Javier Muñoz, Trace Lysette and Others Talk About the LGBTQ Community and Perceptions of HIV/AIDS
Javier Muñoz and Trace Lysette are getting candid about their personal experiences with HIV, whether it's on or off-screen, in PEOPLE's video series, Stories of Positivity.
The latest panel, led by PEOPLE Deputy West Coast Editor Jason Sheeler, featured conversations about fighting for LGBTQ+ representation and equality, as well as how HIV and AIDS affects their community. Sheeler, Lysette, and Muñoz were also joined by John Cunningham, Executive Director at the National AIDS Memorial.
Lysette, who made appearances in Pose and Hustlers, opened up about portraying an HIV-positive character in the Amazon Prime Video series Transparent and how she utilized her own experiences as a trans woman in order to bring her character to life.
The 33-year-old came out as trans in 2015, calling her role in Transparent a "leap for freedom" as an actress who spent years taking on cis-gender roles and hiding her identity. She said taking on a character who was HIV positive, although not her own reality, wasn't difficult because she's surrounded by friends and family who live with the disease every day.
"[It] was enough to kind of inform the things I needed to feel in that moment... which was such a historic thing to see on TV," she said of the series. "The AIDS piece of it was something I consulted with my HIV positive friends and family, but I think the bulk of that pain was something that is universal for all trans women."
While Lysette played an HIV-positive character on-screen, Muñoz, 45, lives in that reality. The actor, known for his role in Hamilton, said revealing his HIV diagnosis was an "adventure" and a journey that took years to process.
Comparing his HIV medications with the ones he was given during an earlier private cancer battle, Muñoz said the meds were like "chemotherapy in a pill" — the side effects were so extreme that he realized he would no longer be able to hide his diagnosis. He made the news public in 2005, three years after testing positive, and added that the experience for him was harder than coming out as gay.
"It just had to be something that was a part of my identity in my life so that every time I walked into a room, the folks that I'm working with, collaborating with, or auditioning for, you know what's up," Muñoz shared. "This is me and this is what I'm coming with and I'm still going to work as hard as I can. I'm still going to show up and be excellent, but this is me."
Cunningham discussed the ways HIV and AIDS have been perceived by the public over the years and the negative impact of misperceptions. "Unfortunately, the stigma that was placed upon the AIDS crisis has again reared its head with regards to COVID stigmatizing this as a disease that affects certain ethnic populations," he said.
Muñoz explained that what he finds beneficial is having open conversations about the disease and using every opportunity to educate others about it. The actor said many people confuse HIV and AIDS, leading to the spread of misinformation. By talking openly about his hope for "miracles of medicine," he says he feels optimistic about changing public views.
"It really is about having that kind of conversation with folks," Muñoz said. "And I think the more I talk about the hope of that, and the sort of incredibleness of that, that really shifts someone's perception to understanding, right? 'Oh, they are two separate things. And there is something to feel hopeful about in this, and something to feel safe about in this, and progress.'"
Cunningham went on to discuss some of the advancements that have been made toward HIV and AIDS treatments, despite his frustration with how long it has taken in comparison to COVID-19 vaccinations.
"We never thought we'd be here four decades in and not have a vaccine or a cure. You know what I mean? And here we are 15 months into COVID and we got it," he said. "But I will tell you that the vaccine that was created for COVID came from the research on HIV," he said, adding that he feels the pandemic-related research will circle back and benefit HIV treatment research.
"It's a genius virus and it mutates, and it changes so consistently," Cunningham said. "So, I think there's hope out of COVID going back. HIV and AIDS care and treatment research helped COVID and I now believe that the research that happened within COVID is going to go back and, I believe, help with HIV."