Actor, entrepreneur, and HIV activist Hernando Umana believes in listening to his intuition. In fact, following his gut led him to become not only a Broadway star but also co-owner of CBD Dog Health, an online shop selling full-spectrum cannabis products for dogs.
Always one to follow his moral compass, Umana came out as poz last year on Instagram, sparking a new dialogue among young queer men about HIV education and prevention. But things weren’t always so easy.
Umana, who is of Colombian heritage and grew up in Miami, recalls living a sheltered life surrounded by an extremely conservative community. He was removed from sexual education classes as a child, and his family never talked about sex — or anything other than abstinence and the giving of one’s self to God. The actor recalls his parents as very “hands-off” with their children, “except when it came to church.”
“I hate religion,” Umana admits now, adding that he is the first in his family to break away from the Catholic Church. He was the fourth child in his family, after three sisters. His parents have been married for over 40 years. His father wanted to be a priest — that is, before he met Umana’s mother.
Umana grew up with a “male-dominated mentality” while also being the “poorest spoiled boy ever,” he says. His parents never tried to teach him the importance of working for the things you are passionate about and never gave him any laboring responsibilities. In his family, chores were for the women.
“My mom loves the crap out of me,” he says. That being said, Umana’s father has a mental health issue and, he says, his mother hardly protected the children during dad’s violence while the actor was growing up. “My mom is so in love with my father and God,” he adds, “those two things came first.”
Still, “I didn’t think of it as a hard childhood at all when I was younger,” the actor says. “I didn’t really know the neglect I was getting. Looking back I’m like, man, I missed out on a lot of real-life things that I had to learn a lot later.”
Despite the sheltered life, Umana still found his path as an actor. He started early, starring on Univision in Spanish-language TV shows. After his stint with Univision, he did theater in middle school and high school. He credits his high school teacher with inspiring him to pursue musical theater and constructively teaching him the importance of a work ethic. By 14, Umana was working shifts at a restaurant while balancing school and shows. And by 18, he found himself studying musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. He was also financially supporting his parents.
Above: Hernando Umana and RuPaul backstage at the hit musical Kinky Boots in 2016.
When Umana started college, he wasn’t informed about sex or the working ways of the real world. Outside of church, he had no life experience, so moving to New York City was a culture shock. When he made the decision to come out and start living in his truth, he first identified as bisexual. Being at AMDA was Umana’s first time around out gay people his age, drag queens, and people who lived in a world where it was “cool to be gay.” Being immediately exposed to this world was electrifying for Umana, and he knew he wanted in. Fast.
When Umana was 19 years old, he had only been with two people sexually. When he got tested for HIV, he tested positive. His whole life changed. He remembered asking the question, “How long do I have to live?” He was linked to care quickly, but it took about a year of living down in the dumps before close friends advised that he needed to pick himself up and live his life to the fullest instead of letting HIV stop him. That’s when everything changed.
Umana left AMDA at 20, and he quickly hustled his way to the top. After working several odd jobs for a few years, his life took a sudden turn. Kinky Boots was opening on Broadway, and Umana, at 25, got the call. In the middle of previews, an actor broke his ankle and Umana was invited to replace him. But after a two-week boot camp, he didn’t get the job.
After the disappointment, he made sure to perfect all the dancing in the show so that by the time Kinky Boots asked him to come back, a year later, he booked it — and ended up getting a large fan base from the show.
Immediately following his run in Kinky Boots, Umana opened the first national tour of School of Rock and traveled North America with the show, while building his CBD business at the same time. Being a part of this high-level artistic world was a life lesson for Umana in learning how to separate business from everything else. “I think that’s why I’m a good business person,” he says now.
Because of his childhood, Umana’s gut reaction is to live out and proud. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel shame for who they are.
“Coming out, and being as loud and proud as I am, it stems [from my upbringing in] the Catholic Church,” he says. “I want to do the complete opposite of what they’re doing. I want to challenge them.”
Above: Umana at The Cast Broadway Talent Agency Launch Party at W Hotel Times Square last year.
The day after he came out as poz last year, he drew 4,000 more followers on Instagram. Reports and news articles about his social media post were all over the Internet, and he received floods of phone calls, texts, and messages from family, friends, and strangers all over world. This gave him a double-edged feeling that he will never forget. He recalls thinking how blessed and loved he felt by everyone around the world who expressed support — even celebrities like actor Alan Cumming and Olympian Gus Kenworthy.
At the same time, he learned another life lesson: Be mindful about what you post online. He never gave consent to the news sources that reported his coming out. He learned in that moment that whatever you put online, wherever you put it, no matter who you are, is up for scrutiny, support, discourse, or debate.
Nonetheless, Umana has rebranded himself as an HIV activist online and has since been featured in a national U=U campaign and publications such as Esquire. He will also be seen this fall at the United States Conference on AIDS, as a social media fellow.
The sky’s the limit for this actor, entrepreneur, and activist. The biggest life lesson of all? For Umana, feeling empowered enough to be the first in his family to break away from the church and pave a road designed specifically for him.
“I just think everyone needs to follow their own moral compass, and that’s it,” he says. “And if there is a God, at the end of the day, I hope that I am judged for truly living by the best judgment I could have made for myself.”