In what he called "the most important, scary, and liberating post of my life," New York actor Hernando Umana came out via Instagram as a proud gay man living with HIV.
On Aug. 20, the handsome performer informed his followers and our entire community that 10 years ago, at the tender age of 20, he was diagnosed HIV positive. The singer/actor/dancer, formerly in the cast of Broadway's Kinky Boots and currently on the national tour of the hit show, School of Rock, bravely shared his truth as a way to combat stigma. In his moving post, he also comforted those who fear disclosing their status, saying, "[Y]ou are LOVED. You are BEAUTIFUL and there is nothing wrong with you." The powerful post has been picked up by many news outlets and garnered the actor over 5,000 additional followers and supporters.
I recently caught up with the charming Umana over the phone. We talked about his life, family, career, and HIV.
Charles Sanchez: Hi there! It's nice to get to talk to you. How are you?
Hernando Umana: I'm good.
CS: Where are you?
HU: I'm in Fort Worth, Texas. I'm between shows right now, just hanging out with my dog and getting some food, you know.
CS: Cool. So where did you grow up?
HU: Miami, Florida. My family is 100% Columbian. Very, very Catholic upbringing. I have three sisters; I'm close with all of them. My parents are cool, they just ... they're very different humans. We live in very different worlds, for sure, but they did come around to me being gay and all that. They're actually the only people that I haven't told that I'm positive yet, and I don't think I'm going to. There's not any shame or anything, there's just a lot going on with health issues. My dad is 80, and they're fine with me being gay; it's just not worth the trauma [telling them I'm positive] is going to bring.
CS: Let's go back a little. When did you come out to your family as gay?
HU: I came out to my sisters at like 17, 18; my mom at 21; and my dad at like 22, 23.
CS: And how old are you now?
HU: I'm 30.
CS: That's rude to ask an actor! I'm sorry!
HU: [Laughs.] No, I'm proud of that!
CS: So, when did you first realize that you wanted to be a performer?
HU: Pretty young, actually, like 10 or 11. Musical theatre didn't come into my life until high school, though. I did musicals in high school, and there's a theatre in Miami called the Miami Children's Theatre that I did a few shows at. That's where I kind of learned everything. After high school, I went to AMDA [The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York]. I did a bunch of non-union work, readings, pretty much any gig that I could. It was a lot of almost and a lot of maybe until I booked the Kinky Boots tour. I did the tour for a year, then they transferred me to Broadway for two years, then directly here for School of Rock.
CS: Amazing. So, you've been HIV positive for 10 years. Tell me what it was like for you to find out your status. Were you getting tested regularly?
HU: No, I mean, not even a little. I was really green. I didn't know anything about anything. I mean, I grew up in this Catholic household where no one talked to me about sex or anything.
Related: Fame and HIV: History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
CS: You didn't have any sex ed at school?
HU: No, not really. My parents ... raising us Catholic, we weren't allowed to take sex ed classes in school, so I really knew nothing. HIV to me was A) a death sentence and B) only for people who, like, whored themselves around. [Laughs.] This was before I was sexually liberated! So, that was not an option in my head. I was dating; I was 20. I was dating this guy who was like 28, and we had unprotected sex maybe once or twice, and we never talked about anything.
I got sick quickly after. I was really little. I mean, I was six feet tall and 120 pounds, so I was a little kid. I got really sick and was in the hospital for a few days, and they tested for basically everything except HIV. And it was pretty terrible. I remember that very vividly, getting that sick. I was right around Christmas, and it was my first time being away from my family at Christmas. It was my first year at school. I didn't have health insurance. I was 20, and I didn't know what to do, so I just ignored it. I was working at a restaurant, and that's when I met my first HIV-positive man. He noticed I was so sick, and he referred me to the Ryan Center. So, I went, and I talked to the doctors, and they asked, "Do you want to get tested for HIV?" and I said no, because I was like, I don't need to. And the doctor made me do it anyway. And I then I found out there.
CS: What was that like? How did you feel?
HU: It was like an out-of-body experience! I could see myself freaking out. It was terrible. I lost total control. The first words out of my mouth were, "How long do I have to live?" I had no idea! Luckily, the woman who tested me and told me was also HIV positive, and she'd been positive for 20 years or something like that. I went home and told my roommate. It was a really awful day.
CS: But how lucky that you had someone that you could go to right away.
HU: Oh, for sure! And I was put on medications right away. I was at like 205 [CD4 count].
CS: How were you able to come around to being OK with your status?
HU: Well, my friends and I have a really dark sense of humor. I mean, there really are no rules. It was maybe like three weeks after my diagnosis, and I was in my room, and I was really sad. I was still congested and sick, and my roommate came into the room to console me. And she all of a sudden started to smell something in my room, and she was like, "How do you not smell that? It smells awful!" I was like, what do you smell? She goes, "It smells like HIV in here!!" And we locked eyes and she just ran out of the room screaming! [Laughs.] And there was something about that moment, you know? That was the first time that it was not scary for me. Somebody normalized it for me.
CS: What made you want to come out as HIV positive in such a public way?
HU: I've wanted to do it for a long time. Everybody who knows me, knows. I'm very open about it. I make jokes about it. I want to normalize it as much as possible. And this year I watched How to Survive a Plague. Did you watch that?
CS: Yes. It's incredible.
HU: I watched it, and it's the first time that I actually saw what happened. And, [being in the closet about HIV] doesn't make sense to me. It's like a slap in the face to the people who fought and died. We're here taking a fucking pill at night and totally fine, and we're so fucking ashamed of it, and it doesn't make sense to me. I have a lot of friends who are positive who won't tell a soul and get mad that there's still stigma, but I'm like, you're either part of the problem or part of the solution.
So, I just wanted to do it and get it out, and again, normalize it as much as possible. Because, even just being gay -- until gay people were seen and people could put a face on what a gay person looks like and see that they look like everyone else: I mean, it wasn't until Ellen DeGeneres came out, and Modern Family, and Glee and all these things came out on TV that people saw that gay was OK. I just wanted to be a little part of that and honor the legacies of people that died. And I think it's so unfair that HIV is so stigmatized.
CS: What has the response been to your post on Instagram?
HU: Really positive! I started getting messages from people all over the world telling me their stories. A lot of people who have been positive forever and are totally cool with it, and a lot of people who are having huge issues with it. One guy who just found out he was positive like the week before and was scared and pretty overwhelmed. I posted in my story that to anyone positive who's reading this, know that there's been no hate. Just look at the comments [on the Instagram post] and look at the love and support. Not a single bad comment. No backlash. None at all.
To see Umana's original Instagram post, click here.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.