Ignacio Rivera: Celebrating sexuality with a queer focus

Ignacio Rivera: Celebrating sexuality with a queer focus

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Spring is here and that means it’s time for the birds and the bees. If you need a little help with that, I’d suggest you check out SEXx Interactive May 7-10 here in Philadelphia. SEXx Interactive is a multi-day, sex-positive conference featuring workshops, academic presentations, art galleries and performances celebrating the mind, body and soul of sexuality. This first-of-its-kind conference will feature 40 educational presentations, performances, “how-to” workshops and sexually themed art exhibitions.


Elicia Gonzales, executive director of lead sponsor GALAEI, sees the conference as an important opportunity for looking at desire, sexuality and how those interact and are expressed in communities. There’s a little something for everyone. Dr. Timaree Schmit, who will present on sexuality in horror films, states, “There’s a workshop on enthusiastic consent in BDSM at the same time as a lecture on sexuality after cancer. There’s a historical examination of pubic-hair trends, a practical lesson in ‘boylesque,’ tips for dealing with jealousy, art exhibitions, dance parties and even a comedy show.”   

One of the keynote speakers will be Ignacio Rivera, noted “two-spirit, Black-Boricua Taíno” queer performance artist, activist, filmmaker, lecturer and sex educator.

PGN: Where are you originally from?

IR: I was conceived in Puerto Rico and was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.

PGN: Tell me about growing up in Brooklyn.

IR: I love New York, and Brooklyn is the best borough in New York. Unfortunately, Brooklyn is very expensive, so I currently live in Baltimore. But I love that you have the privilege in New York to get up and walk out of your house at any time and catch a cab or hop a train. I love the museums, the food, the people, the diversity, all of it.

PGN: Tell me about Ignacio as a kid.

IR: I was an introverted kid. It sounds kind of shitty, but I was kind of a nobody. I was very heady, always thinking way too much, which had a lot to do with trauma I was dealing with, and not knowing how to talk about or deal with it or even understanding that it was trauma. I wasn’t exceptionally smart and my friends were my cousins who lived nearby. I wasn’t part of the popular crowd, that’s for sure.

PGN: Do you mind explaining what the trauma was about?

IR: No, because it definitely connects to the work that I do now with sexual liberation. The trauma revolved around the sexual abuse of a child. Aside from the sexual abuse, I was dealing with extremely protective parents. They were very private and we weren’t to share our lives with other people. I wasn’t supposed to have friends over or go to anyone’s house, especially if they had brothers — young men were capable of unsavory things — and wasn’t allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. The whole family was like that, very insular. It was a protective measure: They wanted to be able to keep an eye on us at all times and keep us safe. So going to the movies with friends was never part of my growing up. I think they were just terrified coming to a new city/culture not knowing people’s values or much about them. That isolation is why, later on, community became so important to me.

PGN: It must have been such a dichotomy to be so protected while at the same time being abused.

IR: Yes, and the interesting thing is that, even though I’d been taught to be wary of men, it was a female family member who was the perpetrator.

PGN: Wow, that must have been confusing.

IR: Yes, my family had no idea whatsoever.

PGN: Lighter note, favorite book growing up?

IR: I was a big reader, I was always at the library. One of her good friends was the librarian so it was one place out of the house that my mom was OK with me going to. I loved “Encyclopedia Brown.” I read every single book. And I used to sneak into the adult section and read the Harlequin romance novels. That was my porn when I was a kid!

PGN: Where did you go to school?

IR: I went to Abraham Lincoln High School but I dropped out in 11th grade. I’d been cutting a lot of classes and was going to have to take summer classes in order to graduate to 12th. I was terrified of what my parents would think when they found out and I didn’t want to go into why I’d been acting out. So I ran away from home.

PGN: How far did you get?

IR: [Laughs] The Bronx! I was with the guy who would later be the father of my child. And that was another worry, because my parents had forbidden me to date. They didn’t know that I was sexually active. I was scared of my mother finding out; she was a very loving, caring person, but she was also the disciplinarian. She set the rules. My dad was the pussycat.

PGN: Siblings?

IR: A brother and sister. I was the baby.

PGN: You were about 16 when you ran away; when did you start on your gender journey?

IR: When I was about 20. As a kid I was such a girly-girl. I loved watching my mother get dressed and loved all the accouterments that came with it. As I got older, I thought I was bisexual because I’d had sex with boys but liked girls. But then the more I was with women I realized I had no interest in men, so I figured that I was a lesbian. I identified as lesbian for quite a while and then started using words like “dyke” to describe myself but then that didn’t seem to fit either, so I said, “I think I’m queer.” Looking back, I’ve always been gender-queer or fluid, I just didn’t have the words for it … at all. As an adult becoming part of queer and artistic circles, I began to expand my vocabulary and learned how to express myself. But I remember in ninth grade picking the lock to my brother’s room and wearing his clothing. I was the kid in three-piece suits with the reddest lipstick I could find. I used to have hair down to my ass and I chopped it off — my mom was not happy about that! I’d wear a white tank top — what they call wife beaters, though I hate that term — with no bra underneath and men’s slacks, shoes and suspenders. [Laughs] I became a little cooler and my social status went up a notch. I went from being invisible to being a little more accepted. Part of it was because I started working and I was able to buy my own clothes instead of my mother picking things out for me. I felt much more connected to myself, gained more confidence as a result. I’d go through periods of hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity and sometimes a mix of them together. And I’m speaking about external expression. I knew I wasn’t straight and lesbian didn’t quite fit but queer felt right.

PGN: I know you prefer the term “they.” What brought you to that?

IR: When I first started identifying as trans — and I do identify within the trans spectrum as trans, gender-queer or gender-fluid — I asked people to simultaneously use both “he” and “she.” I didn’t want people to pick one, but to use both interchangeably, like, “I’m going to go see him and she’s going to cook me dinner,” but that was really difficult for people. It was confusing and people didn’t like it, though it felt really good when people were able to manage it. So that was short-lived; people seemed to automatically use “she” the majority of the time instead of switching. So then for two years, I used “he” exclusively, which felt like it validated my trans identity, especially since I was a trans person who was not passing. I wasn’t taking hormones and had no interest at the time in top surgery. But “he” also didn’t fit completely for me. And then I met someone who used “they” as a pronoun and the second I heard it, it rang true to me. It was like the heavens opened up. It was perfect. You know people will ask, “What is your preferred pronoun?” and some trans folks hate that question but I don’t mind. I prefer “they,” but I don’t always get it! And it shifts: Before I used to get “she” all the time but now that I’ve been on testosterone for two years, the default is “he.” And “they” is tricky for my family because Spanish is their first language and there’s not really a way to do “they” in Spanish. I navigate depending on the situation; sometimes it’s not safe to use certain pronouns.

PGN: I know a lot of people don’t like to be labeled but, like me, you’re not one of them.

IR: Labels are important. They help us find our communities, they’re important for documentation as well, as so much is based on numbers, funding, research, etc. They’re a blessing and a curse.

PGN: You obviously have a great sense of humor; I read about your farewell to your uterus tour. Where do you get that from?

IR: [Laughs] I think both my mom and dad are pretty cool, funny folks, but when I was a kid I wrote a lot of poetry because of the stuff that was happening to me, all the crazy shit that I didn’t know how to talk about. In my adulthood I started performing these things and one day I realized, “Shit, my stuff is so dark and gloomy!” I need to start accessing my silliness, because I am very silly but most people don’t know that until they get to know me. And I found that, as an activist and an educator who does a lot of public speaking, humor and story-telling can make it easier for people to understand and relate.

PGN: So who is Papí Coxxx?

IR: It’s my porn name. [Laughs] When you think of an urban Spanish person, the term “Papí Chulo” comes to mind, so I took that and, you know the caramel popcorn treat called Poppycocks? I used that and changed the spelling, using an “xxx.” I also like the fact that people use the phrase “that’s poppycock” to mean something is false or nonsense. I used to keep it separate from Ignacio but then I decided that I have no shame in what I do; it’s part of my sexual liberation and it’s a part of the ongoing healing that I’ve done to reclaim my body and do with my body what I feel.

PGN: How did you get into porn?

IR: I was running a group called Shades of Poly, because I came out as polyamorous, and people were like, “This is so white. Poly is a white thing.” I wanted to prove them wrong so I did workshops and started a group for people of color. I started working at a sex store and a friend/coworker, Morty Diamond, and I used to talk about sex. It’s hard not to when you’re working in a sex shop. One day he asked if he could interview me and my primary partner and get some good sex on video. I was like OK and we did the docu-porn film “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papí and Wil.” It was hugely well-received and had a great impact in the community. It put a spotlight on trans identity, people of color, polyamory, it touched on disability, all of that. After that, I got calls for other films.

PGN: Tell me what you’re going to be doing for SexX Interactive.

IR: I’m one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be doing a workshop called “Trans-Queering Your Sex.” It’s to help people who may be interested in a gender-nonconforming, gender-queer or trans person and want to learn to have fun and be respectful at the same time. It’s open to all and is going to be a lot of fun.

PGN: What are you looking forward to?

IR: I’m just happy that the conference is taking place and being spearheaded by a queer Latino organization. People will ask me, What does sex have to do with activism or oppression? But there are a lot of connections. Everything from sterilization of people of color to healthy relationships to sodomy laws, there are a lot of intersections. Talking about sex as a means to self-help and self-loving is important.

PGN: I read about your daughter being the love of your life. Tell me something she did to make you laugh.

IR: Oh, so many things! When she was about 3 she was outside playing with her godbrother and he was picking on her. He pushed her and jumped in front of her on the slide. She was so angry her little fists were clenched and finally she said, “You … you … you fucking asshole!” She was 3! She looked up and saw me in the window and I just started cracking the hell up!

PGN: How old were you when you had her?

IR: I was 19. I left her father when I was eight-months’ pregnant, went into the shelter system for a while, then moved in with my mom and then back into the system until I left New York. I did get my GED after dropping out and later went on to get my associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s.

PGN: Wow. She’s been with you through the entire journey, which I assume has made her a pretty wonderful person.

IR: She is, she’s fantastic, we’re very close. We’re like a super team. She’s in school for early-childhood education. She’s great with kids.

PGN: I would imagine you’ve inspired a lot of people with your work. Does any story stand out?

IR: I’m so privileged to have the opportunity to help folks and from so many different avenues. When I performed my show “Crocodile Tears,” about me coming to terms with my sexual abuse, I heard from a lot of survivors who had never revealed their abuse to anyone else. A lot of them had female perpetrators too. It had a huge impact on me and made me feel a responsibility to provide resources for people. And, of course, I receive a lot of response talking about gender issues as well. And just from people trying to find their sexual selves, I get great stories and questions from people all around the world.

PGN: A celebrity crush?

IR: I have crushes on everybody! Hmmn, Queen Latifah or the Rock.

PGN: A favorite Christmas gift?

IR: I don’t celebrate Christmas or anything really, but as a kid I got a Baby Alive doll one year and I almost lost my shit. I wanted that doll so bad. You would feed it and you had to change the diaper. My mom told me we couldn’t afford it and, when I got it, oh my God, I lost it. I fed the hell out of that baby!

PGN: Summer’s coming — what are you looking forward to?

IR: Walking and hiking, I love to be out and talking to people.

PGN: What’s on the slate for you?

IR: I’m writing for my blog (www.whattheysaidblog.com) and I’m working on my book, tentatively titled “Sexy Survivor,” and I’m working on the “Farewell to My Uterus” film.

For more information about SEXx Interactive, visit sexxinteractive.com.

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