On the FX series Pose, Billy Porter stars as Pray Tell, an emcee and activist who learns through the course of the show that he is HIV-positive. Now, amid the show's third season and after winning a Emmy award for his performance the actor has revealed that he has a diagnosis in common with his character. In a new piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Billy Porter shared that he learned that he was HIV-positive in 2007 and has since kept the information private aside from anyone who "needed to know." To learn why the stage and screen star kept his status secret from the public (and his mother) for 14 years and why he's speaking out about it now, read on.
Porter learned of his status somewhat accidentally.
Speaking to THR, Porter said that he was tested for HIV every six months, abiding by the common recommendation. The test that produced the positive result took place when he went to the doctor for another reason, however. Porter had a painful pimple on his backside.
"One day I was like, 'I've got to get this taken care of,'" he said, "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.'"
"I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway," Porter said of the timing of his diagnosis. "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."
Porter said that he's "lived with that shame" for 14 years.
The 51-year-old actor went on to explain how his financial and career struggles as well as his upbringing contributed to the stigma of his HIV diagnosis.
"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," said Porter, who hails from Pittsburgh. "HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God's punishment."
While Porter had movie, TV, and theater credits to his name before 2007, his major breakout moment took place in 2013, when he played the role of Lola in the Broadway production of Kinky Boots, adapted from the movie, and won a Tony Award for it. Five years later came Pray Tell and Pose, which is set in the ball scene in '80s and '90s New York City and deals with many LGBTQIA+ issues, including the AIDS epidemic.
The actor only recently shared his diagnosis with his mother.
"For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew—except for my mother," Porter told THR. "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." The actor has spoken about the discrimination he's already faced as a Black gay man, like during a 2019 New Yorker Festival interview (via Deadline) when he said that an early record deal didn't pan out because the music industry was "hugely, violently homophobic."
There was a time when Porter "made a pact with [himself]" that he would keep his diagnosis a secret from his mother forever.
"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 explained. "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."
But getting married to his partner Adam Smith in 2017 prompted Porter to want to let go of his secret, as "shame is destructive."
Porter said that he and his sister had planned to, after being fully vaccinated, go see his mother so that he could tell her in person. But on the last day of the Pose shoot (this current season is also the final season), the actor had the sudden urge to call her.
"So I ripped the Band-Aid off and I told her," Porter recall. "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.'"
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Today, his health is the best it's ever been.
"This is what HIV-positive looks like now," Porter continued. "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."
The star said that when Pose initially came around, he looked at it as "an opportunity to work through the shame" and "to say everything that [he] wanted to say through a surrogate." But after sharing the truth with his mother, he was ready to completely step out from behind Pray Tell.
"So I got up in front of the [Pose] 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 said. "The truth is the healing. And I hope this frees me."
The actor understands that though the stigma about HIV and AIDS has been weakened, it still exists. And there will be people who attempt to reduce him to his status.
"And I'm sure this will follow me," he said. "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."