Vico Ortiz: What Does Queer Visibility Really Mean?
Interviewee Actor Vico Ortiz
Words Drew Lor
An Essay of Love: We sat down and spoke with the iconic Our Flag Means Death actor Vico Ortiz to discuss visibility, identity and queerness.
Despite moving towards a more inclusive time, visibility and representation for queer people is still in dire need of a revamp. Vico Ortiz is one of the trailblazers in the film industry as a queer non-binary actor having recently played Jim Jiminez on the premiere season of wholesome, gay pirate series Our Flag Means Death which has just been renewed for a second season.
Jim’s character is initially perceived as male, but it is soon revealed Jim is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, like Vico themself. It’s of course very rare to see this kind of representation on television and we wanted to sit down with Ortiz to find out more about their relationship with queerness, representation and the acting industry.
What is visibility and representation and does it even matter that much? Vico elaborates: “Visibility for me means being able to be seen in your most authentic form, whatever that is that day and representation is to see yourself. I feel they both go hand in hand because as human beings – any human being – ultimately what we want is connection. We want to connect in our experiences, we want to connect in who we are, so when we are being seen and we see ourselves, however that may look like, it enriches us and it gives us a better understanding of who we are. It continues that journey of expansion and evolution – sometimes it gets nebulous and foggy but once we get to that it is so beautiful and we get to know each other better, know ourselves better and grow.”
As a Puerto Rican, Latinx, non-binary person, obviously representation for Vico has been minimal: “To be honest, the first time I’ve seen a non-binary, Latinx character is Jim! It’s a little bit like…. woah what is happening?!”
It has been a journey for them, however, in identity and moments of visibility in their life. “I feel like I’ve experienced visibility in so many different ways throughout my lifetime and I still do. As a queer Puerto Rican, I didn’t see any queerness in my life growing up, maybe a handful of cis gay men and that was it, it was also something that was very hush-hush, it wasn’t something that was to be celebrated but when I moved to Los Angeles, then all of a sudden, I needed to be visible as a Puerto Rican because there weren’t any of us here. I was like: “I need to be Puerto Rican, like extra Puerto Rican”, whatever that means!” they laugh. “I was craving that and I wasn’t seeing much of it, however, then I started seeing queer representation and queerness around me, whether that be my friends or the people I was getting to know in Los Angeles, that awakened something in me and made me realise: Oh wait, I’ve been completely disregarding this other side of me.”
Now, Ortiz describes having a queer community in Puerto Rico, doing drag shows there, using gender neutral Spanish and uniting these sides of themself: “We often times feel like we are alone and often times when we talk about it, we realise actually you’re experiencing the same thing I’m experiencing! And if we had never talked about it, we would just be feeling alone together.”
As a non-binary person myself, it was truly tear-jerking to experience non-binary pirate Jim on Our Flag Means Death being referred to with they/them pronouns, even after it was revealed they weren’t a man to their crew. “I think, in terms of myself and portraying Jim in all of this, I was really intentional about having Jim’s behaviour not change. It was like this person is the same person regardless, they’re not acting like a man when they have the beard, and they’re not acting like a woman when they don’t have it. The only thing that changes is how people perceive them. That was really liberating! Of course, there was episode 4 where they were all curious and like what’s happening here?! But after that, it was like right, Jim is Jim, Jim has always been Jim. I think that was really cool to explore, in terms of masculinity – it can look like anything.” Vico adds, jokily: “If anything, they were assigned-assassin-with-knives-at-birth!”
Fans quickly responded to OFMD as a show that finally doesn’t queerbait. What does queerbaiting really mean in terms of representation? Vico tells us: “If I would describe queerbaiting to someone who is cis and heterosexual – queerbaiting is like a fish bait; you prepare the bait, you toss it out into the ocean, you jiggle it a little bit, you make it nice and sparkly and delicious and a bunch of fish come over, and then thinking wow, I’m gonna have a delicious meal, it’s gonna be so good, wow this is amazing! And then they bite it and then what happens is… death. It’s disappointing! Oh no it wasn’t a meal, I’m the meal.
It sparks up feelings of shame and guilt and anger and frustration. It happens way too often where a lot of cis, heterosexual characters explore something that is on the queer side, they get pretty close and they dance around it but they never want to admit it.”
Vico admitted they weren’t sure if the series was going to queerbait them either during the process. “There’s also that aspect of me, as an actor, that has seen many-a-show get edited to shreds, there was a part of me too that was like “will they?” I mean we shot it, I know we shot it. It’s written, it’s shot, it was performed, the whole thing, but there’s the one last step where it’s like you know, we’re gonna edit those queer scenes out, ya know? So I was literally clutching at my pearls when I was watching the show – I was like (gasping) what are they gonna do?!?!”
However, neither Vico nor the fans were disappointed. Viewers were also shocked at how beautiful masculinity was portrayed in the series, with multiple queer relationships and men openly expressing their emotions. “It’s so healthy for the world to see masculinity in a way that is vulnerable, sensible, tender,” Vico explains. “Yes, there was a lot of violent things that happened with piracy but then seeing these gay pirates being so sweet and tender and gentle with each other, talking things out and not resorting to violence… You start seeing that and it’s like – oh wait, yeah, you can be a man and enjoy the finer things and that doesn’t make you any less of a man. You can be a person and a knife-thrower and be really bad-ass!”
We also laughed together at how an obsession with pirates seems to be a topic in a lot of queer people’s lives. “I feel like the definition of pirates and queerness is a lot of breaking structures, a lot of challenging the societal things that have been put in place. All pirates left saying F You to wherever they came from and were finally able to be themselves at sea. Each pirate ship has their own democracy, their own set of structures and rules and they were all made up per ship and of course, as a queer person, you’re like I wanna have that life! Bye society, I’m gonna get myself a ship and live like myself in the ocean with my people!”
A big topic of today is the importance of queer roles for queer people and whether it really is OK for a cisgender (a person that identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth) or straight person to play a transgender or queer role. Vico gave us a full lesson on the topic:
“Often times, especially cis straight people, have not questioned their gender and they fall into stereotypes. Although some stereotypes can be true to everybody, they’re not great. We fall into the same pattern of stereotyping our identity as a joke and it’s not a joke. I am non-binary. Whether or not I’m wearing a suit, whether I’m wearing a dress, whether I let my hair grow out, whether I take testosterone, don’t take testosterone, whether I do top surgery, whether I don’t do top surgery, whether I pack or not pack – I am non-binary, period, I’m not playing non-binary. Whereas someone who is cis will inevitably fall into the I am playing non-binary and it’s gonna miss out on some nuances of what that experience is. Similarly for trans roles, we have cis women playing a trans man, this is gonna be playing a man, whereas a trans man is a man, period. Then we fall into stereotypes again – that cis woman is gonna fall into what-does-a-man-act-like versus just being.”
Vico is not only a fabulous queer icon on television, but also a Drag King, “Vico Suave”, no less! A Drag King is assumed to be the opposite of a Drag Queen, although Ortiz says “Drag can be literally anything you want!” They added: “Through drag, I was able to access the power of my femininity through my masculinity and drag has informed a lot of who I am as a non-binary person, really embracing both of these energies, how they feed into each other and really reclaim and change the way that I see what femininity is and masculinity is for me specifically. My masculinity is tender, is sensual, is sweet. My femininity is the strong boss bitch, I gotcha type. I’m really now redefining what these terms mean.”
Last but not least, we asked Vico what they loved most about being queer and they gave the best response that we couldn’t agree more with!
“Literally everything! For me, my experience of queerness is to let myself evolve and come to myself every day as a more authentic version of myself that questions the structures put in place. Some of them are good, some of them are limiting and they are literally just put there so that we are easier to control. We don’t need them, those structures, we don’t actually need them in order to actually be functional people in this world. How beautiful it is to really allow myself and the people around me that I love and adore to come to me and get to know them without assuming any rule or expectation of what I think they should be or should not be doing, really receive them as they are and also come to myself as I am and be received as who I am, and if tomorrow or next week that’s different then I’d also be welcomed in that.
I’m always gonna be queer, everything that I do is gonna be queer. The way that I relate to myself, the way I relate to plants and nature, the way I relate to my partner, to my friends, to my family, to everything.”
Vico shows us the importance and fun of having more (and better quality) representation on the big screen! With a producer role coming up in their future, we hope we see more of them, more queer actors and, of course, more queer roles on screen. We are so grateful for the chat, lots of love to Vico! Our Flag Means Death is available to watch on HBO Max.