Luna Luis Ortiz Turned His Personal Life Into Images that Created a History Marker for the Epidemic
by Dann Dulin
Photos by Luna Luis Ortiz
It’s opening night. I stand there. Dazzled. Captivated.
I’m transfixed by this photograph that’s hanging on a gallery wall. It’s printed in Sepia tone and a young guy peering out a dirty double-hung anodized window, with a small clean round makeup mirror sitting on the window frame. In the mirror is a huge close-up of his face that dominates the photo.
The piece, Moon in the Mirror (Self Portrait, 1995) by Luna Luis Ortiz, was part of the exhibit, ART & AIDS, that was held at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum in December last year. (Luna is currently in a show at the Eternal Gallery in Paris.)
Luna began his career as a teenager taking self-portraits, living in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. (He was inspired by his father’s affection for photography and his father gave Luna his first camera.) Later, these images, and others, would document AIDS in the eighties and nineties, serving as part of Luna’s personal journal of acquiring HIV from his first sexual experience at age fourteen. Now, at forty-six, he has gathered an extensive CV, dedicating his life to AIDS awareness.
Working alongside such artists as David LaChapelle and Nan Goldin, Luna’s work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The London Observer, and Huffington Post. As an eighties club kid his work flourished in that genre. He taught photography classes at The Hetrick-Martin Institute (location of the Harvey Milk School, from which Luna graduated in 1992), and co-founded the House of Frame by Frame Fierce that teaches animation filmmaking to high-risk youth.
For over a decade, Luna has been a youth educator at GMHC, creating social marketing campaigns and hosting workshops, conferences, and health fairs. He also shares his life story speaking at colleges that have included New York University, Penn State, and Yale. In 2009 he was a spokesperson for the campaign, “HIV Stops With Me.”
For entertainment, he likes reading history books, strolling in Central Park, and watching classic films like All About Eve and Mame. Luna also owns seven lovebirds. Yes, seven! “And they love to love,” chuckles Luna.
Dann Dulin: How did you become “Luna?”
Luna Luis Ortiz: I was born to be Luna Luis Ortiz. The name comes from being born under the zodiac sign of Cancer and the moon is our ruler. I…am…Luna!
You’ve appeared on PBS, MTV, and MSNBC. It seems your mission is to educate HIV awareness and empower youth of color….
I was inspired by the work of Stand Up Harlem, GMHC, and ACT UP. Back in the early nineties, I saw groups like ACT UP on the evening news demonstrating on the White House lawn and at City Hall to advocate for AIDS research and awareness.
Quite a few years back, I remember you were profiled on Peter Jennings’ special, Living in the Age of AIDS.
Yes, it was that Peter Jennings’ special in 1992 where I saw how effective sharing stories and simply talking about AIDS could help the masses. My journey in activism and prevention began then.
How did you begin?
I researched whatever I could find about AIDS and I began to get upset. AIDS is a stigmatizing disease. I discovered that I was living with something that I would forever be either judged for having or known as the “AIDS guy.” I needed to do something. AIDS brought out the worst and the best in people. There was a lot of hate, stigma, and homophobia but there was also love, support, and sympathy for people living with AIDS.
I discovered that art was a form of activism. I loved what Keith Haring was painting and the writings of Assotto Saint and Essex Hemphill. I loved that Madonna was talking about AIDS at her concerts. I grew up listening to these people and learning from them. I also learned to use my voice with Ann Northrop, Joyce Hunter, and Andy Humm. I listened to them before I would speak to media. Great preparation!
Tell me how you acquired HIV at fourteen.
It was 1986. I had just turned fourteen. I met thirty-year-old Lee from Atlanta while we were walking our dogs along a path through the City College campus in Harlem.
We started off talking about simple things like the weather, the birds, and movies over the course of weeks. Every now and then he would give me a compliment, “You’re going to be very handsome, I can tell.”
I would shyly accept his compliments with a smile and that would lead to more compliments. I was always glad to see him because he was the only person who understood my being gay. I had too many different feelings happening all at once and I had nobody else to share it. He told me that I was perfectly normal, “It’s OK to like boys, you know?”
One day we sat together on a park bench and he touched my body. He spoke softly, almost in a whisper. His touches were respectful and gentle. He talked his way into fucking me. I did not even know two men could do this. I was so inexperienced I didn’t even know how to begin. I felt butterflies. He thrust his manly body against my little body. I closed my eyes tight and imagined lovemaking in old movies, when it was all left to the audience’s imagination.
Well, I never saw him again. Two weeks later I sat alone on that same bench, surrounded by tall trees, with painfully swollen glands. I felt as though I had a cold. I was tired, my body ached, and I was nauseous. I was also carrying a fever, which gave me night sweats.
What did your family think?
My mother wondered what was going on with me. Eventually we went to the hospital.
They tested me for a ton of teen ailments, including the “kissing disease,” mononucleosis. All tests came back negative. I was in the hospital for three weeks. My mother and sister visited me every day. They would make me laugh to make me feel better. Mom would bring me homecooked Puerto Rican meals, which were so delicious! When it was their time to leave I would get emotional. I would watch them out the window after their visits and wave while they walked to the bus stop, tears falling out of my eyes.
Awwww…..On the medical side, what happened?
The doctors continued their tests. On my third spinal tap the doctor noticed I was penetrated anally. She gave me the fish eye and began to ask me questions: “Are you homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual?” I told her I didn’t even know what those words meant. She went to my parents. She told them she believed that I had homosexual sex and asked for their permission to do an HIV test.
What happened next?
The test came back. We returned to the hospital. Acting a bit strange, the doctor simply said, “You have HIV. You may develop AIDS, you may not.” She asked if we had any questions. My mom, in shock, asked, “What does all this mean?” The doctor explained bluntly, “You’re son eventually is going to get AIDS and die of complications.” She made it very clear that I was going to die by the time I was sixteen.
What was your instant reaction?
I was devastated. The doctor sent me home never informing my parents that I needed to be monitored and seen by a doctor on a regular basis. She didn’t even bother to give us information about HIV.
We went home and my mom fed me home remedies throughout the first year. The future seemed dark and confusing. Things were not friendly at home. The first year living with HIV was scary. I had no manual. I would walk over to the Hudson River and look at the water and cry. I was lost and confused. I thought only about death.
What kept you going, Luna?
Maintaining health was very important to me. I researched a ton of information about HIV. I was determined to beat AIDS. It was while researching HIV that I discovered a book about Marlene Dietrich. I instantly fell in love. I loved how Josef von Sternberg and George Hurrell photographed her. This discovery would later influence my photography. Photography saved my life.
You turned acquiring HIV into a positive way of life.
Having HIV made me think about how I wanted to be remembered and so I turned to photography. It was important for me to let people know that I existed and art was a way to express what I was going through. As you know, my father handed me a camera when I was about twelve. I never really took any pictures with that camera; I was too busy drawing. At first I toyed with the camera. I wasn’t totally convinced that photography was for me. Becoming infected sort of created this new possibility for me.
I started taking self-portraits with black and white film. I would pose like a dreamer, looking away from the camera, telling the story of my short life. In a way, photography became my voice at a time when I didn’t have a voice. The photos were amazing! They were very dramatic. I was trying to pose like old movie stars that I had seen in library books.
My mother liked my photographs. I remember her smiling at them.
Explain your connection with the ballroom scene. [The ballroom community, an underground LGBT subculture, provides alternative families for many Black and Latino youth. Competition and trophies are a commonality.]
It was November 16, 1988—a date I cannot forget. It changed my life. My friend Wade took me to [Greenwich] Village, and this was my first time as a gay boy. He took me to The Institute for the Protection of Gay and Lesbian Youth, for short we called it IPGLY, and it was an afterschool program that was created for gay young adults so that we had a space where we could be ourselves without getting beaten up. Later it was renamed the Hetrick-Martin Institute. Walking through their doors was like Dorothy landing in Munchkinland. Her front door opened and she went from black and white to full-on glorious color! The room was filled with gay boys and lesbian girls and drag queens from wall to wall. Everyone was friendly and the staff was so inviting. It felt like a little gay family. I then saw people doing these strange moves to some strange music. I asked Wade what they were doing. He answered, “The sistas are voguing!” “Come on Luna, VOGUE!”
You were home!
Afterwards, we all crossed the highway towards the water and to these old piers that appear as if they were going to fall into the river. I saw a man dressed in black leather getting his dick sucked and we all stood there looking at them as if this was the norm. It was. At one point, we stopped to talk to some older white man named Miss Lipstick, who was a crossdresser. At the pier there were a lot of people doing the vogue dance. It was completely mesmerizing and I felt like I was in a dream. The whole world all of a sudden seemed to be gay and proud. I discovered myself on the Village streets and started to create a family of friends that would become special. I found a community.
Working at GMHC, you help orchestrate the annual Latex Ball. [The Latex Ball began in 1990 as an outreach tool of raising AIDS awareness and it was also a tip-of-the-hat to celebrate the ballroom community.] You’re in the field every day. What is the best way to reach the younger generation to keep them safe?
Though the numbers of HIV infections are still high, these young people are smart and resilient and they know their protection options, including PrEP. What we need to focus on are the factors that contribute to HIV, like homelessness, unemployment, dating, violence, sexual assaults, substance use and alcohol abuse. I try to meet the young people where they are at and I go from there. They don’t like preaching or people being judgmental. Sometimes it just starts with, “How are you today?” and they’ll open up once they know they can trust you.
Reveal something someone told you that has stayed with you.
When I was attending the Harvey Milk School, Damien Martin (one of the founders of Hetrick-Martin Institute) told me that he was proud of me for being so open about my HIV status. He had been watching me educate others about AIDS. He said, “You are a brave young man, Luna. Continue to empower the world.”
Dann Dulin interviewed Wilson Cruz for June 2018 cover story.