"I hope this frees me so that I can experience real, unadulterated joy, so that I can experience peace, so that I can experience intimacy, so that I can have sex without shame," he said, of finally sharing his truth.
The Emmy, Tony, and Grammy-winning Billy Porter revealed in an intimate interview published this week that he's been living with HIV for the past 14 years. Porter, who became a Hollywood trailblazer as an out and proud gay Black man, explained that he's choosing to speak out about the diagnosis at this point in time so as to enter the next phase of his life and career without the shame that's trailed him for over a decade. "I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "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," the 51-year-old revealed. "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."
"In 2007, it all came tumbling down," he recounted. "It was a fluke. I had a pimple on my butt, and it got larger and larger and harder and harder, and then it started to hurt. One day I was like, 'I've got to get this taken care of,' 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 got tested every six months like you were supposed to. So I went in, got the pimple drained, and got tested, and then the doctor came back and looked at me. I was like, 'What?' He sat down, and I was like, 'No. Nooo.' And he said, 'Your test came back positive.' Wheeeew."
Porter explained that he made a pact with himself to hide his diagnosis until his mother passed away. "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," he said. "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. That's what I was waiting for, if I'm being honest."
Ultimately, Porter revealed, it was the COVID-19 lockdowns — which forced everyone "to sit down and shut the f**k up" — that gave him time to reflect. "I started real trauma therapy to begin the process of healing," he said. "I started peeling back all these layers: having been sent to a psychologist at age 5 because I came out of the womb a big old queen; being sexually abused by my stepfather from the time I was 7 to the time I was 12; coming out at 16 in the middle of the AIDS crisis." He also recognized the irony of keeping his silence while his character on Pose, the ballroom emcee Pray Tell, was diagnosed with HIV on the show.
Working on Pose gave him "an opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment," Porter 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." It was on the last day of shooting for the series that he broke the news to his mother. "I was writing in my gratitude journal and my mama popped into my head. I was like, 'Let me just call her.' Not two minutes into the conversation, she's like, 'What's wrong?' I said, 'Nothing.' She's like, 'Son, please tell me what’s wrong.' So I ripped the Band-Aid off and I told her," he shared.
While his mother was shocked by what he said, it wasn't because of the reason he'd feared. "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,'" Porter 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. Every single solitary dream that I ever had is coming true in this moment, all at the same time... And I'm trying to be present. I'm trying to be joyful, and one of the effects of trauma is not being able to feel joy."
Porter, who said he's the healthiest he's ever been in his life, triumphantly declared: "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." Expecting HIV to be the first thing people talk about when his name comes up from now on, he set the record straight: "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."
"The truth is the healing," Porter continued. "And I hope this frees me. I hope this frees me so that I can experience real, unadulterated joy, so that I can experience peace, so that I can experience intimacy, so that I can have sex without shame. This is for me. I'm doing this for me. I have too much sh*t 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."