Ray Ortiz has an unusual way of contributing to the fight against HIV. While most people either volunteer at AIDS service organizations, participate in fund-raisers, or simply write checks to their favorite charities, Ortiz dons a cheerleader uniform and helps perform perfectly executed full-twisting double layout basket tosses, wolf wall pyramids, and other equally dazzling jumps, stunts, chants, and cheers.
Ortiz, an HIV-positive advertising executive, is a member of Cheer L.A., a troupe of adult men and women that has made it its mission to raise money for local AIDS organizations'and it has raised more than $28,000 since it began in 2001.
The thought of joining an adult cheerleading squad first sprang to Ortiz's mind shortly after he tested HIV-positive in 1996. Squads like Cheer L.A. exist in several U.S. cities, and although Ortiz already worked as a case manager at an AIDS service organization in Dallas, he says he yearned for a more personal and expressive form of AIDS outreach. It was later that year at Southern Decadence, an annual gay festival in New Orleans, that Ortiz saw a promotional video for Cheer Dallas'and knew, he says, that he'd found his niche.
'I realized I had always been a fan of cheerleading, but I hadn't cheered in high school or college because I always chickened out,' Ortiz says. 'But when I saw a squad of 50 gay-boy cheerleaders, well, it made it much more compelling.'
'And the uniforms don't hurt,' he adds with a laugh.
Ortiz joined the Dallas group and later, after moving to California, helped launch Cheer L.A. five years ago.
Paul Lee, a Cheer L.A. cofounder, says that while the group's first love is, of course, cheerleading, the heart of the organization is its 'Cheer for Life' philanthropic program. 'If we were just about cheerleading, what's really the point?' says the 41-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., travel industry professional. 'So it's important to us to have that kind of philanthropic outlet. It's really why we exist.'
Cheer L.A. typically links with a local charity and uses its performances at community events to drum up enthusiasm'and donations'among spectators, says Lee. Southern California groups Cheer L.A. has helped in the past include Aid for AIDS, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Bienestar, Mama's Kitchen in San Diego, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Desert AIDS Project.
This year the squad continued its affiliation with Aid for AIDS, a Los Angeles County nonprofit group that provides financial assistance and other support programs for low-income HIVers, by performing for the charity at both the Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., gay pride parades and festivals. Cheer L.A. also appeared over the summer with other cheer squads, raising money for local charities at events in San Francisco and Palm Springs; was invited to Gay Games VII in Chicago in July; and will be part of the annual Los Angeles AIDS Walk, set for mid October.
Jeannette Bondurant, communications manager for Aid for AIDS, says her agency is thrilled to partner with Cheer L.A. 'Not only do they perform fantastically and bring a lot of color, fun, and excitement to the parade,' she says, 'but they really do give us a great presence.'
Their presence is a financial boon too, Bondurant adds. Aid for AIDS donations collected at gay pride events have increased more than fivefold since Cheer L.A. linked with the agency. 'It's remarkable, the impact they have,' Bondurant says.
While Cheer L.A. members celebrate the group's fund-raising successes, they also say they reap personal benefits from being on the squad. In addition to the fitness gains that come from frequent practices'held at least weekly and more often before performances'Ortiz says he also gets a psychological boost that helps him stay motivated in fighting his HIV disease and in encouraging others to do the same.
'If I can show people that I can live in the spirit and can be cheerful and promote positivity, then other people who are HIV-positive can see me and see that there is hope,' he says. 'The whole notion of cheerleading is to get people to feel something positive. If I can do that and represent the HIV-positive community, it's a proud moment.'