Growing up as a queer person of color in a time when homophobia, racist rhetoric, and white nationalism inform U.S. policy can be traumatizing, especially for a generation already struggling with mental health and stigma. That's why longtime HIV activist Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, co-creator of HIV multimedia storytelling project "The Gran Varones" and director of LGBTQ health and rights at Advocates for Youth, is working to create a safe space for LGTBQ youth of color with Kikis With Louie, a biweekly series on YouTube that confronts conversations around sexuality and identity with ease and confidence. We caught up with Ortiz-Fonseca, who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the series and offered advice on how to make way for a new generation of unapologetic activists.
Daisy Becerra: Congratulations on Kikis With Louie! You personally have been working in the HIV activism and prevention space for over 20 years and already carved out a space in digital activism with The Gran Varones. What was the driving force for you, personally, behind creating and working on this series? And your personal reason for wanting to appear on camera?
Louie Ortiz-Fonseca: Advocates for Youth was approached by MAC AIDS Fund two years ago about the possibility of a partnership. But there was no expectation. We didn't hear anything back for like two years. Because details had to be worked out. So, we went back and forth around ideas, and at the eleventh hour -- when it seemed like we were hitting a brick wall about what we wanted to create that would be innovative, but also relative, and would speak to young people -- a co-worker came up with the idea for Kikis in three minutes.
And it kind of just grew from there. The goals and taking this prevention work into the YouTube space was very different for everyone involved, particularly me. With Gran Varones, I share stories that are my own. I always jokingly say that I work out my childhood trauma through that; but I also share the stories of others. And I'm comfortable being the writer and the person behind the scenes. I don't do video for Gran Varones. That was never my intention. I'm OK with being behind the scenes, and folks just seeing me via photos.
So, while I loved the idea of Kikis, it was clear that I was entering a new space because I would be the face of a project but also be in front of the camera. It was nerve-racking. But I just loved the idea, and that was my driving force. That allowed me to face my fears around being in front of the camera and carrying the show as the host.
I even tried to talk them into giving it another name. Because it comes with other pressures, right? What if it doesn't fly? Is it because of me, or is it because of other stuff? I was afraid of that. But, again, it was the idea, the vision; but also taking these conversations into the YouTube space.
I have a 16-year-old son. I know that he consumes all his music and most of his entertainment content from YouTube. I knew that it was a space that young people consume most of their information; where adults like me get it from Twitter and Facebook.
DB: You're 42. How can the older generation in HIV activist spaces mentor or guide a new generation, or even just make more space for younger folks' stories and experiences? How should they pass the baton from here?
LOF: Get out of the way. And that's not to say that what folks have done and continue to do does not impact, or inspire, or move, or provide guidance for, younger activists. I find in my experience that a lot of times, digital organizing and social media storytelling is often minimized by adults, or people who have been in the HIV organizing space since the beginning, since before the beginning of social media.
How young people plan and organize inherently looks different than what we might have been doing in 1990. It's like three generations ago. We have more tools and more resources. The impact is still the same. ACT UP used visuals that are still impactful 35 years later. Just because young people are doing that in a digital space does not make that less impactful. It's just as impactful.
I just find that if your body isn't out on the field, isn't out in the streets, if you are not sacrificing, the same kind of sacrifices that people made 30 years ago, [older activists think] that somehow, you're not as committed to the work. If people are not in the same space, having a meeting, that somehow those people are not as committed. People meet through video. People meet through text. People have Twitter conversations, Twitter town halls. So I think that adults like me can benefit by shutting up and just moving out of the way, and allowing young people to do what they're going to do, in the same way that we were young and were able to do what we were going to do, either because adults of our generation got out of the way, or we moved them out of the way, or created a new space for us.
Trust young people. Remember when we were young and when we didn't have any resources. And understand that, yeah, organizing is not going to look the same way it did 30 years ago. And that is OK. That is exactly what we worked for -- so that someone in Philadelphia can video conference with somebody from Alaska, and coordinate and organize an action. That is what we laid our bodies down on the ground for, so that the organizing is outside of just our networks.
DB: Did you learn any new truths, new revelations, things that you weren't aware of, while talking to young activists on the show?
LOF: I was reminded of the resiliency of young people. I think the tone of the conversations are different. When I was younger, me and my friends were planning and envisioning what safer spaces would look like, what affirming HIV prevention would look like, what adequate treatment would look like. And now that I think that we have a sense of what those things can and do look like, I think the conversation we had with young people hit the tone of: "We are not going to lose what we have; and we will fight to keep it."
It's unapologetic. Like, we already know what we have, what we deserve. We already know what's out there. So, you can't pull the wool over our eyes anymore.
DB: That speaks to what you said before: This is what we worked for. Obviously, the generation now is taking what has been possible, due to people and trailblazers before them.
DB: So, the past generation empowered this new generation of activists to feel that confidence, to feel that unapologetic sort of, "This is ours."
LOF: Yes, and it was great to hear that. It's great to be reminded. It also reminds me to update my perception, but it also gives me an entry and an awareness of how I can support this kind of work now. I no longer need to be the brainchild. I'm learning as an adult to be more comfortable being the mentor that I had growing up.
I never imagined that I'd be a mentor, or that I'd be this adult that people came to and asked for ideas or expertise. But I've had some great mentors. And I think that is what I use when I'm around young people. I'm listening as much, or even less, as I'm talking. I'm asking questions that center their voices in a way that's honest, affirming, and celebratory, and that doesn't compare their experience to what we experienced in the past -- unless that's asked of me. If they ask, then I will provide that. But it's just to listen to what is, as it is, and how they present it. That's good enough, because I trust young people.
DB: This series hosts conversations on dating, love, and sexual and reproductive health. How does this series also center LGBTQ people of color and people living with HIV within those conversations?
LOF: The vision was to create a space for people, specifically young LGBTQ people of color and those who are most impacted by HIV, either if it's because they're living with HIV or it's something that they have to consider around relationships, sexual activity, or how their bodies can or may be criminalized.
That's how we identified the cities that we went to. We've gone to Philadelphia, Orlando, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, etc. We wanted to make sure that we were capturing folks who were doing great work on the ground, but different parts of the country, so that there was as much representation as possible. What LGBTQ youth experience in a big city like Orlando is not going to be the same thing they experience in Las Vegas. I think some of their great commonalities, like how culture and how identity plays out, or how it's policed and/or celebrated, is very different. So, that was the first part of centering their voices; and then, making sure that in each city we interviewed influencers with big platforms but also young people from that city.
We also reached out to organizations that work with black and Latino queer youth -- specifically, young men, young trans women, folks who are undocumented -- around HIV to participate in these conversations.
I think that now, because the conversation around identity has expanded, that by default, even if we asked young people what they thought about relationships, HIV is going to come up. Racial disparities are going to come up. Sex positivity or HIV stigma come up any time we talk about relationships. That's why those things came up in every city we went to. If I just said, "What's it like dating?" that was immediately part of the initial answers. Provide the space, and they will show up.
While our intention is to center the voices of young LGBTQ youth of color and those who are impacted the most by HIV, they center their own voices. They brought their voices and their stories to the table. We can't take credit for that. We're a great vessel, in providing that opportunity for them to do that. But we don't write dialogue. They brought the magic. They did that work so beautifully and courageously. And I'm just humbled that I was able to just be a part of that, and to witness that and hopefully be able to support that and continue to support that.
DB: What would you say was your favorite moment from filming the series? Too many?
LOF: There are many. Some great highlights were interviewing my friend Jennicet [Gutiérrez] and Reggie Bullock, the NBA player. Mj Rodriguez was the second interview I ever did. It was on the first day. I was so, so nervous -- again, because I was going to be in front of the camera [and] did not know what was expected of me. I know that I'm loud. I know that I'm funny. I know that I'm witty. But I wasn't sure how that would translate on video, right?
With Kikis, I knew it would be a broader audience. I wasn't sure if I would come across as a caricature. Would I come across as a stereotype? These are all things that I was kind of struggling with the night before and the morning of.
As soon as they said, "You've got 15 minutes with Mj. Make it work," I was like, "What do you mean? This has to be like a straight shot?" But she was so personable. As soon as she walked in, we connected. She loved my beard. I can never shave it ever. And there was a strong connection. And we wound up staying there for 50 minutes, instead of 15. And I think that I identify that as my favorite moment, because it helped give me the confidence to do the rest of the interviews.
DB: Did you have any fears about putting your content on social media, where it could be attacked by trolls? What advice would you give to folks who are wanting to do the same thing that you're doing?
LOF: We did talk about YouTube being a very, very special place, in terms of the comments that people share. But I think where we landed was that there are black and brown queer people, black and brown queer trans people, and just other young people who are carving out a different kind of space on YouTube. And if this show can help carve out more space, then we want to be a part of that.
We're all looking out to make sure that young people who are commenting are not attacked by other folks. Because we don't believe that young people should always have to defend themselves, especially in the space that we create. So, we developed a plan and that helps to ease it. There's not this huge responsibility that I have to correct every homophobic or racist or transphobic comment, [but] we have a team that is committed to doing that, and that that work, which can be emotionally draining, is spread out, and it doesn't necessarily fall on one person.
I think the powerful thing around comments in the ideal world is that if someone said, "You know, I thought I was the only one. Now I know I'm not, because my mother loves me." That comment stays there for as long as that video is up. It can be written in 2018, and someone can read it in 2025 and still be moved, and still feel connected to this magic community. And I think that's a powerful thing of comments -- is that they forever exist, and they forever communicate and build the kind of community that is everlasting. It's kind of like we're building something where all these stories can live forever.
It's like a library. People can come today, or people can come 10 years from now. But I hope that when they do come that they feel welcome, that they feel loved, and that they feel affirmed. And that they know that, while they may be alone in their own communities and their houses, that they are not alone in the world, or in certain corners of the internet.
DB: Is there anything else that you want to mention about the show?
LOF: It's biweekly. And we hope that there's a Season 2.
DB: You haven't gotten the green light on that yet?
LOF: No. But I think it will live on, no matter what. There might be an opportunity for it to be a podcast. I think that that's more my realm. But the feedback has been great. My son watched it with his friends. I do invite adults to watch it. Because I think the show models what these intergenerational conversations can look like. And some of the conversations are hard. I hope that adults can see the possibility of having these kinds of conversations with youth in their lives.