After 14 years, Billy Porter wants to share something with the world in order to remove the stigma.
In an intimate interview with The Hollywood Reporter published on Wednesday, the Emmy-winning actor shared that he is HIV-positive. Porter recalled that he became aware of his status in June 2007 when he got tested after noticing a pimple that had gotten larger and began to become painful.
Porter further mused:
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. And as a Black person, particularly a Black man on this planet, you have to be perfect or you will get killed. But look at me. 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 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. It’s time. I’ve been living it and being in the shame of it for long enough. And I’m sure this will follow me. I’m sure this is going to be the first thing everybody says, “HIV-positive blah, blah, blah.” OK. Whatever. It’s not the only thing I am. I’m so much more than that diagnosis. And if you don’t want to work with me because of my status, you’re not worthy of me.
Porter’s interview is significant for many reasons, one of which is related to the latest episode of Pose (now in its third and final season), which was centered around his character Pray Tell’s backstory. The fourth episode of the season titled “Take Me To Church” also featured an array of Black and beloved talent such as Janet Hubert, Anne Maria Horsford, Jackée Harry, Norm Lewis, Ledisi and B.Slade. Like many Black gay boys and men watching this episode, the storyline hit close to home for Porter, who was raised in a Pentecostal church.
As Out Magazine’s Mikelle Street wrote in a review of the episode:
At seven years old, Porter was sexually abused by his stepfather for about four years. He wrote about the molestation he suffered in a 2018 op-ed for Out. In the letter, Porter wrote that he eventually told his mother, in order to protect his sister from the same fate. While Porter believes she believed him, she did nothing.
“In my mother’s defense, where would she go — a disabled woman who couldn’t get a job, with two mouths to feed?” he wrote. “I told her to stay. I would save myself. What else were we gonna do?” Eventually, Porter left home and only returned to see his stepfather again after he had a heart attack.
On Pose, Pray Tell was also sexually abused by a stepfather. When he told his mother, she similarly did nothing as she said she needed the stepfather in order to help provide for the family. In the end, both were able to state their own truths and reconcile over what happened.
As for Porter’s journey in sharing his status to his loved ones, he recalled the process of telling his mother.
“For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew—except for my mother,” Porter recalled. “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 Sunday’s episode of Pose, Porter’s character Pray Tell discloses his status to his mother in an emotional scene. Porter initially had a plan to tell his own mother when he visited her after getting the COVID-19 vaccine (along with his sister), but it was on the last day of shooting Pose that he decided to just call her.
“You’ve been carrying this around for 14 years? Don’t ever do this again,” she responded, according to Porter. “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.”
The 51-year-old performer, who is an Oscar away from achieving EGOT status also recalled the time he shared his status with the cast and crew of Pose on set.
“I got up in front of the cast and crew and all of the people who helped to create this space, and I told them the truth because, at a certain point, the truth is the responsible road,” Porter noted. “The truth is the healing. And I hope this frees me. 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. This is for me. I’m doing this for me. I have too much shit 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.”
And that’s that. Sending much love to Billy Porter and to those living with HIV and AIDS. For more resources, including information on HIV testing and support hotlines, please visit glaad.org.