“I love storytelling. I believe that you can create change and shift culture by telling stories, and humanizing issues,” says Louie Ortiz-Fonseca. “Storytelling projects allow people to get to know other people on their own terms, without having to meet them. People can begin to see themselves in those they once discounted or minimized.”
Ortiz-Fonseca is one of the co-creators of The Gran Varones, a storytelling project on Tumblr where he and his friend, Anthony Leon, compile stories, short posts, photos, and video clips about the lives of young gay, queer, and trans Latino and Afro-Latino men. What began as a way to amplify underrepresented voices within the LGBTQ community in his hometown of Philadelphia eventually expanded across the United States.
“What we found is that people were waiting to tell their stories,” he says. “I was clear from the beginning to get stories from people from the hood, or from Latinos who were never invited to sit on panels or at the table because they weren’t ‘eloquent’ or their stories didn’t have great, inspiring endings to them.
“We wanted to collect stories that were messy, some that would be inspiring, some that would be offensive, and some of them hard to read. We wanted to paint a complete picture what it was like to be queer and Latino.”
Ortiz-Fonseca has already witnessed an impact from the project, particularly in how LGBTQ people interact with one another.
“I know people who would go to the club and see someone, and say, ‘I don’t like that person, because they liked my boyfriend’s picture on Instagram,'” he says. “Through Gran Varones, they’ll read that person’s story of how they’re surviving HIV stigma, or struggling with the death of their mother. Now, that person who liked their boyfriend’s picture on Instagram is more humanized. Now when they go to the club, they relate to them very differently.”
Ortiz-Fonseca’s own life story, rife with complications and obstacles stemming from growing up in severe poverty and with little support from his family or his school, is an example of the type of “raw, real” stories that he documents for Gran Varones.
Born in 1976 as the second of eight children, his home life growing up in 1980s North Philadelphia was less than desirable. His mother struggled with both alcoholism and crack addiction, while his father was incarcerated during his childhood and struggled on and off with heroin addiction, eventually dying of complications related to AIDS. In eighth grade, Ortiz-Fonseca dropped out of school. He spent three years moving through life with no goals or sense of purpose, until he landed a job at a local LGBTQ nonprofit known as GALAEI — a job that would literally change his life.
“Thank God they hired me, because I showed up to the interview with a bandana on my head,” he recalls. “Out of all the damn TV I watched, I did not know that you should not wear shorts and a bandana to an interview.”
But the directors of GALAEI saw something special in Ortiz-Fonseca, and decided to bring him on board at just 16 years old. With the exception of a “gap” year on tour as a backup dancer for various freestyle singers, Ortiz has spent more than two decades working for various LGBTQ-centric or HIV-related nonprofits. He currently serves as director of LGBTQ health and rights at D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, where he provides technical support and training to schools and nonprofits working with LGBTQ youth.
The stability offered by those nonprofit jobs allowed him to attend night school and eventually obtain his GED, which led to a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Lincoln University. It’s a life Ortiz-Fonseca couldn’t have imagined for himself as a child.
“I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come. It never escapes me,” he says. “Every day I’m blown away that I have a home office. Because I remember not having my own room as a kid. I remember having to sleep on the bed with three of my brothers. And I remember people, adults telling me, to my face, and my brothers, that we were not gonna be shit.”
When asked about his legacy, Ortiz-Fonseca hopes that his life can provide an example to youth about rising above seemingly hopeless life circumstances and creating opportunities for themselves.
“It sounds so cheesy, but you can create a chance for yourself,” he says. “You can make a way, and people will help you do that. You control your own narrative, and your tell your own story. Do not live your life through someone else’s narrative of you.”
METRO WEEKLY: What was your childhood like?
LOUIE ORTIZ-FONSECA: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, grew up with just my mom. My father — I found this out much later — was in prison for murder, or second-degree murder. So I made it through the first seven years without meeting him, but generally I grew up with my mother and my six brothers. My sister is the firstborn and grew up with my grandmother, and had a very privileged life.
MW: What was your home life like?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: My mother struggled with alcohol and crack addiction for most of her life. And this is during the ’80s and early ’90s when the war on drugs was hella violent, and grounded in racism and classism. So growing up, we were literally told that we were not going to be anything.
I never got teased that my mother was on crack by the kids on the block. Family members would talk down to us because my mother was on crack. But the people on the block didn’t, because everyone’s mother was on crack. So you can’t say, “That’s why your mom’s on crack,” because I can say, “Yours too, child!” We had to split hairs. It was like, “Well, at least my mother didn’t sell the TV.”
My brother was murdered in 2001. Eventually my mother got clean and moved to Florida. I stayed in Philadelphia. So even looking back on those experiences, I am the most successful person in my family, which is insane, cause I still feel like I’m struggling. And not even that, but also one of the most successful people that I grew up with.
MW: When did you first come out?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I do not have a coming-out story. The silver lining of my mother’s addiction was that it marginalized her. My mother is first-generation Puerto Rican and was an outcast from the very beginning because she was darker-skinned and hung out with black folks. I don’t even speak Spanish.
We also grew up with drag queens, we grew up with folks that we would now identify as trans, and queer performers and gay men. I remember being seven years old and my mother would leave the house every night to go hang out with her friends. And before she left the house, she would give us money to buy Tastykakes and soda. I remember running to the store to buy the cake and soda, and running back, and it was a friend of ours who lived across the street. He said, “Hey, can you all come outside?” And I said, “Oh, no, my mother’s leaving. We’re about to have a cake and soda party. You could come up.” And he said, “I can’t go in your house. My mother says that your mother has freaks in there.”
I had never heard that. And I can remember thinking, “Freaks?” I never saw my mother’s friends in that way, and from that moment I [realized], “You don’t got drag queens in your house?” So I knew the difference was there, but because of that, I never grew up feeling like I had to hide who I was. But at the same time, I knew that by not hiding who I was, people were going to say that I was a freak.
So I don’t have a coming-out story. For me, coming out was being in queer spaces, or even spaces to talk about growing up with a mother addicted to crack. That was more of a coming-out story for me, cause I didn’t struggle with coming out. That’s not to say that the struggle isn’t one that should not be affirmed or that isn’t real, it just wasn’t mine.
So every time they send me to gay youth groups, I remember sitting there, like, “I’m good. My mother is good with me being gay. We just ain’t got food in the house.” But my mother was good with me kissing boys.
MW: When did you realize that other people weren’t as accepting?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I learned that very early on. I remember growing up that even neighbors telling me, “You’re too young. You’re gay?” I can go on and on about seeing adults, even before I could even imagine kissing a boy, look at me like I was dirty. And me not even understanding what dirty meant. “Okay, great. I love She-Ra over He-Man,” or “I actually don’t love Wonder Woman the way other boys do. I actually want to be Wonder Woman. Is that what makes me dirty?”
I think it’s in middle school when young people make or draw those lines. I can remember being in the sixth or seventh grade, and they had a holiday party. And when they had the holiday party, they allowed the students to go from floor to floor. I remember being on the floor that was not my own, going to a friend’s room, and someone said, “Oh, my God! You the faggot!” And I remember thinking, like, “Why I gotta be ‘the?’ I can’t be ‘a?'” You know what I mean? Like, “Surely there’s another one in this damn school.”
But I think that’s when I began to realize that we as young people were drawing those lines. I knew that adults did that, because I grew up thinking that adults were mean and also powerful, but to have young people who look and sound like you draw those lines, was painful.
I had two friends, and I always write about one of them. There was Robert, and then there was [the other] Robert. And he were always in trouble. So we called him “T-Rob,” for “Trouble Rob,” to differentiate him from other Robert. They were as flamboyant as a Patti LaBelle hairdo. But they were not out.
While I didn’t go down the hallway saying, “Hey, y’all! I’m gay!” I was okay with doing a Janet Jackson routine in the middle of the hallway. And I remember them pulling me to the side and saying, “We can’t hang with you any more.” And me being like, “Why? We’re all gay. We all we got!” And they were like, “Oh, because you’re too out, and people are starting to talk.” And I remember thinking, “Why are we even drawing those lines for each other?”
So it’s in middle school that I learned, “Oh, wow! We are doing this to each other!” Not even only as young people, or young black and brown people, but as young black and brown gay people. Because I’m too femme, and because I just did “Rhythm Nation” in the lunchroom, somehow it’s too risky to hang with me. But, luckily, because I had a supportive household around that identity, I didn’t struggle with that as much.
MW: Let’s discuss your work. How did you get started with Advocates for Youth?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I already had worked in Philly for about 18 years doing LGBTQ work, and at the time, I was doing work primarily around GSAs and Philadelphia schools, helping them start GSAs, providing technical support, and coordinating city wide events for LGBTQ youth who participate in the GSA programs. I had a mutual friend who worked at Advocates, who was my predecessor. When she was transitioning out, my name had come up to work on a project that was primarily focused on black and Latino young men who have sex with men.
MW: What does the job entail?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Generally, it’s overseeing and leading most of the LGBTQ work here. I provide technical support and coaching for three school districts: Broward and Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco Unified School District, and Los Angeles Unified School District. They all have this cooperative agreement with the CDC to provide support for young black and Latino young men who have sex with men, ages 13 to 19. It includes creating safer environments for these young boys, but also ensuring that they have access and support around HIV and STI testing, and support around their identity. What we’re charged with, is doing that through training, and [through] developing partnerships with local community organizations.
MW: Do you have an example of that partnership?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: There’s LYRIC in San Francisco, which is an organization focused on supporting young LGBTQ youth, and we fund them to implement curriculum that we develop called Get Your Life. We have phone calls, and provide technical assistance in person with their staff, to train them to do the implementation, support them on a culture of competency, and then have meetings with them and the school districts, so that they can do some promotion — like how to outreach the teachers, how to get the administration to trust the local organizations — so that they can refer young men to the groups. It’s a lot like team building, getting everyone on the same page.
MW: Why is outreach to Latino and black MSM harder or different to generic LGBTQ outreach?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Generally, I think folks are socialized not to think of the health of young men. I think that’s compiled with young men who are of color. If the first thing they see is that young people are black and brown, they forget that they’re gay. Whatever socializations people have with these young men, sometimes supersede adults thinking about their health.
MW: Are you seeing increases in either HIV or STI transmission among youth, particularly black and Latino MSM?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Well, with the three school districts, there has not been that kind of data, because again, they’re not testing just young black and brown gay men, they’re testing entire schools. While the testing is great, I’m not sure what the impact is around young black and brown boys accessing those services, because everyone else is. There’s no way to determine. Generally, statistics the CDC released almost two years ago [show] that one in two black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV, and one in four Latino gay men will be diagnosed with HIV if the current trend of infections continue. Our hope is that by providing STI testing, that if folks are HIV-positive, or test positive for an STI, we can determine ways to support them by getting them into treatment, or helping them stay negative.
MW: You’ve worked with a number of gay-straight alliances. Have you found GSAs are more prevalent now, or is it still a struggle to set one up in a school?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I think they’re more prevalent. I think that folks are more courageous now to having a GSA. I will say that the model for creating the GSA is that the young person has to request it. It’s not like a teacher, or a well-intentioned ally can say, “I want to start a GSA.” The model generally is that a young person has to request it, and then an adult can support them in formulating, or bringing that idea to fruition. I think that they are more common, but also I do think that there’s also great resistance to it.
MW: What other resources do you provide to local communities?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Advocates has a national project called My Story Out Loud, that uses storytelling to lift the voices of queer and trans youth of color. That includes highlighting stories of those living with HIV, those who are impacted by HIV stigma, or those who are attending HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges or Universities, and what the experience is like to be queer and/or trans on those campuses.
We try to plug in all the orgs that we have to promote that among their young people. We get that some people make connections online, and it’s essential that we create and honor projects that do that, that allow people to connect with people on their own terms.
Now we’ve expanded it to include community experiences, stories of what it’s like to organize and work as a queer youth of color or what it’s like to be living with HIV, what it’s like to be negative and date someone who’s living with HIV, what it’s like to be trans. We have tons of great stories that are now being edited that I can’t wait to share with folks, because I think it paints a complete picture, or as much of a complete picture for what young queer youth of color are dealing with or existing within this political climate.
MW: Speaking of which, how are the people you work with on the ground reacting to Trump’s America?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I think folks are, for lack of a better term, shell-shocked. I think working with youth, working with young people, can break your heart. It can also mend and inspire you beyond your greatest imagination. I think this political climate has heightened both those emotions. I think some folks are polarized because folks want to make the best and most intentional decisions with the programs they create, and how they support young people.
For example, I’ve worked with one school in Philadelphia who stopped having their GSA when the bullying became a larger issue in their school. They discontinued it because they didn’t want folks to be targets. So, I think people are walking that tightwire, in that the same programs that provide visibility and affirmation can also be weaponized by people who don’t affirm these young people.
MW: Has there been an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric or attacks in the schools that you work with?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I was in a meeting with The Trevor Project maybe three or four weeks ago, and they’ve seen an uptick in calls every time the administration says something disparaging around queer people or trans folks. With the Trevor Project, young people are calling those lines, so I think that we live in a time where I think we are all struggling. What hurts more, the names we get called at school or the country and administration that calls us those same names?
MW: Is the animus coming just from the national level or is it also local?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I think it’s both. Again, I think folks are polarized by what we are seeing and the language that’s being used to describe marginalized communities.
MW: But didn’t that exist before the election?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I think it existed. I think it might’ve been more visible for folks who are most impacted by it, but I do think that the intensity or the magnitude of those experiences are heightened because of what’s happening nationally.
MW: Why is it heightened?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Because I can leave school. I can leave the teasing. But if I walk outside of my school into a country that says those same things? I can’t imagine what it’s like to be young and queer now, and to imagine what my life would be 30 years from now, when there are people committed to making it hell right now.
MW: Let’s talk about Gran Varones, your storytelling project, and how that started.
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Well, I’m born and raised in Philadelphia, been in DC for two years. I like to say I was displaced in DC, because DC is so different than Philly. While Philly is a great city, there really wasn’t a Latinx queer community. We still don’t have Latinx Pride in Philadelphia, which still blows my mind, because Pittsburgh has a Latinx Pride.
After working in nonprofits there for many, many years, I just got exhausted with not having a place at the table, or just not seeing our stories represented when people talked about the queer community in Philadelphia. I knew that agencies were not necessarily going to jump on board without any funding, so my best friend and I just said that we were going to go out, and just start a project.
We loved Humans of New York, and we saw how people were connected with storytelling, so we created the Gran Varones, titled it after the Willie Colon song, and literally went out and inboxed people, requested people on Facebook, Instagram, and just told people about the project.
MW: How did you find people to tell their stories?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: It took some coaching, because again, we were asking people who never get asked to share their stories to share their stories. We did video interviews with folks, and the project was primarily around photographs. Then eventually, we realized that we had tons of video, and we spliced together a mini documentary that’s on YouTube. But it was really just taping video, and recording folks, then meeting them where they were.
We never had folks come to meet us, we would go wherever they asked us to go. Some of those places were interesting, some of them were right after a funeral, some of them were in a dark basement, because folks didn’t have electricity. Our model was to meet people where they were, so that the burden of sharing their story wasn’t so much of a burden by trying to figure out how and where to reach us.
I think that, in turn, created trust. The same folks who said, “Hell no,” when we first started the project would then see their cousins, or see people who looked and sounded like them, and say, “Oh, then I don’t have to speak a certain way, and my story doesn’t have to end, or have this particular message for me to share it.” Now, all the folks who were unsure about sharing their stories have in-boxed us.
MW: And you’ve now taken the project national?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: We’ve gotten stories from 19 states. Again, our model is when I meet and interview everyone. I’m afforded the great luxury of traveling for work with Advocates, so in my off time, I meet with folks in whatever state that I am. I haven’t done much sightseeing, because as soon as I get off work, I will catch a Lyft or an Uber to someone’s house to interview them. Then that person that I just interviewed, because now they’re invested in the project, will say, “Hey, do you have an interview after this? I can drop you off.”
It’s that kind of support that keeps it going. It’s hard, because it’s not a funded project, but it’s national. By default, a lot of the stories are from the Puerto Rican experience, because I’m Puerto Rican. The project is, “Based in Philadelphia,” because that’s where it started, and I visit there quite frequently. A lot of the stories by default and circumstance are Latino gay men who identify as Puerto Rican, but nationally of course, that expands the identities. If you go to the site, you’ll probably see more Puerto Ricans than anything else.
MW: How are you courting the other Latinx communities and getting their stories into Gran Varones?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I have no model. It’s usually responses. Every time I’m in L.A., the response out there is always amazing, which always blows my mind. I always thought that I would hate L.A. because I think most East Coast people say, “We can’t survive in L.A.,” but the support that we’ve gotten around the project has been absolutely amazing. I think it is the stories that are shared that people connect to, regardless of what nationality or what Latinx group they’re from. I think people are seeing themselves and each other, and that’s been the greatest success about that.
MW: Do you foresee yourself getting stories from queer Latinx people that were affected by the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: Yeah, because I was waiting to hear from two varones who live in Puerto Rico. One of them just logged back onto Facebook. The other one had to literally send someone to post on Facebook that they were okay, and we had been planning a trip to Puerto Rico sometime in November. Circumstances have changed since then, but right after Pulse, we flew down to Orlando to collect some stories from folks who recently moved to the states from the islands.
MW: As a Puerto Rican, what is your reaction to the U.S. response to the hurricane and the subsequent damage?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: The response has been inhumane. And the cynic in me wants to say, unsurprising. But that does not mean that I’m not filled with rage, that does not mean I’m even filled with great disappointment. And I think the conversation around Puerto Rico has been interesting, because even the way we talk about money — we talk about it in a very punitive way. That if someone went bankrupt that it was somehow their fault, and if it’s their fault, it’s because they were irresponsible, and because they were irresponsible it’s because they’re stupid, and if they’re stupid they deserve everything they get.
That’s been the foundation of the conversation around Puerto Rico. It dehumanizes people and it doesn’t even acknowledge all of the ways that, because Puerto Rico is not a state, that fact alone has contributed to the financial problems that the island is experiencing. So I’m filled with rage and disappointment about their response, but nationally, even as a conversation, how people think and speak about Puerto Ricans. Even being Latinx, hearing other Latinx talk about Puerto Ricans, has always been interesting for me.
MW: Why is that?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: I’ve always experienced that people made fun of how we spoke Spanish. People talked about us in this quote, unquote, like we were the “ghetto, ghettoized” Latinx folks. I also think it’s that we didn’t have the DREAMer narrative. We were never painted as overachievers. Last time we saw Puerto Ricans on TV regularly was New York Undercover. You know what I mean?
So I think that all of that is clashing, how the country talks about Puerto Ricans, how the country talks about Latinx folks whose issues aren’t around DACA or immigration. And I think that people then compile that with financial insecurities and troubles, and those who present, outwardly, very differently than what we’ve been presented as Latinos. I think people are just straight up trippin’.
Even folks who are defending Puerto Rico trip over their words around how to describe us. Folks are saying, “Move off the island,” and move to swing states so you all can vote.” Even if we did, we’re not enough to swing the vote. In some way, you’re advocating for us, but no, I don’t think we need to leave our place of birth in order to shift the national political landscape.
MW: From your own experience, do Puerto Ricans feel like they are included as part of America?
ORTIZ-FONSECA: From my family, I would think so. I think all the people that I grew up with were proud Americans. And also very proud Puerto Ricans. But, again, the conversation around what it is to be a proud American means to disassociate yourself from everything else.
I’ve experienced a lot of flack from Latinx folks who thought that we took our citizenship for granted. You know, we are a colony, but I think that people individually feel connected to the States and that’s because family lives here.
When people say they’re proud to be part of this country, people literally think of red stripes and stars, as opposed to, “I am proud that my daughter has built an entire life over here.” Or “I’m proud that there’s some things that I don’t have to worry about, because I’ve been afforded some luxuries and opportunities that I know other folks have not been provided.” So it’s very nuanced, but I think generally, I grew up in a family that was proud to be Americans, but also hella proud to be Puerto Rican.
For more information on Advocates for Youth, call 202-419-3420 or visit advocatesforyouth.org.
Watch the Gran Varones storytelling project at thegranvarones.com.
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