Play for Real
Visual AIDS Teams Up with Luna Luis Ortiz, Tytus Larue James Gibson-Jackson, Tanaj Nicholas, Rossi Dobbins, Milton Garcia Ninja and Alvaro to Create Sexual Health Messaging for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth of Color
by Chael Needle

The impact of HIV on the Ball community in New York City and that community’s response to the pandemic have structured many of the storylines on FX’s hit television show, Pose. And, in that context, while Pose is a much needed corrective to cultural representations of people living with HIV/AIDS in the first decades of the pandemic (not everyone was a middle-class white gay cisgender male), it does still invite the general public to understand AIDS as history. This approach is limiting. AIDS is not only in the past. AIDS is not over.

AIDS is certainly not over for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, and in particular those who are youth of color.

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in January 2019 in the American Journal of Public Health estimates that 14.1 percent of transgender women (and 3.2 pecent of transgender men) are living with HIV; when categorized by race/ethnicity, the study found an estimated 44 percent of black/African American transgender women, 26 percent of Hispanic/Latina transgender women, and 7 percent of white transgender women are living with HIV. The CDC categorizes transgender and other gender minority youth as at-risk, but spotlights the paucity of HIV-related research among this group as well as the need for increased healthcare access, decreased stigma and discrimination, and better HIV testing measures for all transgender women and men. The CDC reports: “Among the 3 million HIV testing events reported to CDC in 2017, the percentage of transgender people who received a new HIV diagnosis was 3 times the national average.”

Across the country, a number of organizations are responding, and often focus on the House and Ball community because that is where a great number of transgender and gender nonconforming youth of color, namely African-American and Latinx youth, can be found, as part of that community’s various Houses, structured as families, or as Ball attendees. (It is important to point out that not all transgender nor gender nonforming youth of color are part of the House and Ball community, and vice versa, not all members of the House and Ball communities are transgender or gender nonconforming.)

In New York City, for example, GMHC reaffirmed its commitment to helping LGBT and gender nonconforming individuals, particularly those within the House and Ball community, to strengthen their sexual health. On September 27, 2019, the “GMHC Statement on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Reaching Young Black and Latinx Gay Men Through Chosen Families” explained one of the reasons for the organization’s spotlight on “young Black and Latinx MSM, who remain disproportionately impacted by HIV.” The ASO noted: “In its 2017 HIV surveillance report, the New York City Department of Health revealed that 72.8% of new HIV diagnoses in New York City were among MSM—and, among those cases, 75.9% were among Black and Latinx men, and 41.4% were among men ages 20 to 29.”

And recently, New York City-based Visual AIDS enlisted legends of the House/Ball scene in New York City to create this year’s version of Play Smart trading cards, which, every year, feature different themes and artwork to convey sex-positive messages about harm reduction, HV testing, PrEP and PEP, homelessness, undetectable viral loads, HIV stigma, and mental health. The messaging targets trans and gender nonconforming youth of color.

The cards all highlight the vibrancy and vitality of the community, even when addressing serious topics. The artist Alvaro, for example, pays tribute to House icons Hector Xtravaganza, Luna Khan (interviewed below), and Egyptt LaBeija in portraits limned with shimmering colors and elegant lines.

In addition to the textual and visual messages, each kit is packaged with internal and external condoms and lubricant. The New York Community Trust’s DIFFA Fund provided support for the project.

A&U caught up with some of the creative forces behind Play Smart VII: Luna Luis Ortiz [A&U, June 2018] and Milton Garcia Ninja.

Luna Luis Ortiz, Tytus Larue James Gibson-Jackson, Tanaj Nicholas, and Rossi Dobbins
House of Khan’s Luna Luis Ortiz is a distinguished photographer and a dedicated and accomplished HIV advocate since the late 1980s, when he was diagnosed positive. A community health specialist at GMHC, he works on social marketing campaigns, plans and helps organize The Latex Ball, and continues to mentor youth through workshops and special projects.

Says Ortiz about the artists he mentored at GMHC, Tytus Larue James Gibson-Jackson, Tanaj Nicholas, and Rossi Dobbins, who created artwork for some of the cards: “[They are] three extraordinary youth of color. They were able to focus on what they love which is creativity. They’re very talented with art and the performing arts. Creativity heals our spirits.”

Chael Needle: With the three Play Smart art works from GMHC——how did they come about through your work at GMHC?
Luna Luis Ortiz: Many of the young people who come to GMHC deal with these issues on a daily basis. For the youth it was easy to paint and draw but it wasn’t easy discussing mental health, homelessness, HIV and stigma because these are the realities for some of them and their friends. I was able to guide them through nurturing and supporting their every process.

From your work at Hetrick-Martin to your work at GMHC, and within the ball community, what have you learned about sexual-health messaging directed toward young men and women who are Latinx and/or of African descent?
Keeping it real. Youth and young adults like it when they can relate to something, either visual or messaging….If you’re speaking in the language that they know, it really makes a difference. It also helps to have them involved in the process, to hear what they have to say because they are living it and they know the answers.

What three aspects does an outreach campaign or practice need to have in order to engage youth?
Language that they understand, visuals that they can relate to and engaging in a way that speaks to them.

Anything else you want to add about the Play Smart campaign?
We were thankful that Visual AIDS included the voices of the youth. It’s important to include them because they are the future in ending the epidemic. The only way we can have change is to get everyone involved in projects like Play Smart. I was their age when I became a member of Visual AIDS in the early 1990s, and I remember that Visual AIDS didn’t know what to do with a young person of color at that time in the Archive Project, so having young people participate in activities at Visual AIDS is wonderful.

Milton Garcia Ninja
New York City-based artist and cartoonist Milton Garcia Ninja (A.K.A. MGNinja) is a member of the Legendary House of Ninja. He is also a voguer, dancer, choreographer, and public speaker. He has been living with HIV for almost two decades, having been diagnosed in 2002.

How did you come up with your artistic concept for the cards?
Milton Garcia Ninja: The concept was simple for me. I wanted to combine various categories found in a ball and merge the concepts of how HIV/AIDS awareness could be intertwined through my cartoon interpretations that could be envisioned and appropriated to my community.

What do you hope viewers take away from the cards?
I hope that anyone in or out of the Ballroom community can take away various emotions by collecting these one-of-a-kind pieces drawn for Visual AIDS. He/she can take away the feelings that they are in the driver’s seat of self-advocacy and personal empowerment in terms of their healthcare, specifically their sexual-health care.

I also want them to take away from the cards that they’re supported by anyone that wants them to be their best self and to reach their unlimited potential to be anyone they wish to be.

What do you think is needed most in terms of raising awareness about HIV prevention, treatment and care among the members of the Ball community?
I think that there should be unique ways, like the Play Smart Cards Project by Visual AIDS, to continue to reach this intergenerational, creative community in the GLBT community by diverting strategies for more outreach, services and intervention to the Ballroom community. As the stigmas and fears of death about a short life expectancy are quickly becoming a memory of the past, it’s my hope and intention that these Play Smart cards can start a conversation of how outreach and prevention strategies can be tweaked up to serve better the grass-roots access to have a diverse, intergenerational highly creative community as the House and Ballroom community adapt its efforts to the changing history of HIV as it still disproportionately affects and infects marginalized GLBT communities of color worldwide.


The systematic review and meta-analysis, “Estimating the Prevalence of HIV and Sexual Behaviors Among the US Transgender Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, 2006–2017, by Jeffrey S. Becasen MPH, et al, may be accessed (for a fee) here: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304727. To read the GMCH statement, visti: http://www.gmhc.org/content/gmhc-statement-national-gay-mens-hivaids-awareness-day-0.


For more information about Play Smart VII, visit: https://visualaids.org/projects/play-smart-vii. Bulk orders of 100-200 packets are available for the cost of shipping and handling. Contact Kyle Croft by email at [email protected] to place an order.


Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.