Billy Porter Breaks a 14-Year Silence: “This Is What HIV-Positive Looks Like Now”
Billy Porter takes a long deep breath.
“I have to start in 2007,” he says, having settled in across the table.
He’s here, at Little Owl in the West Village, to get something off his chest — something that’s been shrouded in secrecy so long, he can barely remember life before.
“In June of that year,” he continues, a ball of nerves, even if the performer in him refuses to let on, “I was diagnosed HIV-positive.”
In the 14 years since, the Emmy-winning star of Pose has told next to no one, fearing marginalization and retaliation in an industry that hasn’t always been kind to him. Instead, the 51-year-old, who has cultivated a fervent fan base in recent years on the basis of his talent and authenticity, says he’s been using Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character on the FX series, as his proxy. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he reveals, acknowledging that nobody involved with the show had any idea he was drawing from his own life.
Now, as the Peabody Award-winning series, a ball-scene drama set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, concludes its third and final season, Porter is preparing for what’s next. There’s a memoir, over which he’s agonized and blown deadlines, set for later this year; a Netflix documentary about his life, which will keep him in business with Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy; a 2021 take on Cinderella, in which he’ll play the fairy godmother; a directorial debut; a host of new music; and much, much more.
But the Broadway-trained actor, who is an Oscar shy of an EGOT, isn’t interested in entering the next phase of his life and career with the shame that’s trailed him for more than a decade. So, with Murphy by his side for support, and a cadre of documentary cameras hovering above, Porter tells his story. An edited version follows.
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. 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.
I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway. 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 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.
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.
For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew — except for my mother. I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn’t certain I could if the wrong people knew. It would just be another way for people to discriminate against me in an already discriminatory profession. So I tried to think about it as little as I could. I tried to block it out. But quarantine has taught me a lot. Everybody was required to sit down and shut the fuck up.
My husband and I rented a house on Long Island because I have a preexisting condition and I can’t be in the middle of it. I have to protect myself, and I have the means to. I’d never been given the luxury to even think about self-care or balance on any level before. It’s like I had to just keep going. COVID created a safe space for me to stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life. 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. 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.
There has never been a moment that I’ve not been in trauma, which is what I’ve discovered this last year. And it was my engine for a very long time. 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. When I got Kinky Boots, the trajectory for my character, Lola, was about forgiving her father. To be given the gift of practicing forgiveness in a narrative eight times a week for three years — eight times a week, I was allowing myself to forgive my father onstage and both of them [my father and my stepfather] in the ground. Every day was another release. Then came Pose. 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 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.
I survived so that I could tell the story. That’s what I’m here for. I’m the vessel, and emotionally that was sufficient — until it wasn’t. Until I got married [in 2017]. Now I’m trying to have a family; now it’s not just me. It’s time to grow up and move on because shame is destructive — and if not dealt with, it can destroy everything in its path. And my shame was really connected to my relationship with my mother and my ex-relationship with the church. 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. 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. When we moved her into the Actors Fund Nursing Home, I was like, “She’s not going to be here long, and then I’ll write my book and come out and she won’t have to live with the embarrassment of having an HIV-positive child.” That was five years ago. She ain’t going anywhere.
So my sister and I made a plan. We were going to get vaccinated and we were going to go see Mom. We’d get a room and I’d break the news. Then I woke up on the last day of [shooting] Pose; 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. 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.” 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. I’m getting ready to play the fairy godmother in Cinderella. I have new music coming out. I have a memoir coming out. Pose is out. I’m directing my first film. 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.
Ryan actually called me out season one. I was summoned to Freds on Wilshire Boulevard, and he sat down and said, “I’m going to need you to lean in to the joy.” Whew. Nobody can see that. I’m very adept at hiding that side of my struggle, and he called me out. Then we had this wonderful conversation about the work that I had done in my life and how this is my moment — time for me to sit on my throne, the leading man. And I’d had so many “almosts” before [Pose]. I remember watching Angels in America for the first time back in 1994 thinking, “There’s a Black queer man who is not just a side character — who is the heart of this fucking story. That’s the human being that I am. That’s the artist that I am. How do I get there?” I was around the corner doing Grease with 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head, prancing around like a Little Richard automaton on crack. And that’s not what I wanted. That’s not what I came here for. And now Ryan needed me to lean in to the joy, and I couldn’t.
There’s happiness, yes; there’s surface joy, but there was also a feeling of dread, all day, every day. It wasn’t a fear that [my status] was going to come out or that somebody was going to expose me; it was just the shame that it had happened in the first place. And as a Black person, particularly a Black man on this planet, you have to be perfect or you will get killed. But look at me. 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. 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. 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. 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.
So I told my mother that morning, and then I came to work on this brilliant piece of art, which ultimately was the catalyst to get me to releasing my shame, and I just thought, “We’ve gone through this whole thing together and these people deserve to know, just like my mama deserved to know.” One of the most profound realizations that I’ve had as a 51-year-old man who is finally getting my whatever-we’re-calling-this-moment-in-show-business is that I’ve had a lot of time to sit back and observe the lights that came before me and burned out too soon. I’ve had a lot of time to investigate why; and the answer for me always circled back around to authenticity. So I got up in front of the cast and crew and all of the people who helped to create this space, and I told them the truth because, at a certain point, the truth is the responsible road. The truth is the healing. 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 shit 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.
This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.