The Power Of Billy Porter Sharing His HIV-Positive Status

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

For a college journalism class, I wanted to report on this happy hour at the Green Lantern, a gay bar in Washington D.C. If you take your shirt off, you drink free, and while that terrified me, my assignment was to capture "a culture." Turns out I read the poster wrong and showed up on the wrong night. Unsure of how to proceed, I sat at the bar and ordered a rum and coke (the signature drink of people who don't know how to drink). I had no idea how to interview people and no event to report. That night, the Green Lantern hosted a mostly older crowd, coupled off throughout the bar. A bigger man, probably in his '60s, sat down and started to hit on me. Having been at probably three gay bars in my life prior to that day, I stammered through the flirting and then announced myself as a Journalist™. I came to report a story on gay culture, I explained, not flirt. And then he laughed and said, "Baby, you can get an education here."

As I read Billy Porter's Hollywood Reporter essay revealing his HIV-positive diagnosis this morning, I remembered that guy's voice. In the essay, Porter reveals how the diagnosis rocked his foundation when received it. He explains, "I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway. It was 2007, the worst year of my life." And yet 14 years later, he's not simply surviving. His career is more fruitful than ever. He's a 51-year-old man who revolutionized wearing dresses on the runway. He's happily married. He's going to be a freakin' non-binary fairy godparent in Cinderella. He's living.

What makes Porter's announcement so revelatory though is that the LGBTQ community has always been one generation away from losing its history. Our community was ravaged by the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s. Prior to that, too many LGBTQ people lived lives largely shrouded in secrecy. Too many stories over too many generations have been lost and silenced, and yet, in 2021, Porter is an HIV-positive Black man laying the groundwork for the next generation of queer kids. The story isn't his diagnosis. It's his ability to tell the story at all.

Porter's journey isn't too far removed from that of his Pose character, Pray Tell. It's Pray's HIV diagnosis that drives his character's narrative forward through seasons two and three. In a recent episode, Pray goes back home after years away to reconnect with family, emboldened by the reality of the illness he's living with. He explains to fellow survivor Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) that they are the elders now for the children in their lives. They have to clear a way and provide an example for the younger generation. They have to pass on wisdoms by mouth because they're not documented elsewhere. That's a power that I think a lot of people take for granted—not having to worry whether your story will ever be told.

When Porter and I spoke for an interview in 2019, he told me, "Even when LGBTQ stories started being told in the independent space and then in the mainstream, it was all white boys pretty much." To live your truth is one thing, but to have it committed to page is a privilege because gay people and Black people—two communities disproportionately affected by HIV—have become so used to having their stories altered or omitted entirely. Porter brazenly stands at those crossroads, refusing to be silenced. For The Hollywood Reporter to give Porter a voice to tell it himself is... well, Porter says it best: "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."

When you're allowed to tell your own story, or at least have it told by someone in the community, it allows for room to process every facet of it. For so long, the predominant LGBTQ stories in Hollywood have revolved around death or secrecy or shame. But Porter's essay is a reflection on the whole. "There’s no more stigma—let’s be done with that. It’s time," he says. "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 he's right. The headlines today are about how he's HIV positive. But what will transcend the news hits and the easy headlines is the fact that an HIV-positive Black man was given agency to be more than just that.

Back on that night at the Green Lantern, that man next to me asked if he could buy me a drink if I'd listen to his story. He told me about how, once upon a time, D.C. seemed like it was full of gay bars. And then somewhere in the '70s, they started having to cover the windows with sheets of black plastic to avoid people looking in. Cops would randomly raid bars and arrest people for disorderly conduct. As he told me the story, I wrote as much of it down as I could before I remembered the recorder. By the end of his story, others started joining us. He'd call a friend over and explain how I was a journalist here to report on gay culture. Someone would laugh and launch into their own story.

Photo credit: Frazer Harrison
Photo credit: Frazer Harrison

That night, one man told me how he was the only person out of his friend group to survive the AIDS crisis. Another told me about his best friend growing up—how when that kid came out to his mom, they wanted to convert him, so he killed himself. Another man, walking with a cane, explained that the reason he had to use it was because of the damage that was done from electroshock therapy. And even with all of that, there was so much laughter. There was a clamoring to tell stories and buy drinks and share learned wisdom. I imagine it was partly because there's a joy in surviving. I also imagine it was refreshing that someone cared to listen.

I never published the assignment. It got a good grade, but now, it exists somewhere in old files saved on my computer. I regret that because one of the last things that original guy said to me before I left is, "I know these stories probably seem boring to your generation but we have to keep telling them." As I've gotten older, I think I've come to understand why.

For Porter to tell Pray Tell's story on screen is powerful, but to lead by example of your own story is bravely joyous. To come from Porter's background, where he explains that "growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, [HIV] is God’s punishment," revealing that diagnosis, and then only letting it be a piece of your story., is a middle finger to every person who didn't care to here generations of stories that came before.

To survive your own life is heroic enough; to share the story of it for others to hear could change history entirely.

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