A Personal World AIDS Day for Billy Porter

The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles
Billy Porter opened up about living with HIV earlier this year.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Tony Award-winning star Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots,” “Cinderella,” and “Pose”) is more than an omni-talented fashion icon who is just one letter away from reaching EGOT status. He’s the poster child for radical vulnerability and a change leader who’s re-energizing conversations around HIV through his own experiences.

It has been a critical year for Porter, who is slated to appear alongside a bevy of icons and stage legends for a star-studded Broadway concert called Remember the Ribbon: A Tribute to World AIDS Day. He went public about his HIV status in May, telling The Hollywood Reporter that for him, HIV positivity includes splashy colors, boisterousness, and visibility that resounds the importance of his voice and life — not being defined by his condition.

“This is what HIV-positive looks like now,” Porter stated during his revealing interview published in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Porter is re-contextualizing his journey as a Black gay man living in America with HIV. He’s grappled with trauma, shame, and fear, but he’s also abounded with resilience, forgiveness, bravery, and excellence.

During recent interviews, Porter has opened up about his troubled history: psychoanalysis at the age of five; bullying due to his effeminate nature; and sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather from ages seven to 12. He came out at 16, during the height of the AIDS crisis when hundreds of thousands were succumbing to illness, which saddled him with survivor’s guilt. Twenty years later, he, himself, contracted HIV during a particularly difficult year that included filing for bankruptcy and a type-two diabetes diagnosis. Stigmatization, fear of retaliation and marginalization, and guilt would keep him from widely disclosing his HIV status for another 14 years.

“Having lived through the plague, my question was always, “Why was I spared? Why am I living?” Porter told THR. “Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story. There’s a whole generation that was here, and I stand on their shoulders. I can be who I am in this space, at this time, because of the legacy that they left for me. So it’s time to put my big boy pants on and talk.”

All while enduring in silence, Porter has been blowing away audiences with award-fetching performances. His portrayal of cabaret performer and drag queen Lola in the hit Broadway production “Kinky Boots,” for example, snatched him a Tony. His masterful portrayal of Prayerful Pray Tell, a celebrated emcee within the NYC ball scene and friend to the House of Evangelista on the Peabody Award-winning series “Pose,” charmed an entire generation and earned him an Emmy. Through his characterization of Pray Tell, he was able to navigate the choppy waters of HIV-related shame. He used the character, who shares his diagnosis, as a “proxy” to investigate his own struggle and truth.

“Yes, I am the statistic, but I’ve transcended it,” Porter stated. “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. I go to the doctor now… 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. There’s no more stigma — let’s be done with that. “

Porter’s new revelatory debut memoir, “Unprotected,” is self-described as “a revealing autobiography about race, sexuality, art, and healing.” The book is a lock-step coming-of-age introduction to the life of a gay Black man living in America. It’s an intimate, haunting, and conversational tale of unbreakable determination, both timely and inevitable, discussing racism, homophobia, the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Porter, who was named among TIME’s most influential people in 2020, will participate in the live World AIDS Day concert, which will feature Judith Light, Lena Hall, Rema Webb, Javier Muñoz, Chita Rivera, Alan Menken, Beth Leavel, and many more. Bryan Campione will direct the production, and the music will be coordinated by Mach, with music direction/arrangements by Joshua Stephen Kartes.

The performance will be recorded at Sony Hall in New York City and will stream December 1-3 on Playbill.com and Playbill’s YouTube channel. The event will help benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Never one to miss a beat, Porter is additionally set to direct a feature adaptation of “Camp” for HBO Max and Warner Bros. Based on the book of the same name by Lev A.C. Rosen, “Camp” is a witty screwball comedy that examines gender, sexuality and self-acceptance among a group of queer teens. According to Deadline, Porter is also set to direct an entitled queer comedy for Amazon Studios.

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