**Trigger warning: This article contains references to sexual abuse.
In an emotionally raw interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Pose star Billy Porter revealed that he had been keeping his HIV diagnosis a secret for 14 years, but that the time had come for him to both talk — and heal.
The award-winning actor explained that the process of quarantining had helped him come to a place where he finally felt ready to share his experience saying, “COVID created a safe space for me to stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life.
“There has never been a moment that I’ve not been in trauma, which is what I’ve discovered this last year,” Porter said, revealing that he had been sexually abused by his stepfather from the age of seven until he was 12.
“My trauma served me, my story has served me, in terms of forward motion. And as an artist, I’m grateful to have been given opportunities to work through my shit.”
Receiving the Diagnosis
Porter was diagnosed with HIV in 2007, a year that he describes as the worst of his life.
“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it,” the Emmy-winner said. “By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive.”
Reflecting on how he came to find out his diagnosis, Porter revealed that he had been attending a doctor’s appointment for something else entirely.
“It was a fluke,” he said. “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.’
When Shame Becomes Secrecy
For the actor, who says he was part of the generation that “was supposed to know better,” the diagnosis was not something that he felt he could share with anyone.
“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.”
While the actor explained that everyone who needed to know his diagnosis knew, he kept it hidden from his mother and the industry as he feared it would impede his professional progress and that his health would become just one more way for people to discriminate against him.
Finding a Release
However, he did find comfort and release in the characters he was afforded the opportunity to portray on stage and screen and credits his role as Lola in Kinky Boots with giving him the chance to practice forgiveness “eight times a week for three years — eight times a week.”
“Then came Pose,” Porter said. “An opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment. 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.
“My compartmentalising and disassociation muscles are very, very strong, so I had no idea I was being traumatised or triggered. I was just happy that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor.”
The role of Pray Tell, who is also HIV positive, in Pose — Ryan Murphy’s FX series about the ball culture in 1980s New York as the AIDS epidemic affected the community — was the type of work Porter had always dreamed of doing, with the actor recalling seeing Angels in America for the first time in 1994.
“[I remember thinking] There’s a Black queer man who is not just a side character — who is the heart of this f*cking story. That’s the human being that I am. That’s the artist that I am. How do I get there?”
No More Stigma
Porter reiterated that shame was a huge factor in his decision to keep his diagnosis to himself, not necessarily because he feared someone would expose him, but because he had been diagnosed with HIV in the first place. However, the Tony winner has decided that “it’s time to let all that go and tell a different story.”
“There’s no more stigma — let’s be done with that. It’s time. I’ve been living it and being in the shame of it for long enough. And I’m sure this will follow me. I’m sure this is going to be the first thing everybody says, ‘HIV-positive blah, blah, blah.’ OK. Whatever. 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 Future Is Bright
To that end, when it comes to working, Porter has absolutely no shortage of it with his memoir due out later in 2021, a Netflix documentary about his life, his directorial debut and a role as the fairy godmother in a 2021 take on Cinderella.
“Having lived through the plague, my question was always, ‘Why was I spared? Why am I living?,'” Porter said.
“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.”
Porter can currently be seen in the third and final season of Pose, which is available to stream on Binge.