“Pose” star Billy Porter opened up about living with HIV for the first time in a cover story for the Hollywood Reporter.
More than 10 years ago, Porter was diagnosed with HIV but had not shared his condition with others for fear of discrimination in the Hollywood industry. Now, as the groundbreaking series “Pose” comes to an end, Porter is seeking new opportunities and is determined not to keep his HIV diagnosis in the dark.
“This is what HIV-positive looks like now. I’m going to die from something else before I die from that,” Porter penned in an essay told to journalist Lacey Rose for the Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
In 2007, the Emmy-winning star learned his status after taking a $10 HIV test at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. As he received this news, he faced several life-changing situations — from bankruptcy to being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“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,” Porter wrote. “HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment.”
While these incidents were challenging, he was able to share his story in another form — through playing the character Pray Tell, who is also living with HIV on “Pose.”
“I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he said, noting that his castmates were unaware that his life helped shape the character.
Like many queer celebrities, the pandemic also gave Porter the time and capacity to reflect on his experiences.
“COVID created a safe space for me to stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life,” Porter said. “Now, I’ve been in therapy for a long time. I started when I was 25, and I’ve been going on and off for years. But in the last year, I started real trauma therapy to begin the process of healing.”
He added, “I started peeling back all these layers: having been sent to a psychologist at age five 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.”
This year, Porter revealed to his mother that he is living with HIV, and she vowed to support her son.
“You’ve been carrying this around for 14 years? Don’t ever do this again,” Porter’s mother said in a phone call. “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.”
With the weight lifted from his shoulders, Porter is ready to take on a new challenge. He has a soon-to-be-released memoir and he has snagged a role as the fairy godmother in a remake of “Cinderella,” which was also played by the late Whitney Houston in 1997.
For Porter, speaking out about his HIV diagnosis was one of the last steps in breaking free from stigma.
“It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years — for years — and it’s all gone,” he said. “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.”
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