Vico Ortiz: "Queer People Have Always Existed Anywhere, Everywhere"

Getty | Monica Schipper
Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso
Getty | Monica Schipper
Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

Vico Ortiz is a Puerto Rican actor, drag king, and activist best known on screen for their role as Jim Jimenez in "Our Flag Means Death." They've also had recurring roles on "The Sex Lives of College Girls" and "S.O.Z. Soldados o Zombies."

Ortiz — who identifies as nonbinary, genderqueer, and genderfluid — is also an outspoken advocate for the queer community and uses their social media platform to speak on trans rights, antiracism, and gender neutrality in the Spanish language.

In a year that has seen unprecedented anti-trans legislation and violence, POPSUGAR is highlighting the perspectives of trans and nonbinary folks throughout Pride Month. These leaders are sharing ways they protect their joy, reminiscing on moments of gender euphoria, and suggesting how allies can support the LGBTQ+ community right now. Explore all of our coverage here, and read Ortiz's story, in their own words, below.

I was born into a family of performers. My father and my mother are actors in Puerto Rico, and I grew up literally backstage. I grew up between changing rooms, I did homework looking through the theater curtains, and I had sleepovers there, too. I played with my brother all over the audience, and that was my environment. I was around so much magic.

I moved to Los Angeles when I was almost 18, and I visited Puerto Rico at least once or twice a year, but only for, like, seven days — sometimes 10 if I was lucky. In 2019, I was finally able to be there for a whole month and a half and connect with the queer community over there and start going to events there. I listened to people speaking Spanish, using inclusive language, being Puerto Rican and being queer, being loud, and being proud.

I went to my very first Kiki ball, and it was Christmas themed. I signed up for one of the categories even though I had no idea what I was doing. I attempted to vogue — old way voguing without ever doing a lesson. Listen, I had a blast, but I had no idea what I was doing. Each category had a very traditionally Puerto Rican theme to it like el jíbaro, which was how I dressed up — it's kind of like a farmer or someone that works the land, someone that comes from the more rural sites of Puerto Rico.

"Drag really was the key for me to witness within myself both my femininity and my masculinity dancing in unison."

Being in that space surrounded by queer people, surrounded by folks celebrating Puerto Rican Christmas traditions through a queer lens, and seeing person after person walking the runway, doing the categories, it was like, "Oh my gosh, I can be all of this. I can just be Vico and just be all of this, all at the same time." Having my dad find me a mustache, having my dad find me a fake machete, and then my mom also figuring out how to dress me up in the most heroic way possible — I felt so held and connected with so many people. I got home at, like, 4:30 in the morning, and my body was just in this beautiful, cathartic, euphoric moment of, "Wow, Yes. Yes. We exist. Yes. We're here."

Queer people have always existed anywhere, everywhere. And a lot of them gravitate towards theater and performance because it's also a way to explore parts of yourself or even be more authentic to who you are. However, there are still certain biases. If you're performing as a man or performing as a woman, you have to act a certain way or behave a certain way. In some ways, unconsciously, we are validating these beliefs.

I grew up in Puerto Rico, and there's still a lot of tradition around me. And even with the magic and the openness of the theater space, I had to deconstruct a lot of that and see who I was outside of all these spaces. Being able to witness my parents on stage and then see who they were up there and then see who they were outside of that was really fascinating to me.

I think theater is medicine. Art is medicine. Art helps us connect, helps us be empathetic, and in some ways, it's also a distraction. I think distractions aren't necessarily inherently bad. Too much of anything can be bad for you, including water, right? But art is an incredible tool to be curious and explore and push boundaries and see where your mind, your body, your soul can take you.

Drag got into my life five, six years ago. My friend Jaffy hit me up because she was producing a drag-king show for a fundraiser and she was like, "You're a performer, have you done drag?" And I was like, "I've heard of drag queens, but I've never heard of kings before." So I was like, "Yeah, sure, I'll do it," because, you know, it's one night. My first performance was pretty simple. I just lip-synced to a song by Ricky Martin. I wasn't even binding; I wasn't even packing; I straight up just drew on a beard and a mustache and did my hair. I danced and I interacted with the audience and I lip-synced.

And the second I got on stage and I did the thing and I left, I was like, "Oh, this has aligned all my chakras. Something happened here tonight that I must continue to explore," and then I did another show impersonating Freddie Mercury. A third show came along, and there was no theme, so I decided to do a little mashup of different songs and create a storyline. I do have a theater background, I love props, so I wanted to do something fully in Spanish — a story in which, even if you don't understand what I'm saying, visually you're able to be like, "Oh, this is what happened." And it was goofy and weird, and kooky but also sexy.

"Through drag, I was able to connect with my culture as a Puerto Rican as well."

Drag really was the key for me to witness within myself both my femininity and my masculinity dancing in unison, and then reframe and deconstruct what it even meant to be feminine and what it even meant to be masculine. And now, for me, my femininity is what makes me strong and courageous. And my masculinity is what makes me vulnerable and sweet and tender. And when you see me do drag, you see all these things happening at the same time.

Through drag, I was able to connect with my culture as a Puerto Rican as well, because all my coming outs were in Los Angeles. I am very good at expressing myself in English, and when it came to expressing myself in Spanish, in a way that was outside of the binary, I was like, "What's happening here?" So through drag, I was able to explore what that looks like and how to break the binary language in Spanish and connect with my music, connect with my roots, and be able to feel my whole self: my femme, my masc, my everything with my culture.

Society wants us to be disconnected. That's why there's so much judgment and expectation and shame. And when we feel shameful, we start retreating, we start going back and hiding; you start not even knowing yourself. And when we break away from that and then we start building community, and we start seeing each other and humanizing each other, then there's so much joy. There's so much abundance, and we're so much more powerful.

A lot of my day-to-day activism is on social media. It is just being present and talking about my life and also amplifying the voices of those who are working on the bills that are coming out left and right. I've been really lucky to connect and follow folks who are there lobbying face to face to fight against all these really terrifying attacks, and I am uplifting their voices so more people can know that this is no joke; we are in a really critical moment right now.

Something that has helped me — because I know that a lot of this news can be really debilitating and also trigger the freeze response — is knowing that we're going somewhere. I imagine the world in our slingshot era. There's a lot of tension, and it seems like we're going backward; it's really tight, and it feels really uncomfortable, but the second that lets go, that pebble is going to skyrocket forward, and that is my mindset. It feels awful right now, but I know we've got this. We're gonna go forward with this. And it's just a matter of taking that as an invitation to lean into challenging ourselves to connect.

I think it's important that people know that all of this is connected. Oftentimes, everything looks like, "Oh, that's their fight. That's their thing," but it's all connected, and eventually, it's gonna come down to you. It's going to keep trickling down until you're like, "Oh sh*t, it got to me. How did this happen?" Treat the fight as if it's yours, and support the folks that are out doing the damn thing. Show up.

— As told to Chanel Vargas