We meet at the entrance of a tiny cafe at Columbus Circle in New York. The weather is warmer after the first cold week of fall. “It is such a nice day,” he says with a smile. Wearing a casual black sport suit, he radiates optimism and self-confidence. His name is Enrique Menendez and he is also known as Henry Menendez, a Broadway artist who performed in “Cats,” “Anything Goes,” “Miss Saigon” and many other shows. He is 52 and he has been fighting HIV for more than half of his life.
“I jokingly say I am an HIV supermodel,” Enrique begins. His diagnosis paradoxically seems to be part and parcel of his professional career. Being one of the first Broadway performers who started speaking openly about their HIV positive status, he has built his fame not only as an artist but also as a human rights activist who fought the stigmatization of his illness.
In 2016, Enrique Menendez was named No. 4 on the list of “The 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People” by HIV Plus Magazine and now he’s proud and thankful for everything that has happened to him. Anyone who meets him for the first time would hardly realize how far a road Enrique has travelled to get to this point and how much effort it took not to give up.
Enrique grew up in Buffalo, New York. Born to an upper-middle class Catholic family of immigrants of Mexican-Spanish and French-Belgian ancestry, he could have become a college professor, a businessman, or a doctor, but he picked another path.
“My father was a pathologist, my mother was a surgical nurse, and the idea of education has always been very important to my family,” Enrique says. “My siblings have completed PHD and Master’s programs, while I am the only one with a Bachelor’s degree. But I made it to Broadway, the top of my field. I was fifth out of six children. I know I became a performer to grab attention of my mother. She was my most important audience and my biggest fan.”
Enrique while taking his first dance class in 1981
He got the first role at a high school show at the age of 13. Then he started taking dance and voice classes and got accepted to college. Had he followed his family precepts he would have ended up living a successful but very conservative life.
“I lost my virginity with a man when I was 16,” Enrique says. “But when I went to college, I started dating a girl. My mom was Spanish Catholic and I thought I was supposed to get married and bring her grandchildren. I did not feel happy about it – I felt I was doing what my mother was telling me to do and this was exactly what I was supposed to do for me. The girl was kind of beard for my parents, though. I continued to see men. Cocaine was the only thing that allowed me to have sex with a female partner, because I knew I was not attracted to women. This fact did not influence my decision to propose to that girl. Lucky for me, she said, “no, thank you.”
Recalling this story, Enrique keeps smiling. He has never dated a woman since. Years later, he learned his former girlfriend got divorced from her husband and remarried again, this time, to another woman. “It is very ironic,” Enrique says and bursts out laughing for a few minutes.
The Boston Conservatory of Music
“I did not share anything with my relatives until I was 25, and when I did it, I came out about being gay and having HIV,” he continues, thoughtfully looking at the colorful New York crowds through the window.
He talked to his siblings first and then wrote a letter to his parents:
“Dear Mom and Dad,
Boy I don’t even know where to begin with this letter. It is probably the hardest thing that I will ever have to write and I hope that someday you will understand why I am doing this.
I want you to know that at this point in my life I have never been happier or healthier. This is first time in my life that I can actually love myself. What I am trying to tell you is that I am gay. I am sorry if I have had to lie to about this matter but this is something I had to figure out for myself. Although you may think this news is shocking, it has been part of me for my entire life. I might seem different to you now but in reality I am the same son you have always had. I am not telling you this to hurt you or embarrass you but simply because I love you.
Mom and Dad, you have been through many hardships in your life. Both of you survived WWII and mom, you lived through the Spanish Civil war. I know that unless you were not honest with yourselves and the ones you loved, you could not have gone through these experiences. You both have so much integrity. You have also said that you will love your children no matter what and I hope you will love me even though I am HIV positive.”
When Enrique went to see his parents three days later, he realized the dominant reaction of the family was fear, partially based on the lack of knowledge about HIV. “My dad seemed to be fine but my mother was wondering what she had done wrong and avoided discussing the topic in the manner of the ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ policy,” he recalls. “Later I learned she had asked my sister about toothbrushes and silverware before my visit. We did not do anything special during those three days — we just kept talking and I tried to educate my parents about the virus. Now I know that the family of their best friends also had a son with HIV and they have never discuss this. I still wonder, why?”
By that moment he had already graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music. After multiple trips to New York for auditions, Enrique received a role in Cats during his senior year in college and spent his last semester overseas in Vienna. Then he performed in Les Miserables and returned to New York for the first national production of Anything Goes.
“I believe I know how I got infected. I practiced unsafe sex in Vienna. When I got back to New York, I felt the symptoms during rehearsal and had to take several sick days days. But I still did not know it was the virus. I had been tested several months before and I was negative,” remembers Enrique. “Then I started dating an HIV positive photographer who was open about his status from the beginning. Of course, I felt some anxiety about this fact but I loved him and it was a serious relationship. When I learned about my diagnosis, he was very supportive, but it was 1989 and back then HIV was seen as a death sentence.”
It took six months to come to his best friends and another six months before he wrote the letter to his parents.
Failing to find any other coping mechanism of dealing with being gay and having the positive status, Enrique started to experiment with alcohol and drugs. The list of his addictions included marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, special K, and crystal meth. This lifestyle had led Enrique to three battles with Hepatitis C and multiple near death experiences, including a suicide attempt.
Despite the moral breakdown, Enrique started to raise money for HIV-related research causes shortly after he had learn about his diagnosis, and he sang in a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids for the first time by the end of that year.
“As time passed, I found out the more I came out about being gay and my status, the more I was open to the universe, the more the universe gave me in return and the easier it was to deal with the whole situation,” Enrique remembers the beginning of his recovery. “Against the advice of others, I interviewed with “Backstage” about having the virus while performing on Broadway. It was a great big step for me, empowering me to out myself in several photo essays which identified me as a person with AIDS. While appearing in numerous National HIV pharmaceutical ads, I was truly honored to be part of Proof Positive, the first agency that exclusively represented HIV positive talents.”
Enrique’s family was also becoming accustomed to his diagnosis step-by-step. Once he ran out of his medication while performing in Canada and it was his mother who drove all the way to bring it to him. This happened right before she suffered a stroke stroke in 1997.
“It was the turning point when things started to change. At the time, I was at the hospital and nobody could see since I was isolated for the medical reasons. This was really hard,” Enrique recalls. “My mother was very religious and went to church every Sunday but she was very excited every time she saw me on the magazine’s cover as an HIV activist. I think she accepted it towards the end. She also accepted the partner I used to be with for four years by that moment.”
His mother died in 1999, ten years after he came out. According to Enrique, his passion for being at the stage began to decline at that moment. During the same year, he went to rehab for the second time in his life.
The poem Enrique Menendez wrote upon the death of his mother
“I do not think my father was bothered by all of this a lot,” he says. “If nothing else, at some point, the illness made me closer to my dad. When I was a kid and tried to grab his attention, I used to scratch the mosquito bites. Now, after the years of psychotherapy, I realize that getting HIV and Hepatitis as an adult was my way to reach the same goal. He was a medical professional and I needed the medications.”
He recalls 2006, the year after his father’s death, as the worst time of his life. Instead of grieving, Enrique experimented with new drugs and got infected with Hepatitis C for the first time. “I did not eat, I did not sleep, I could not take care of myself,” he says. He rejected any attempts to help from his siblings who insisted on going to rehab. “That was a year of complete silence, we stopped communicating at all,” Enrique sighs.
When he overcame his psychological pain, he became very close to four of his siblings again. They also worked in the field of health care and were very supportive of him. “There is just one brother who still does not speak to any of us,” he tells me. “He is a very conservative republican and a Navy veteran. He told me that HIV is God’s punishment for being gay.”
Not all of Enrique’s friends with the same illness were as lucky as he was. Many died and after his own victorious fight for life he had to face a new challenge — survivor’s guilt. “As a person with AIDS, sometimes I feel like a soldier, I am battling the war that never seems to end, and I am terrorized as a prisoner in my own body,” Enrique states in the opening sequence of his experimental short film where he compares his feelings to post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome experienced by war veterans. He found his inspiration in Miss Saigon, a musical that he performed in for about a decade.
“I am still here because I have a strong desire to live. I am not religious, but I do meditate and I have brought a little bit of Buddhism to my life, which also is a sort of psychotherapy,” Enrique shares his reflections. “I can never say I am good. It is a daily process. But after the last spring I feel I am stable in my recovery. I do not drink alcohol and do not use drugs. Now I feel happy and free. I am free from my addictions and free from a lot of shame and guilt of my past. These two emotions did not allow me to view HIV as a gift. The virus helped me to meet many wonderful people and learn how to love very deeply. By putting myself out in the world as a recovering person with AIDS, I learned to be proud in my life, in who I am and what I do. The virus gave me my HIV niche. I believe that by sharing my experience, strength and hope, I could help many people out. I may have done more work if I did not have to deal with the side effects of my medication. When I look at my peers, a lot of them have their Oscars, Grammys and other awards and I think it could be me, but it was not supposed to be mine and I am exactly where I am supposed to be today. I believe I have a future. The only thing I am missing today is being in a relationship. Sometimes I also regret I do not have kids. I love children and I believe being a parent would change my journey. I am 52 now and I may be too old to become a father but my father was 50 and my mother was 42 when they got me.”
They say, pain often brings people to art, but art can heal the pain. It can sublimate suffering and turn it into hope. That was the case for Enrique. Art is still a central part of his life. His art is dedicated to universal beauty but also to moral and practical support of the others.
Recently, Enrique was photographed (see picture that accompanies this story) for the Long Term Survivors project by Frank Yamrus, who preserves faces and stories of HIV- and AIDs-positive people. Enrique plays in LGBT tennis league and is actively involved in crowdfunding campaigns to support people who have just begun their own roads to recovery. “Go to the doctor, start psychotherapy and educate yourself about the virus,” says Enrique in summarizing his story. There is life after HIV.”
Then he finishes his pumpkin chai latte and moves on to the next stop in his busy schedule.