I wasn’t exactly sure what to ask Manuel “Manny” Xtravaganza—after all, many, many people are supporting the AIDS Walk in Central Park on May 15. However, after speaking with him for five minutes, I realized he was truly someone special, a modern day fairytale with a happy ending—or happy beginning, depending on how you view it.
I quickly found out that his team for the walk was something called The House of Xtravaganza, a place for homeless LGBT youth, where he himself took refuge when he was a young, scared runaway. He innocently told me his story without seeking credit for his experience, but rather in hopes of giving back to the house, or even perhaps saving a lost gay youth from traveling down the wrong path.
How are you raising money for the AIDS Walk?
I’m putting it out on Facebook, asking my friends.
When and where is the walk?
It’s May 15 in Central Park.
How can people donate?
Visit ny.aidswalk.net/ManuelXtrava; you just click on it, and you can donate right there.
What if people wish to participate in the walk?
They can walk with us. Our group is The House of Xtravaganza.
How many people are on your team?
It varies from year to year. Usually we have around 25 people that walk with us.
What is The House of Xtravaganza about?
Do you know what a house is?
I live in one.
No, no, it’s totally different. A house is for gay youth, runaways, homeless. House of Xtravaganza is one of the most well-known ones. There are different houses in New York City. Madonna’s dancers on The Blond Ambition Tour, they are members of the house.
Do you run the house?
No, I don’t run it. There is a mother and father. The father is Jose, who used to be Madonna’s dancer, and the mother is Gisele. There are a lot of kids, like us. There are uncles. Everyone takes a role, like a family. We help each other. The mother and father help with their knowledge, sort of take the kids under their wing, support them. When I was 15 years old, I ran away from home. I didn’t want to tell my parents I was gay. I thought it was such a bad thing. So I ran away, and basically I was homeless. I would sleep at a friend’s, or whereever I could.
Were you scared?
Yeah, I was very scared. It was a very tough time. The first place to go to find refuge was Christopher Street in the West Village, because other teens hung out there. So that’s what I did, and that’s where I met The House of Xtravaganza. They took me under their wing, they gave me the emotional support that I needed and they became my family at a time when I didn’t have any.
Did you ever tell your parents?
A couple of years ago I did, and they were fine with it now. Now I’m older, and I made my own life. So basically you have the younger generation now. That’s what I’m doing now. I remember myself being young, and I don’t want people to go through the same thing. I’m in a position where I can help the younger generation out there, and that’s what I do. Doing the AIDS Walk is a way for me to give back to the house. In the early ‘90s, when I was in a vulnerable position, a lot of the people I knew had succumbed to AIDS and passed away. I remember being in the hospital and seeing them pass away. That’s why I do the AIDS Walk every year. It’s in honor of them.
Do you have a profession?
I’m a registered nurse. I remember being so young and going to the hospital and seeing my friends dying. I remember looking up to all these doctors and nurses. I just admired them so much. That’s how I would like people to view me now. So I got into the medical profession, and I’m still in school. I graduate this year to become a family nurse practitioner. I just want to give back to that community that I saw suffer so much. I was really in a vulnerable position when I was younger, and I could have taken the wrong path. I kind of did a little bit, but with all my friends and the house, they helped me out. They were actually the people who gave me money to go back to nursing school. I didn’t have the money to take the test for my license. But that’s what we do; we help each other out. The older generation helps the younger ones. I was just hoping to graduate school; I didn’t even know if I would. I was hoping for the best. Then when I did, the licensing test was a couple of thousand dollars. Everyone from the house raised the money and gave it to me. We support each other however we can. Everyone has a talent.
What age group lives in this house? What’s the youngest?
The youngest is like 14 years old, and the oldest is like 50, but they have been around for years. They have been around since the early ‘80s. The ‘90s took a lot of them away because of AIDS. When I came out, that’s what I saw around me, and it stuck. I befriended a lot of those people, and I lost a lot of those people. A lot of those people helped me when I was most vulnerable. I remember walking around the streets and even contemplating suicide. I didn’t know what to do.
What advice would you give to a kid on the streets that might pick this up and read it, who might be in trouble?
Just communicate, talk to people, tell people your problems. When you feel rejected, you just want to hold everything in. You’re embarrassed, you don’t know what to do. You just have to communicate. There are still good people out there. Ask for help.
You are a modern day success story.
I was a runaway teen, lost, I wanted to give up. Then I went back to school. I used to be homeless, and now I’m going for my master’s in nursing. That’s what made me become a nurse: I wanted to help. What happened on the street made me who I am now. Now I’m in the position to give back, so that’s why I do the AIDS Walk.