amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Latino, Gay and HIV Positive: An Interview with “Hamilton” Actor Javier Muñoz

Javier Muñoz as Hamilton (Photo by Josh Lehrer)

Javier Muñoz currently plays the title character in one of the hottest shows on Broadway—and he’s not shy about using his role as Alexander Hamilton to discuss his HIV-positive status.

Born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents and raised in East New York, Muñoz was diagnosed with HIV in 2002. He disclosed his status publicly for the first time in an interview the day before he took over as the lead in the hip-hop musical about one of the country's Founding Fathers.

amfAR spoke to the 40-year-old actor about living openly with the disease, HIV/AIDS in the Latino community, and his role as an HIV advocate. The conversation coincided with National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, which is observed on October 15.

You publicly disclosed your HIV status this summer in an interview with the New York Times. What made you decide that it was the right time to do so?

There was actually nothing calculated or planned about it. I decided in 2005—about three years after my diagnosis—that based on the lack of conversation about HIV and the incredible fear and stigma still surrounding it, I was going to live openly. It wasn’t going to be something I was going to wear on my sleeve but I certainly wasn’t ever going to shy away from speaking about it. In talking with the New York Times, at that moment we were talking about my health, and my comfort in being able to talk about HIV is as easy as me saying my name or that my hair is black. So I brought it up. He might as well have asked me, ‘What is your height?’ I live that easily with it.

I feel a great responsibility to be as honest and open as I can because of the platform I have. And I’m not scared of that in any way.What got you to this point where you could be this comfortable?

I think really it was the support I had in my life. Between 2002 and 2005, my support system consisted of my parents and a handful of very close friends. At the root of every moment where I felt overwhelmed or depressed or angry or any sort of negative feeling—those were the people I would always remember loved me. So if these people in my life love me no matter what, then where is the problem, really? Is the problem with me having HIV? Or is the problem really everyone else not knowing how to deal with it? It’s in those three years that I started to gain that perspective and that’s what gave me the courage in 2005 to say “F*** it. I’m going to live openly with this because not enough people are.”

Do you find that people regard you differently as a result?

I really don’t. I think I am very, very lucky for my profession to be in theater. The arts has always been an environment that has not shied away from a conversation about HIV and AIDS. Outside my industry, there have been moments I could tell that someone was really insecure about knowing my status and not sure how to talk to me about it. So what I have always tried to be is someone you can approach and ask questions. That kind of energy doesn’t really leave room for a lot of ignorance. I am also in New York City, born and raised here. If there is any place where it’s safe to disclose my status, it’s here. Hopefully enough people outside of this bubble of New York can see me as someone who is living with HIV and that this is what it can look like and can sound like. Then maybe they will find there is less to fear than they thought.

How helpful is it to have a platform—your career as an actor—to promote HIV/AIDS awareness? Do you feel an obligation to use it?

I do feel it is an obligation. I know how hard it is to live openly with HIV because of the stigma that still exists. So I can’t judge anyone else. But certainly when I was first diagnosed I would have given anything to have someone who was living publicly with HIV allowing me to see, ‘This can be manageable. Not easy. But manageable.’  I know that I am strong enough to take any sort of criticism about how I live openly. Because I have that strength, I feel a great responsibility to be as honest and open as I can because of the platform I have. And I’m not scared of that in any way.

latinxFor many years, both the gay community and the Hispanic/Latino community have been disproportionately affected by HIV. What do you think needs to be done to turn this around?

I think there needs to be an understanding of the Latin culture. When all TV shows, movies, commercials demonstrate Latinos and Latinas as servants, as drug dealers, as thugs, it’s sending the wrong message to the community. It’s saying we are less. So it starts by saying we are not caricatures. We’re actually fleshed-out human beings like everybody else. Treat us as such. From there, there can be a serious understanding of the community and the culture. Then you can start addressing what is the root of unsafe sexual behavior in the Latin community. There is a cultural reason why it’s happening. And when that can finally be addressed with dignity, then we can really find the language and the energy and the perspective to address those rising numbers.

I know you joke that you have died several times already—HIV, your recent battle with cancer that sidelined you for three months. What has kept you going?

The first is a supportive family and I know how lucky I am to have that. And that there are countless individuals who don’t have any contact with their families because they are gay, lesbian, transgender, or they have become HIV positive and been kicked out of their homes or rebuked by their family. But it doesn’t stop there. I think for me that kind of renewing strength also has come from within. I have always had to dig deep to keep fighting every day. Also specifically when it comes to HIV, I can’t help but think about all the people I lost before we had all the medications, when I was still HIV negative and losing really close important people in my life who helped shape and mold me. In the hardest of times, I think to myself their lives were cut short. And so it’s out of love and respect for them that on the hardest of mornings I am going to get up and I’m going to face the day because I’m still alive and I can.