Black queer artist/activist talks about his passion & purpose

Dion Alexander McNeal is a Black non-binary person, thriving with HIV. They are a HIV advocate, multimedia expert, and certified good troublemaker. Dion, aka Dusty Lion, founded Hopeful in Victory, LLC and one of its programs: HIV News Report. They hope to dismantle the HIV stigma one conversation at a time. 

Dion was to star in House Musical: Coming of Age in the Age of House, celebrating Chicago’s famed house music scene at the legendary Warehouse Club. However, due to a new journey in their career, they will be relocating to Atlanta, Georgia in April. They still encourage folks to go see House Musical. HOUSE MUSICAL runs Thursdays through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., April 20 – April 30, 2023, at the Center on Halsted’s Hoover-Leppen Theatre. 

PrideIndex proudly announces that Dion Alexander McNeal is the Esteem Award winner for Future Leaders, Local. Dion recently shared their journey with PrideIndex, talked about what it means to be good trouble, and more.  

PrideIndex (PI): Tell us about yourself and the journey that brought you to where you are today?

Dion Alexander McNeal (DAM): I was born and raised in Chicago, up until maybe about 10 years old, and moved to the suburbs and lived there in various places. I came from a single-parent household with two other siblings and two adopted siblings. We weren’t rich, in fact we regularly waited to see what the next meal would be. My mother was so good about making sure we didn’t realize how poor we were and made sure we receive the best she could give. But luckily, I was able to be a first-generation university graduate! I graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a Major in Communications Studies/Mass Communications and Minor in Film Studies. And because of that degree, I landed some great job roles and opportunities, such as working as a customer service representative while creating a now enterprise-wide employee resource group at State Farm, debuting first my documentary in theaters, The Color of Vaccine, and working in the McLean County Government for some time during the pandemic. Working there was so trying, I can tell you right now, working in government during that time with anyone who ever worked, and I could tell that the grunt was felt, but it was a rewarding experience. Ultimately, what really helped me find myself is that I enjoy singing. I’ve always been a person that always turned to music whenever I feel a bit low or if ever, I feel a bit of anxiety or depression.

I usually turn to some of my hits, which gets me through my day and more recently get a pair of heels on and dance my worries away. That’s a little bit about myself. If anyone is interested, I hope they take a little bit of time and do a little research, and they’ll learn a lot about me and a lot of good trouble that I made throughout my years.

PI: Define what is bad and good trouble? 

DAM: I’ll start with the bad trouble. I was a hard-headed kid, a lot of energy, very willful and prideful, and I never really understood when I was wrong. Oftentimes I would find myself with a sore rear and hand and if it was really bad — for some time it was, I would miss birthday gifts. So, my mom could use the money to restore what was broken. A lot of this fed my internal belief that I was not worthy of good things: love. In my first adult relationship with a man, I struggled with my identity and loving myself, which translated through loving this other person. 

I struggled to understand what being HIV+ meant, which translated into aggression and negative internal thoughts. When I discovered I was positive in December of 2014, I didn’t take that news well, I turned to Xanax and alcohol to cope with this diagnosis. Oftentimes my friends and ex-girlfriend would find me blackout in various places on- and off-campus, in places where I shouldn’t be. I struggled with drug abuse and shortly after turned to self-harm cutting when I didn’t want to process emotions, ultimately making me feel even worst about where I was in life.

The good trouble started in 2018, I had just arrived back Arizona after a failed relocation. I was drained, and I didn’t know what to turn to. On the corner of my eye was my bass guitar and amp. So, I began to play it and eventually I had a 70-page notebook fill with poems and songs. During that process I told myself that I desire to walk in my truth. I’m sure the universe heard me because Peoria’s Positive Health Solutions and Central Illinois Friends approach me to talk about HIV: My HIV Story at their Artist Alive event. I did and I was so freaking nervous, but after I did it, I felt a wave of freedom, of joy, of balance. It just continued from there, of course I was doing a lot of volunteering at Central Illinois Friends, but later that year. The Bloomington, Illinois’ Pentagraph approach me, Paul Swiech asked if I could share my story with him. Along with my passions, and I did! And another wave of freedom came over me, but this time a wave of creativity too. It hit me, then that I should start an HIV vlog series about my experience and the state of HIV in my county. I turned to my expertise and began to grow my channel which led to more speaking engagements in Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Chicago, and Las Vegas, where I dismantle HIV stigma one conversation at a time. All of this came to a halt in 2020 because of the pandemic and the demand for my full-time job. In 2020, I got fired for their reason: gross misconduct and another reason that I can’t thin, but I attempted to sue them for retaliation and discrimination — one day I hope to share it all. But I lost my job at the McLean County government’s office. What I really took away from that experience was that, although I was doing my job, there was no way to change the system inside out, especially when we talk about systems of government that perpetuate systemic and institutional racism through micro aggressions, such as micro invalidations, micro assault, and a lot of folks don’t really see those things happening, especially if they’re posed with privilege: white allies. And that threw me into a spiral internally until I ran into a friend, Don Shandrow, who introduced me to Tamara Sibley, and we collaborated together on Tamara’s media child called THEAPPS. A Virtual Salon Production, which can be found on Facebook. Tamara would always remind me that, “art is the medicine,” and it really is. That’s where art turned into medicine for me. This led me to doing more work with Don for Coalescence Theater and eventually my own production: Color of Vaccine Part 1 and Part 2.

With THEAPPS, we bought artists from across the country to do different social- and issue-based productions. We did poems, plays, poetry, and music. More particularly, we made good trouble. One of the projects we discussed was the history of voting in America and why using your vote is important. Good trouble is bringing people’s stories to the forefront and saying that this is what we mean when we say health disparities, adverse health outcomes, racism, or how to end oppression, and not being ashamed about it. The History of House Musical is an example of good trouble. 

PI: How did you become involved with House Musical – Coming of Age in the Age of House? 

DAM: House Musical – Coming of Age in the Age of House is about a young man named Dwayne, who grew up on the south side of Chicago in the late 1970s. He finds the strength to come out. Before coming out, Dwayne is sneaking into nightclubs, where house music had emerged and really became the genre that we know today. 

Dwayne is going through the birth of house music and the period in which Black queer art and representation was emerging. House Musical, ultimately, is a celebration of Black people within the LGBT+ community experiences here in Chicago. It explores this new musical genre. In my performance, I capture the energy and excitement of that brief time. This musical takes you back to when young Chicago musicians and DJs were creating raw sample bass tracks. People were coming here to see what was happening, but then they realized the US had ignored all this great music. This music brought people together through their shared struggles, whether standing up to bullying or homophobia or fighting against discrimination within the LGBT community, and then also outside of the LGBT community, and ultimately, braving the battle of HIV, which was starting to become really an epidemic. I’ve been rehearsing and practicing my music to share a little bit of myself in this role of Dwayne.

PI: Scott Free is involved. Who else is involved in this venture? 

DAM: House Musical – Coming of Age in the Age of House was a book by Marcus Waller. The music will be scored by Scott Free and Michael Foley. Marcus Waller and Scott Free wrote the lyrics. Dion Walton II will oversee the direction of this musical as the Director. There are so many other many outstanding individuals who are part of the production too.

PI: What takeaway do you want your fans to retain from your work?

DAM: The biggest takeaway I would like folks to have from this play is to realize that one must be vulnerable, transparent, and visible. We are alive now, but we can go at any time. Many folks are still in that process of unmasking things they thought they knew about themselves. This musical is about changing, growing, and unmasking yourself to be in your true identity. It is also about having fun. It’s beautiful, sad, glorious, humbling, warm, and many things. I want people to realize life is short, so be grateful to be above earth another day and for all the small stuff victories.

PI: What does the future hold for you?

DAM: You ask some cool questions — I love it! Oh my Gosh. I was recently laid off from my job at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, about two weeks ago, but I don’t feel any sadness or remorse. I want to do positive things; I want to make good trouble and have fun simultaneously. There are many great things that I’m really excited to grow into and share with people. I love sharing, connecting with my community, and trying to connect with people. I see myself being limitless, ready to strip off the mold often placed on me when people see me on the internet without fully knowing where I came from and how I got to be this way. I’m more than my HIV status and advocacy. I’m limitless. With limitless abundance awaiting me!

Dion Alexander McNeal will receive their Esteem Award, at an in-person event on Saturday, July 1, at Sidetrack 3349 N. Halsted in Chicago from 1:00 – 3:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.

To purchase a ticket to House Musical click here