Queen Victoria Ortega was an activist since pretty much the beginning. Growing up in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, a neighborhood characterized by it’s Mexican American population, made it difficult to be trans, says Ortega. But being the child of activist parents taught her a lot of lessons that sit with her to this day.
“I had the privilege of having both of my parents be activists in the Chicano Rights movement and immigrant rights movement,” Ortega tells me. As a result, she adds, social responsibility was instilled in her at a very young age.
“We had people coming into our house getting translation services for immigration paperwork that they would receive, or any kind of translation services that they needed,” explains Ortega. “So, our house worked as a salon to discuss political happenings.”
That those lessons have stuck is clear, even just looking at her busy calendar these days. Aside from her work in trans health at L.A.’s St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, as well as serving as The Queen of the Royal Court of West Hollywood, she is co-chair of FLUX, a division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) aiming to “to raise the profile of the trans* and gender-nonconforming community” nationwide through advocacy, events, and innovative marketing.
Working with FLUX is important to Ortega, although it wasn’t an arrangement she made without hesitation, giving the sometimes troubled reputation the worldwide healthcare non-profit has deservedly garnered.
“Most communities and individuals have their perceptions around AHF,” she admits, “sometimes referred to as the Wal-Mart of HIV/AIDS prevention as a resource. Walking in, there’s this perspective that I’m walking in with, correct? But I’ve learned from my M.O. that that’s what I do. I walk into systems and create change that is responsive to community.”
Leaning on the experiences Ortega has had in a lifetime of non-profit work and activism has given her a practical outlook on bringing about systemic change.
“I’m really about tangible outcomes,” she says. “They’re not the sexiest conversations to have. For some reason I’m built in a way that I like having those conversations. So, when I sat at the table, I said: You are approaching this the wrong way, and this is what needs to get done. And if you’re willing to do it, I’m willing to meet you have way and do some of the work, roll up my sleeves, because I’m not afraid of the work.”It was a strategy that paid off for her, as it often has. Ortega is no stranger to building relationships with cisgender people who possess the decision-making power in order to accomplish her goals.
“Endless nights of going to dinner,” she shares, “going to lunch, or going to brunch, and having compassionate conversations because, sometimes, things fall out of people’s mouths that can be offensive, or sexist, or transphobic, and not being offended, but using it as an opportunity to educate.”
The relationships and partnerships Ortega as established through FLUX have enabled the initiative to become what she terms a “vehicle for institutional change within AHF,” both by increasing the number of trans people added to their staff, as well as making it known to the trans people already employed there that AHF is making the effort to be a trans affirming employer.
In working with FLUX, Ortega has been given the opportunity to travel to the areas where AHF operates in order to interact with the members of the trans community there and find out what they need. The early work has so far primarily been about building a set of expectations around what AHF could or could not deliver.
“People in Florida,” she says, “in the southern market, needed name and gender changes, needed a place to go, as a trans person, to be who they are, a brick and mortar building. There are specific trans initiatives in Florida, but none that have a brick and mortar building.”
In other places, such as Los Angeles, it was about humanizing the trans experience with things like social and sporting activities. In Seattle, it was about the issue of centering white trans voices, and how to “incorporate and create intentional space for trans people of color to use their own voice, and to combat the savior complex”, explains Ortega.
“People were looking for a coordinated effort,” she said of her interactions with Seattle’s trans community, “and on top of that there was also a desire for economic opportunities. So, AHF, being an employer with a budget of $1.4 Billion, and a global footprint of 38 countries, even though FLUX is a national initiative, it’s potential is enormous, for change, and positive change for the trans community.”
Despite what some people may feel about an organization like AHF, its capacity and reach are undeniable. Programs like FLUX could mean that the AHF is willingly taking the steps to extend that reach into the communities that would most benefit from it which, in turn, could also inform and benefit the growth of the organization.
“Its anchor is social justice based,” says Ortega of AHF, “as far as creating access points for people who didn’t have access. In the 1980s, it was people who were dying from AIDS and were in hospice. Now, in the 2010s, we’re seeing a lot of those networks that were built out for gay and lesbian rights to go back and start being focused on the community that was, quite frankly, left behind, even though Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were at the forefront of the gay and lesbian uprising at Stonewall.”
For the time being, though, the focus at FLUX has been around gathering input from the community to determine what the community really needs. In addition, they’ve been working hard to get the word out, relying on prominent members of the trans community, like Laith Ashley and Carmen Carrera, to help.
For the Seattle specific trans community, Ortega is most interested in learning what trans people want to see here, or if they want to sign up to be a part of FLUX, as a supporter or as part of a local social media campaign.
“We also want to start an internship program,” she adds, “for trans people of color to be placed at organizations that don’t have people of color represented on a day-to-day basis, so that they actually get paid to do a summer internship. That’s our plan for the summer coming up.”
Opportunities like those proposed internships are an important avenue for change, according to Ortega, especially in creating intentional spaces for trans people of color.
“Probably one of the things that would change,” she explains, “is that when you’re in close quarters with somebody and can humanize their experience, you can also learn how to step away at times and say that this is a platform we’re creating for people of color intentionally.”
“Many of us,” she adds, “will not have the B.A.s and the M.A.s behind our names to be able to gain those platforms otherwise. But we have the qualifications, most definitely. It was the best option, or best idea, that we came up with as far as being intentional of the fact the work of trans people of color is valuable. You shouldn’t have to volunteer all the time.”
An additional motivator behind the internship program was in creating economic opportunities, as well as providing entries for resumes that may show a gap. Plus, they help to create new relationships between organizations and the QTPOC community.
“Relationships are what changes people’s perceptions,” she shared, “and really allow us to have those compassionate conversations that result in us evolving and us thinking differently and us really acting differently.”