HIV negative individuals to get on PrEP to prevent contracting HIV.

A rush of emotions accompanies it as he’s reminded of his tough road of uncertainty 11 years ago.

“Every year, it brings me back to when I was first diagnosed,” Tambon said. “It’s always very emotional for me, too. It reminds me of why I created this event.”

Since its humble beginnings, the show has grown to annually rake in more than $35,000 a year. Tambon said this year, $31,000 has already been raised before the curtain is raised. All of the proceeds benefit Philadelphia HIV/AIDS organizations including AIDS Fund, Mazzoni Center, Galaei and Action Wellness, which all focus on HIV awareness, prevention and care for the greater Philadelphia community, including the LGBTQ+ and minority communities. 

“They make sure that the No. 1 priority is the patient and the care,” Tambon said of the recipients. “They have a flex pay scale so even people without insurance are going to get the care that they need.”

All the entertainers generously donate their time and talent to support HIV awareness and raise funds for local HIV nonprofit organizations. A diverse cast comprising individuals of various backgrounds and identities, including LGBTQ+ and minority members, ensures a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

The lineup includes drag queens, drag kings, trans-identifying, bearlesque and burlesque performers, as well as comedians and live singing, featuring performances from Vinchelle, Bev, Iris Spectre, Maria Topcatt, Sapphira Cristal, Mary D’Knight, Omyra Lynn, Goddess Isis, Lady Geisha Stratton and Navaya Shay, among others. In total there are 24 acts showcasing the talents of over 90 performers. 

More importantly, Tambon’s message and information on HIV prevention and awareness are delivered to an accepting audience.

“When you’re first diagnosed, you don’t know where to go to,” Tambon said. “You don’t know what’s normal and what’s not. I want to make sure nobody goes through the same experience I did because of lack of knowledge.”

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