Billy Porter has announced he is HIV-positive after 14 years of keeping his diagnosis a secret from family, friends, and co-workers.
Porter made the revelation in a new cover story for The Hollywood Reporter. He said that he kept his diagnosis to himself because of shame and fear of judgment.
“Having lived through the plague, my question was always, ‘Why was I spared? Why am I living?’ Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story,” he said. “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.”
“…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,” he said. “HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment.”
He wrote that being in quarantine during COVID “created a safe space” for him to “stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life,” which includes being taken to a psychologist at five for being gay, being sexually abused as a child by his stepfather, and coming out as gay during the AIDS crisis.
He said his trauma helped him get into character for many of the roles during his career, including Pose‘s Pray Tell, which he called “[a]n opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment.”
“…[T]he brilliance of Pray Tell and this opportunity was that I was able to say everything that I want to say through a surrogate,” he said. “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.”
To Porter’s point, Pray Tell has been a journey of self-love throughout the series’ three seasons, as he battles shame from his religious upbringing, personal trauma, and his HIV diagnosis. The most recent episode, “Take Me to Church,” featured Pray Tell coming to terms with his religious family, played by Jackée Harry, Anna Maria Horsford and Janet Hubert.
Porter also talked about how his shame was lifted by his mother after he finally gathered the courage to tell her.
“‘She said, ‘You’ve been carrying this around for 14 years? Don’t ever do this again. I’m your mother. I love you matter what. And I know I didn’t understand how to do that early on, but it’s been ecades now,'” he said. “And it’s all true. It’s my own shame…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…and it’s all gone.”
Porter also shared his story with Tamron Hall on her daytime talk show. He covered much of what he said in his Hollywood Reporter article, including his feelings of guilt and shame.
“The shame engulfed me. I had stomach issues for 14 years and nobody could figure out what or why. You know, my stomach just felt like it was always in knots,” he said. “You know, it felt like there was a hand on my heart, squeezing every day, all day. Every morning, I would wake up with dread, and try to find my way to work through it. Shame is a destroyer. It destroys everything.”
He also talked about his evolving relationship with spirituality, saying that gay men who were alive during the AIDS crisis often have survivor’s guilt.
“Why did I survive? You know, like, what’s the point? Because there’s something in the survival that is greater than me. And then Pose happened and I said, okay God, universe, she, them, they, whatever we call the force. I understand because I was left here to tell the story to remind the world that we were here. We’ve always been here. We’re still here and we’re not ever going anywhere,” he said. “That’s powerful and in this space, and in this moment, playing Pray Tell on television, playing a character whose life parallels mine. He missed the antiretroviral drugs by one year. Pray Tell missed them and passed on, but Billy didn’t. And look at God. Look at me, the God that’s in me and I say God, because we have to start speaking in the right terms. The first thing that’s taken away from us, as LGBTQ people from everybody is our spirituality is God. God hates f–s. No, he doesn’t stop it. I can’t do it, and I won’t do it anymore.”
Porter will be seen next in the upcoming Cinderella musical starring Camilla Cabello.