Ian Haddock learned as an adolescent to leave places where he didn’t feel comfortable, even if that meant couch-surfing at various friends’ homes.
As a Black gay man, he was on a quest to find a place where he belonged; a place where he felt a sense of community and the freedom to express himself creatively.
“Being homeless was better than being at home,” the 35-year-old Texas City native said, noting his mother treated his sexuality as a temporary phase that he would overcome. But it wasn’t.
He once felt safe at church — until he was pushed out.
He moved to Houston in 2004 and found what he calls his “second church” at Bartini, a former club in Montrose that catered to Black gay people.
It was there that he had an epiphany about what the Black gay community needed.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a person that moved the community forward and create a space for people to feel the freedom that I felt when I first stepped into Bartini,” Haddock said.
He knew he couldn’t be the only anomaly, the only one with these thoughts struggling to find a place where he belonged. So he set out to normalize it and began writing about his experiences.
Starting in 2016 with only a blog and a shoe-string budget, the Normal Anomaly Initiative was born. He spent the next five years nurturing it — while simultaneously battling homelessness, depression, bouncing between jobs and recovering from Hurricane Harvey. It became a reality in 2021 when he officially registered it as a nonprofit. Its mission seeks to empower the Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual plus community to overcome barriers and end stigmas to achieve a new normal through education, entertainment and advocacy.
In just two years since receiving its nonprofit status, the organization’s small team of five is filling a void for Black queer people in the Greater Houston region and the state. It provides health navigation services, emergency burial or memorial funding, employment assistance, STI self-testing and support for those affected by or living with HIV.
Its advocacy attracted rapper Lil Nax X, who listed the nonprofit as one of the 16 exclusive charities to benefit from his baby registry launched in 2021 with the birth of his debut album “Montero.” The registry raised $500,000 in donations; $38,000 went to Normal Anomaly. For the first time, Pride Houston 365 on Monday named the Normal Anomaly Initiative as one of the honorary Grand Marshals in this year’s Houston Pride parade on June 24.
But their main event, BQ+AF Music festival, held this year on May 4-7 during Black Pride Weekend, is becoming one of the biggest Black Pride events in Houston.
“BQ AF is great because it brings people together,” said second-year attendee, the Rev. Leslie Jackson, senior pastor of St. Peter United. “We all operate in silos. We all kind of put our head down. What BQ AF does is bring us all together to bring community, connection and, in my theology, spiritual deepening.”
BQ+ AF 2023
The music festival was created as a way to jumpstart Black queer businesses in training through the Normal Anomaly’s Project Liberate program, a nine-month leadership development program that helps develop aspiring business owners into entrepreneurs or nonprofit leaders.
At Haddock’s second annual festival, more than 1,400 people filled Stampede Houston in north Houston on May 6 to celebrate the launch of 14 Black queer businesses. They enjoyed a house party, food trucks, ax throwing and appearances from “Mathis Family Matters” stars, Greg Mathis Jr. and his partner Elliott Cooper, and musical performances from R&B and hip hop artists such as Mikey Everything and Keke Wyatt.
“In the Montrose area, (there’s) not a lot of spaces like this for us,” said festival attendee Larry Mims as he danced at the house party to an upbeat gospel-house music mix from DJ Sedrick Drayton. “We just want to have a good time.”
On the second floor of Stampede Houston, dozens of attendees danced and sang in unison and three-part harmonies resembling a mass choir as Drayton mixed countless classic gospel hits like Kirk Franklin’s “Melodies from Heaven,” the Clark Sisters’ “Blessed and Highly Favored,” and Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.”
To some, it may seem taboo to praise and worship God in a club environment where alcohol is served, secular music is performed and some attendees are scantily clad. But to others, it’s a place of refuge where they can let loose without judgment.
“I operate under the premise that there’s no sacred and secular. All things are sacred,”Jackson said.
As someone who, similar to Haddock, was pushed out of church as a teenager when he developed feelings for his then male best friend, Jackson said the singing, dancing and “catching the holy ghost” at the festival are simultaneously forms of protest and worship.
“For a room of Black queer people dancing to gospel music in that space is a form of resistance,” Jackson said.
“No one is going to stop us from that divine power of God. … It’s an act of resistance to the narrative, the status quo that queer people are not Godly and that they’re going to burn in hell. The act of resistance is that we tap into the divine even into the spaces that are considered heretical and considered non-traditional.”
More than music
Aside from the house party, 14 vendors ranging from wellness, to cleaning services, skin care products and clothing boutiques established their footing on the first floor of Stampede Houston. Those businesses, known as “liberators,” were selected from 50 applicants for the Normal Anomaly’s Project Liberate program to undergo a nine-month training cohort where they graduate after perfecting their business pitch.
“We’re really looking for people that have never done anything like this before,” said Joelle Espeut, Normal Anomaly’s programming director. “We aren’t looking for businesses that are solidified.”
The program is an opportunity to foster economic justice for small Black queer business owners who are often overlooked and don’t have equal opportunities, she said.
“We give them the space to create commerce,” Espeut said. “It’s bigger than that. (It’s) not just about having the capital, but the opportunity.”
Brandelle Rielle Hall seized that opportunity to jumpstart her wellness company after learning about the Normal Anomaly and Project Liberate when she attended the first music festival in 2022. She was in town with a friend and found the festival on Eventbrite when searching for Black Pride Weekend events. She applied and when she was accepted she packed her bags and took a leap of faith moving from Baltimore to Houston on Oct. 31.
“This is all so scary to me, but really what I love about Project Liberate is they push you,” she said.
Months later, she’s glad she took the risk. While most vendors had a table, Hall had a flamboyant, roughly 10-foot tall igloo structure with a cracked mirror reminding all who entered that they are flawless, enough and perfect. Attendees often trickled in to explore, take pictures and learn about the services she provides from one-on-one life coaching, tarot readings and spiritual healing services.
The beginning of a legacy
The Normal Anomaly Initiative was built from humble beginnings when Haddock was homeless and living in a mentor’s garage apartment.
He had quit his corporate job as a program manager at Harris County Public Health where he helped launch their HIV/STD prevention program. His aunt thought he was crazy and tried to convince him to stay because of the pay and benefits, but he felt like he was called to do more for the community and start something of his own.
He loved writing and was certain he could figure something out within a few months, but he struggled to monetize his blog after selling only one short story.
“It was a hard time. It was a really depressing time but I really tried,” he said. “I remember praying and just saying, ‘God I’m really unsure. I know this is closer to where I’m supposed to be. (But) obviously it’s not where I’m supposed to be because I’m back (being) poor.’”
Then Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017 and the garage apartment flooded, landing him in a hotel for a month. He asked God for another sign and in the meantime got one last job in disaster recovery at the nonprofit Baker Ripley while he continued to brainstorm the Normal Anomaly Initiative. As a victim of Harvey, his new job not only afforded him several months of rent and a furnished apartment, but the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of what it takes to operate a successful nonprofit. And he was finally in a position to save enough money to invest in his new organization.
While he saved up, he took numerous classes through the Gilead Compass Initiative on topics ranging from organizational structure to healing and restorative justice. By participating in their programs, his nonprofit secured $164,000 in funding over the last five years. The Normal Anomaly got a major boost from the Montrose Center in 2018 when it signed on as a fiscal sponsor and helped Haddock’s group get started before securing its nonprofit status. The center, through its nonprofit incubator program, provided mentorship and development support by raising funds, writing thank-you letters, introducing them to community members and connecting them to resources or applicable grants.
It wasn’t long before grants began pouring in.
Their first was for $7,500 from AIDS United, then $25,000 came from Southern AIDS Coalition Gilead COMPASS Coordinating Center and then another $300,000 from AIDS United. Their initial funding went towards billboards and the production of videos and public service announcements demonstrating their allyship for Black trans women after a string of deaths. Eventually, Haddock hired more staff so he wouldn’t be a one-man team.
In their first year, they netted nearly $500,000 in revenue from grants, and Haddock estimates that they brought in just under $700,000 in revenue in 2022. Although on paper they’re making progress, Haddock still isn’t satisfied.
“There’s always more to do,” he said.