Coming out takes courage. It requires you to own yourself, to let go of the secrets that fasten you to shame and fear. It’s a choice to not hide who you are in an effort to please others, even if you’re starring in the biggest Broadway show in history — like Hamilton’s Javier Munoz.
Munoz knows what it’s like to come out. After all, he’s done it three times: first, as a gay man; second, as a gay man living with HIV; and finally as HIV-positive gay man who is also a cancer survivor. To him, secrets are pointless. They’re a result of fear and shame, which is the root of stigma. The kind of stigma he is vowing to destroy.
“I want to kick the shit out of stigma, and knock it on its fucking teeth,” Munoz tells Plus. “I’m tired of its existence. It has no place in 2016, going forward from this day on. Period.”
Munoz was the definition of gratitude last week as GMHC awarded him their Howard Ashman Award, which honors members of the Broadway community whose art and activism has made a difference in the fight against HIV and AIDS. For decades, GMHC has been one of the nation’s leaders in providing testing, nutrition, legal, mental health, and education services for both HIV-negative and -positive New Yorkers.
Lin Manuel Miranda, Javier Munoz (center) and GMHC's Kelsey Louie (pictured below)
The event brought members of the theater community, many of whom worked with the man they call “Javi” (pronounced “HAH-vee”), and many agreed there is no one more deserving this year of the Howard Ashman Award.
“My definition of an activist is anyone who does something to promote what’s right in the world," says GMHC’s CEO Kelsey Louie. "In terms of HIV/AIDS it’s someone like Javier Munoz, who’s using his name and celebrity to raise awareness and to eradicate stigma.”
When Munoz was first diagnosed in 2002, GMHC was the first place he went to find medical treatment and support, he says. He had been in a monogamous relationship with a man in California, and after only two months of deciding to have condomless sex, Munoz tested positive for HIV. He says initially his anger was all-consuming and it took him years to teach himself not just to accept his poz status, but to really learn how to live with HIV.
“I experienced judgment and rejection as I found some semblance of bravery to go out and meet other men and build a life again,” Munoz said in his speech at the GMHC ceremony. “I’d made a commitment to be honest and open because my partner hadn’t. I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know what it looked like.”
Anger was a theme plaguing Munoz during those year, he admits. After being rejected for his honesty by multiple men, he discovered these same guys were having condomless sex with strangers who didn’t even know their status.
“That made me angry,” he says, “Another layer of anger came from the very first medications I was taking and the allergic reactions—those days when I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror. And years later trying to process all that and not having enough examples of people living with HIV and being successful and being proud and dignified in their life. I was fighting to find that.”
But after years of soul searching, Munoz finally discovered what was at the root of his anger: fear and shame. Both were at the core of it all, he recalls, a deep pain created and supported by a stigma that felt “like the very DNA of the virus. Now that I knew what I was dealing with, I could fight it. In that discovery, I finally realized what it must have felt like in my partner’s shoes in 2002. I had compassion to think what pain he was in. That was a very empowering moment to be able to forgive him… Whatever our individual health status is, we are the face of HIV. No one escapes it. We are all HIV.”
Munoz, performers, and GMHC supporters at the GMHC event (both photos by Dustin Moore)
Stigma is an invisible killer, Munoz argues. It holds us in place by making us afraid and limiting our potential. Today, the same kind of stigma arises around PrEP, a treatment strategy that when used correctly can prevent individuals from contracting HIV.
“It’s the same stigma we had to deal with this entire time," Munoz told Plus abour the stigma around PrEP. "It’s rooted in fear and shame. What I hope to be is a face, an energy, and a way for this generation and generations to come to see that it is not the end of anything.”
It’s hard to believe the man praised by one New York Times critic as “sexy, with a penetrating stare, and a Don Juan smile” never dreamed this kind of life for himself growing up in Brooklyn. In fact, he had his eyes set on a different set of stars.
“I wanted to be an astrophysicist when I was a kid,” he recalls. “I did not discover theater until I was 13. [Fame] was far from anything I imagined as a child. I was totally a science geek and I wanted to be in space exploring the stars.”
For nearly a decade, Munoz has been part of Hamilton creator Lin Manual Miranda’s so-called “rat pack,” having understudied his role in In The Heights (later taking it over) as well as his leading role in Hamilton. But this time around, he says, the two developed the role together. Still, being in the shadows of a star like Miranda is no cakewalk.
“In that position, it’s all about the work,” he says. “There’s no other factor of the business that infiltrates that kind of work. We were in the room creating a role together and our heads had to be in the game and that takes 100 percent from everyone involved.”
Miranda made a surprise appearance at the GMHC event and sang a song written for Munoz for In The Heights, which was later taken out of the production. Not surprisingly, he wowed the crowd.
For Munoz, his professionalism and determination to bring love and joy to those around him has never gone unnoticed, especially to his friend, Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba, who also made an appearance to honor him at the event. The two worked together years ago in a show, and Munoz shared his positive HIV status with her privately.
“As I watched you work and as I watched you as a friend, at no point did you ‘become’ your status,” Aduba said to Munoz. “You’re committed to living a fully present, active life, and it’s what illuminates your activism. Your love, loyalty, joy, and true passion as an artist is what makes you such a remarkable human being, and the world is better for knowing you.”
Again, coming out takes courage. Using your celebrity to show the world you can be a gay man living with HIV, and be proud of it, is seldom seen in today’s fabric of stardom. But as Munoz says, the journey is never easy. What got him through most of it was his willingness to be patient.
“Patience with myself [and] patience that treatment or medicine is going to work eventually. Part of that patience is a choice, and that’s faith.”
Still, even giants like Munoz have bad days. When asked what he does during the moments he’s feeling low, without batting an eyelash he smiles and says, “I call my mom.”
Plus assistant editor David Artavia is a New York actor, writer, and founder of The Real Gay Guy. He loves living vicariously through his friends. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Like his Facebook page.