Oral History Introduction & Oral History Transcript of Visual AIDS Artist Member Luna Luis Ortiz by Ollín Rodríguez Lopez

Luna Luis Ortiz is a photographer/visual artist, HIV/AIDS activist, and community health specialist at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). In this oral history interview conducted last year by Ollín Rodriguez, Luna reflects on his experiences growing up in New York City and Lancaster, PA, meeting his gay circle of friends, becoming a photographer and learning how to develop his own film. After being infected with HIV at the age of 14, Luna began taking self-portraits to leave images of himself to family members and friends. Throughout the ongoing AIDS crisis, Luna documented his chosen family and friends in New York City’s ballroom and house scene, and became an active HIV/AIDS awareness youth public speaker. Luna documented his friends in places where LGBTQ youth of color congregated, such as The Hetrick-Martin Institute, the Harvey Milk School, the Christopher Street Piers, and the Neutral Zone (also known as Brats). Luna shares about his club experiences and the loss of New York City queer spaces and clubs, offers a critique of the film “Paris is Burning”, and how the ballroom and house community was heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Finally, Luna shares his joys and success of co-organizing the Latex Ball, surviving AIDS and having his photography work included at AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

Listen to Luna's oral history here:

And review highlighted excerpts below.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez is an educator and student pursuing their BA in Race and Ethnicity Studies at The New School. Ollin is committed to supporting community responses to HIV/AIDS, with a deep dedication to decentering whiteness in the historicization of the ongoing crisis. Through the course, Queer Art & Legacy of AIDS taught by Ricardo Montez, Ollin had the opportunity to connect closely with Visual AIDS and learn about Luna Luis Ortiz and his HIV AIDS interventions through his photography and HIV/AIDS activism work.

Interview Transcript – Luna Luis Ortiz

Date of Interview: March 4, 2018

Location of Interview: The New School University Center, Arnold Forum Library, New York

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Today is March 4, 2018. My name is Ollin Rodriguez Lopez with the class Queer Art and Legacy of AIDS and will be doing an oral history interview with Luna Luis Ortiz. I am sitting here with Luna at The New School University Center in New York City.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Can you state your name, what year and where you were born?

Luna Luis Ortiz: My name is Luna Luis Ortiz, and I was born in New York City in 1972.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Where in New York City did you grow up?

Luna Luis Ortiz: I grew up in the South Bronx in the ‘70s.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Luna Luis Ortiz: Well, the South Bronx in the ‘70s sucked. It was falling apart. We’ve seen the photos of old New York in the ‘70s where the Bronx was a neglected Borough and the President of the United States—Jimmy Carter came to the Bronx for a visit and was like, what the hell is going on here. It was at that moment that my parents decided—I think it was around ‘79, they decided they wanted us to move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because my grandfather, my mother’s father, was living in Lancaster and he kept telling my mother oh, you should come and bring the kids here. So that’s how I ended up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania until about 1984.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: I wanted to ask a little bit about your mom?

Luna Luis Ortiz: She’s the first born—well she was the first-born female because there’s my uncle, Jose Rivera. I think that when my original grandparents—I say original because my grandmother from my mother and him—my grandfather, they separated. And my mother was 5, and her father came to pick her up and he said, oh I’m going to take her out shopping, or something like that. And he kidnapped her and took her to New York City. And then my grandmother with two of the other kids came to come and get her and that’s how they all stayed in New York. For some reason, he just had this attachment to my mother—it’s like his first-born daughter, and you know how fathers could be with their daughters. And he was a great man in the sense that he was very loving and a sweet guy. Well, he brought my mother into America (from Puerto Rico) and then he brought us into Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we had a sense of freedom and joy as young people. And I had my first bike, which I would have never had in the South Bronx.


Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: How was your experience at Harvey Milk School in ‘87?

Luna Luis Ortiz: So, in ‘87 I was in the other school. By this time around in 86—so I stop hanging out with Miguelito. So, ‘86, I met Wade—who is still a friend of mine. Wade at that time, he was more flamboyant, and I met him at the New York Public Library at 145th Street. And he was there with James, who passed but he was another friend. He was the first boy I kissed—James, I forgot his last name, Klimes or something like that. And they grew up on 150th and 148th, and I’m over here on 141st. So, we bonded at the library because we would see each other all the time. What they were doing at the library? I have no idea. But I was there because at that time I was going through my Hollywood stage and I was like going to the library, to not study—but to search for more books on Marilyn Monroe and learning about her and discovering about Marlene Dietrich. Then I fell in love with Marlene Dietrich’s lighting, and I always wanted to know who was the person that was in charge of this lighting? So, then I was researching Josef von Sternberg, and then from that I would discover, George Hurrell who made everybody look like gods in the 1930s. With no pores! Like, everybody had no pores. All of Hollywood was like, glowing poreless people! Their skin was smooth, and the light was like cream, and the shadows and light. And so, that was my first inspiration. I was like, I don’t know who this person is, but I love these photos. Ironically, they had a book, that had George Hurrell photographs, and I just like remember I took it home and I borrowed it. And then I borrowed it again. And then they were like, you can’t do that. And I said, well okay, let me go get another book, and they had a book called, Four Fabulous Faces, and it was Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. And I discovered all those women, and I was just in awe of all these Hollywood icons, you know? So, while I was doing that, of course, I was a huge Madonna fan. Who wasn’t at that time! And my friend, Wade was into Diana Ross. And Diana in the ‘80s was also hot, you know, she had all those hits from RCA. After Motown. And so, long story short, we would battle at the table about who—who was better, Madonna or Diana Ross? You know, I didn’t know that Diana Ross had all that history or whatever! So, he would always get me. You know, Madonna was like the new girl, but you know, making noise. “Papa Don’t Preach” was just a hit. And I kept saying that, she’s got messages in her songs! So, yeah, that’s how him and I met. And so, they became my gay circle because they introduced me to other gays and other gays, so I was an Uptown gay. My friend, Wade took me to—what is the Hetrick-Martin Institute. But at the time it was called the Institute for the Protection of Gay and Lesbian Youth, and for short we use to call it IPLGY. So, we went to IPLGY in 1988—November 15, because it was the Thanksgiving dinner that they always host. They still have it. And I remember I walked in there, and it was right across the street from the Pier, and it was the first time I was in the Village. And he said, oh you’re gonna have fun, you’re gonna meet other people like us. And all of that. So, in a way, he kinda became sort of like a gay mother figure. Like, he was like, this is what you do, this is what you don’t do, you know? He was breaking down all the rules of like being gay and young, and going down to the Village.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Can you remind me what year this is?

Luna Luis Ortiz: Ah, ‘88.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: ‘88? Okay.

Luna Luis Ortiz: November 15, 1988. I remember that for some reason.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: It’s Thanksgiving. You eat a lot.

Luna Luis Ortiz: But it’s also because you know, it was like Dorothy entering, you know, Oz. Oz, right? Was it Oz? Emerald City?

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Yes.

Luna Luis Ortiz: Yeah, when she landed. And then remember when the movie was black and white? So, my life before this was black and white. When I went up those stairs and entered that room—that’s Hetrick-Martin, it was like full color. If that makes any—metaphorical sense.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Yeah, yeah.

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: Can you share a little bit about what Brats (Neutral Zone) looked like inside as well?

Luna Luis Ortiz: So, when you walked in, you had to show ID because you had to be a youth. And they had like a cute guy that acted like he was a security guy. And he would have anyone but me! I don’t know why he didn’t sleep with me. But he was cute, I had a picture of him. I forgot his name by the way. But so, he would do the door, and we would go in. And there’s was an ID—so you can get a Neutral Zone ID. I think I still have it. And when you walked in, this way, it was like a little—okay it’s like—the glass, when you walked into the left, there’s was like maybe like two tables fit there. Then to the right it’s the bar, so the bar was sort of separated by one of those little walls, those kinda half way walls, you know what I mean? So, and then—you walk down a little bit and it opens into this bigger space, which looks like—that’s where all the tables were. And the kitchen was all the way in the back, which became the dressing room because not only did we hang out there, we used to host shows. And so, I have videos—VHS of like shows that we used to have there. And I started to do—you know the Ziegfeld Follies? So, I started to do Luna Follies. And so, I would get friends of mine who wanted to perform, and I would do Luna Follies Presents shows. And we would all get up in drag and I would be the host. And have show and perform and carry on. That was sort of like how we expressed ourselves. It was so much fun at that time. Being young in New York at that time was cute. No shade. Like it was fab. We didn’t have nothing, but we created everything. If that makes any sense. And there was still a sense of freedom and a sense of respect that we had for elders. So not only did we listen to elders and respect them, we were able to also hear what they were saying and create our own things, according. And there’s a lack of that now, I think. But yeah, the Luna Follies and shows and the space was really cute, like, you know? I miss it. When they closed it I was devastated. But then we still have Hetrick-Martin—IPLGY. And then we had the YES Center, I mean, the YES program at The Center. But I didn’t really like The Center. They used to have a group called, GLNY but then they decided to make it BIGLNY because a bunch of bisexuals started hanging out. But GLNY was something like Gay, Lesbian—something of New York…

Ollín Rodríguez Lopez: What one of your biggest success in life? I mean, there’s so many to choose from.

Luna Luis Ortiz: My biggest success is that I was able to maintain sanity. Living through something that was supposed to kill me, and—I know that sounds horrible, right? But I was able to survive that. And that’s my biggest success—is that I survived AIDS when a lot of my friends didn’t. You know? And I took life easy and I tried to. You know? I’m not a stressful person. I don’t know if all of those little things played a role. I didn’t do all of the drugs that everyone was doing. I—just wanted to live and create. Which is has been my drive, is to create. I’m so bored when I am not being creative. And then I think being part of the AIDS at Home Exhibition was really a big thing for me. Because I felt like, okay, I’ve done galleries, you know, little spots here and there. But for me to say that I was a part of the Museum of the City of New York—a museum that I actually used to go to anyway. I actually want to go the El Barrio Museum too, that might be in my cards. I think it was a big deal for me. Like, personally, you know what I mean? Like, oh my god, I am in the Museum of the City of New York. That was a big deal. And they pick the—I don’t know if you remember the show? But they picked the perfect segment, I was in the family section because my work consists of that. And I only photograph friends and family, and my friends were my family. So, it was nice that the curator Stephen Vider looked at my work and said these would be perfect in the family section. And the fact that it was ballroom connected as well. So, they acknowledged, you know, what we were going through, at that time with AIDS.

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Luna Luis Ortiz