Like the House and Ball community it serves, GMHC’s Project Vogue is about dance, self-expression, community, and being fabulous.
It’s also about linking young Black men who have sex with men—the most at-risk group for HIV infection in New York City—with HIV treatment, prevention, and behavioral health care, all under the caring and watchful eye of Luna Luis Ortiz, a Hall of Fame Ballroom Icon in the House of Khan.
Ortiz is a longtime father in the House of Khan, explaining that in Ballroom, the different houses are alternative families. “It’s almost like what I do at GMHC. I take care of people,” he said.
Some Project Vogue clients have great relationships with their parents, Ortiz said, but “for some LGBTQ or trans sons and daughters, it’s not so easy.” They may live in single room occupancies, shelters, group homes or on the street.
“Luna really took me on and looked after me–and guided and helped me,” says Project Vogue client Tytus Larue in the short video below. “It wasn’t just voguing and dancing. He helped me find housing. I used to come here to eat all the time.”
As a Puerto Rican teen, Ortiz said, “I was one of the youth,” who came to GMHC for services, noting that Black men who have sex with men can also be Latinx.
Ortiz joined the New York Ballroom scene at age 16 after contracting HIV just two years earlier, in 1986, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He has made HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness a life mission in his career, as an accomplished photographer and as a Ballroom community leader.
In the early ’90s, Ortiz helped start GMHC’s renowned Latex Ball, which combines fierce fashion with free condoms and on-the-spot HIV testing. He joined the agency’s staff in 2007 as the liaison to the Ballroom community and now serves as Project Vogue’s program coordinator.
From those deep roots, Project Vogue arose organically. It launched as a pilot program three years ago with a grant from the U.S. Office of Health Resources and Services Administration, and mainly serves Black and Latinx youth ages 18 to 29, who are newly diagnosed with HIV—and either not in care or at risk of falling out of care.
Project Vogue’s Clubhouse provides a safe, caring space to practice voguing and dancing at GMHC—and also to get connected to health care, counseling, food pantries, and other needs, with guidance from Ortiz and two peer navigation ambassadors, Nicodemus Ciccone and Elijah Roberts—a Project Vogue graduate.
“It’s our special place,” Ortiz said. “It’s about learning to take initiative for your own self—to stand up for yourself, make your own appointments, speak with the caseworker so you don’t lose out on a great apartment—and I help them to navigate.”
But when Covid struck, he said, everyone had to adapt. The roughly 80 current members started meeting in virtual groups on Zoom and then getting together for safely distanced walks in Central Park and at the Christopher Street Pier, once it reopened. “We’re still finding ways to connect in person until we can be at GMHC together,” Ortiz said.
For Project Vogue’s clients, Ortiz said, success means they are getting the behavioral and health care they need—taking their medications and visiting their doctors regularly, with an HIV viral load that’s been undetectable for at least six months.
“I know that kids are smart, but some of them need a push. Our job together is to get them to cross over to undetectable,” he said.
Project Voguers also work on education and career aspirations. “It’s a very flowy job. No two clients are the same,” Ortiz said.
As Larue, the program’s client, says in the video, “Project Vogue means giving me another person to believe in me, so I believe in myself that much more.”