Billy Porter was diagnosed with HIV 14 years ago, but the Pose star hadn’t shared that aspect of his life until now. In a Hollywood Reporter profile, Porter explains to THR Executive Editor Lacey Rose why he felt shame for so many years and why the shame made him feel like hiding his status from his loved ones. He also explains why he’s speaking up about it now.
He looked back at his HIV diagnosis, saying, “It was 2007, the worst year of my life. I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive.” But part of why he stayed silent about his diagnosis was due to his religious background. “HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” he says.
According to Porter, the diagnosis came “as a fluke.” “I had a pimple on my butt, and it got larger and larger and harder and harder, and then it started to hurt. One day I was like, “I’ve got to get this taken care of,” so I went to the Callen-Lorde clinic and the queen at the front desk was like, ‘You want an HIV test? They only $10.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s time.’,” he recalls. “I got tested every six months, like you were supposed to. So I went in, got the pimple drained and got tested, and then the doctor came back and looked at me. I was like, ‘What?’ He sat down, and I was like, ‘No. Nooo.’ And he said, ‘Your test came back positive.’ Wheeeew.”
The actor portrayed Pray Tell, an HIV-positive character, on Pose, and he says nobody on the show had any idea he had been through similar struggles. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” Porter notes. “My compartmentalizing and disassociation muscles are very, very strong, so I had no idea I was being traumatized or triggered. I was just happy that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor.”
Porter kept his HIV status a secret from his mother since 2007, but decided to finally tell her after reflecting on how important it was to share this part of his life with her. “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.’”
Though the actor initially carried shame about his diagnosis, now he finds strength in openly showing the world that he’s a survivor, and “transcended” being a “statistic.” “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,” Porter says. “I go to the doctor now — as a Black, 51-year-old man, I go to the doctor every three months. That doesn’t happen in my community. We don’t trust doctors. But I go to the doctor, and I know what’s going on in my body. 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.”