Billy Porter has been living with HIV for 14 years.
For the first time since his diagnosis in 2007, the Pose star spoke publicly about his experience with the illness, and what it means for him to play an HIV-positive character on mainstream television.
While speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he said, “Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story. There’s a whole generation that was here, and I stand on their shoulders.”
Porter learned he was HIV-positive in 2007, “the worst year of my life,” he told the publication, adding that the diagnosis came soon after he was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and filed for bankruptcy.
According to him, he never spoke of the diagnosis because he was ashamed and feared that it would harm his career.
‘For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew – except for my mother. I was trying to have a life and a career and I wasn’t certain I could if the wrong people knew. It would just be another way for people to discriminate against me in an already discriminatory profession,’ he said.
‘So I tried to think about it as little as I could. I tried to block it out.’
‘It wasn’t a fear that (my status) was going to come out or that somebody was going to expose me; it was just the shame that it had happened in the first place,’ he said.
Porter said he kept his secret from his mother for so many years because she had already faced so much ‘persecution’ from her Pentecostal church after he came out as gay when he was 16.
‘I didn’t want to put her through that. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was the statistic that everybody said I would be. So I’d made a pact with myself that I would let her die before I told her. That’s what I was waiting for, if I’m being honest,’ he said.
He decided to rip ‘the Band-Aid off’ by calling her as soon as his FX series Pose finished filming.
‘She said, ‘You’ve been carrying this around for 14 years? Don’t ever do this again. I’m your mother, I love you no matter what. And I know I didn’t understand how to do that early on, but it’s been decades now’,’ he said.
‘And it’s all true. It’s my own shame. Years of trauma makes a human being skittish. But the truth shall set you free. I feel my heart releasing.’
Until now, Porter said he has been using his Pose character Pray Tell – who is also HIV-positive – as his proxy, saying that it helped him ‘work through the shame’.
‘The brilliance of Pray Tell and this opportunity was that I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,’ Porter said.
The star added that nobody involved in the show knew about it until one day he got up in front of the cast and crew and told them truth because ‘at a certain point the truth is the responsible road’.
Porter, who has been married to eyewear designer, Adam Smith, since 2017 after the pair first met back in 2009, said he decided to go public after dealing with his trauma during the COVID-19 lockdown last year.
‘Now I’m trying to have a family; now it’s not just me. It’s time to grow up and move on because shame is destructive – and if not dealt with, it can destroy everything in its path,’ he said.
Porter said he now no longer believes in the stigma that was once attached to a HIV-positive diagnosis and that he is the healthiest.
‘Yes, I am the statistic, but I’ve transcended it. This is what HIV-positive looks like now. I’m going to die from something else before I die from that. My T-cell levels are twice yours because of this medication.
‘I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life. So it’s time to let all that go and tell a different story. There’s no more stigma – let’s be done with that. It’s time. I’ve been living it and being in the shame of it for long enough.’
He said he hoped that by speaking out, he would healed.
‘I hope this frees me so that I can experience real, unadulterated joy, so that I can experience peace, so that I can experience intimacy, so that I can have sex without shame,’ he said.
‘This is for me. I’m doing this for me. I have too much s**t to do, and I don’t have any fear about it anymore. I told my mother – that was the hurdle for me. I don’t care what anyone has to say. You’re either with me or simply move out of the way.’