Billy Porter has opened up about his HIV diagnosis for the first time.
In an essay for The Hollywood Reporter, the Emmy Award-winning star of Pose disclosed that he was diagnosed with HIV in June 2007, just a few months after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
Assisted by Pose creator Ryan Murphy for support, Porter said the “shame of that time” compounded with the shame that had already accumulated in his life silenced him from speaking out, and that he’s lived 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,” explained Porter. “For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew — except for my mother.
“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. So I tried to think about it as little as I could.
“I tried to block it out. But quarantine has taught me a lot. Everybody was required to sit down and shut the fuck up.”
Porter said he and his husband, Adam Smith, rented a house in Long Island at the start of the coronavirus pandemic due to his pre-existing condition as means of ‘protecting’ himself. It was also time for him to “stop and reflect and deal” with the trauma in his life.
The star has been in therapy since the age of 25, but recently started trauma therapy to confront the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather – “from the time I was 7 to the time I was 12” – and coming out at 16 in the middle of the AIDS crisis.
“There has never been a moment that I’ve not been in trauma, which is what I’ve discovered this last year. And it was my engine for a very long time. My trauma served me, my story has served me, in terms of forward motion,” said Porter.
“And as an artist, I’m grateful to have been given opportunities to work through my shit.”
Porter’s role as Lola in Kinky Boots, for which he won a Tony Award, allowed him to “forgive” his father and stepfather, as the narrative mirrored his own life experiences. On Pose, he was able to convey the trauma of his diagnosis through his HIV-positive character Pray Tell.
“My compartmentalizing and disassociation muscles are very, very strong, so I had no idea I was being traumatized or triggered. I was just happy that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor,” continued Porter.
Because his mother had been through “so much persecution by her religious community” as a result of his sexuality, Porter refrained from telling her about his HIV diagnosis; making a pact with himself to “die” before he told her.
On the last day of shooting Pose, Porter decided to call his mother and tell her the truth. According to Porter, she responded: “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.”
Now that his mother finally knows, Porter refuses to live in fear about how he or his diagnosis will be perceived by the entertainment industry. ” I don’t care what anyone has to say. You’re either with me or simply move out of the way,” he said.
Instead, Porter is looking forward to all of his fruitful projects including the third and final season of Pose, as well as his upcoming role as Cinderella’s genderless fairy godmother in the new Prime Video adaptation.
He also has a memoir and new music coming out, and will be making his directorial debut with high school teen drama What If?, which will star transgender TikTok star Yasmin Finney in the leading role.
“And I’m trying to be present,” added Porter. “I’m trying to be joyful, and one of the effects of trauma is not being able to feel joy.”
You can read Billy Porter’s full essay for The Hollywood Reporter here.