Billy Porter says he is HIV-positive, 14 years after diagnosis: ‘I don’t have any fear about it anymore’

·5 min read

Billy Porter is sharing a 14-year-old secret with the world and opening up about being HIV-positive.

The 51-year-old actor wrote about his 2007 diagnosis for The Hollywood Reporter, sharing that the news had come during the worst year of his 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," he wrote. "The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment."

Billy Porter shares that he is HIV-positive, 14 years after diagnosis. (Photo: Getty Images)
Billy Porter shares that he is HIV-positive, 14 years after diagnosis. (Photo: Getty Images)

Porter went on to explain how he had kept his diagnosis a secret from so many, including his mother, for fear that it would ruin his career. "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 shared. 

But after resisting to recognize the truth for so long, Porter explained that the coronavirus pandemic and the slower pace of life that came with quarantine gave him a new perspective.

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"It’s like I had to just keep going. COVID created a safe space for me to stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life," he wrote. "Now, I’ve been in therapy for a long time. I started when I was 25, and I’ve been going on and off for years. But in the last year, I started real trauma therapy to begin the process of healing."

Porter also recognized the ways that his portrayals of LGBTQ characters with similar traumas on both Broadway and television helped him to mask his own struggles while living vicariously through their healing — namely, his Pose character Pray Tell, who is HIV-positive.

"An opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment. And the brilliance of Pray Tell and this opportunity was that I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate. My compartmentalizing and disassociation muscles are very, very strong, so I had no idea I was being traumatized or triggered," he wrote. "I was just happy that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor."

Now, as he focuses more on his life with husband Adam Smith and the possibility of having a family, Porter seems more inclined to re-evaluate his legacy and to include his journey with HIV as a part of it. The largest part in doing so, however, was telling his mother the truth.

"My shame was really connected to my relationship with my mother and my ex-relationship with the church. My mother had been through so much already, so much persecution by her religious community because of my queerness, that I just didn’t want her to have to live through their 'I told you so’s.' 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," he said.

Five years after putting her into a nursing home, Porter's decision had changed, writing that he shared the news with his mother over the phone. "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 recalled. "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. It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years — for years — and it’s all gone. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time."

After opening up to his mother, Porter also told his Pose cast mates the truth of his narrative, which is more aligned with Pray Tell's than they knew. "I just thought, 'We’ve gone through this whole thing together and these people deserve to know, just like my mama deserved to know,'" he wrote. "I told them the truth because, at a certain point, the truth is the responsible road. The truth is the healing. And I hope this frees me."

While there are still fears around being HIV-positive, Porter assured that his biggest battle has always been with the stigmas associated with the disease, rather than the disease itself — especially after 14 years of treatments that have evolved.

"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," he wrote. "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."

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