From daring fashion choices that subvert gender norms to powerful performances in programs like Pose, Billy Porter, 51, has already established himself as a highly visible progressive figure in the entertainment industry. He's chosen to open up even further, revealing in a May Hollywood Reporter story that he was diagnosed with HIV in June 2007, something he had previously kept private.
In the piece, Porter spoke candidly about his unexpected diagnosis at New York's Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and the initial feelings of fear and embarrassment that came with it. He also talked about how an extended stay in Long Island with his husband, Adam Smith, during the COVID-19 pandemic helped Porter better reflect on the traumas he's faced in his life.
Porter's star began to grow when he originated the role of Lola in the hit musical Kinky Boots, which earned him a Tony and a Grammy in 2013. Years later, he made Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list.
"Having lived through the plague, my question was always, 'Why was I spared? Why am I living?'" Porter wrote in the caption accompanying one of the photos in the Hollywood Reporter story, likely alluding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. "I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway. Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story."
Porter said that, at the time of his diagnosis, he was "on the precipice of obscurity," already struggling with Type 2 diabetes and bankruptcy. Prior to 2007, Porter had small roles in films like Noel and The Intern, and explained that he kept the HIV news close to the chest for fear it would hurt his professional prospects.
"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.
According to Porter, Pose proved to be pivotal for understanding his feelings on having HIV, which his character, Pray Tell, also battles.
"[Pose was] an opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment," he said. "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."
In 2019, Porter won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, becoming the first gay Black man to do so.
Porter, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, spoke in the piece about not wanting to share his HIV-positive status because he feared his mother would be ostracized from the Pentecostal 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,'" he said.
In other interviews, Porter has spoken about the difficulty of his upbringing. In January 2021, he told The Guardian that his childhood church "said that I would never be blessed as long as I chose to be gay," and also spoke about finding forgiveness for the stepfather who sexually abused him.
In the Hollywood Reporter piece, Porter talked about finally sharing the news with his mother, and how he had originally waited to reveal it publicly until after she passed. His mom was empathetic and understanding, and Porter said after that conversation, "It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years—for years—and it’s all gone."
Porter also shared information on what his life looks like now, and how well he's doing health-wise since he's become so proactive. Per HIV.gov, the virus often impacts queer men of color, and though the infection rates are falling thanks in large part to medical advances, there's still a stigma surrounding it, Porter said.
"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," Porter said. "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."
Porter will next be seen (and heard) in two new musical films, Cinderella and Little Shop of Horrors, while Pose airs its series finale on June 6.
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