Over a decade after a HIV-positive diagnosis in 2007, award-winning 51-year-old actor Billy Porter has spoken publicly for the first time about living with the disease. In a deeply personal essay for the May issue of The Hollywood Reporter, the Pose star speaks of how his role as someone living with HIV in the series Pray Tell, prised open a portal of shared experience, which he now sees as "an opportunity to tell everything through a surrogate”.
“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,” says Porter.
Referring to 2007 as the "worst year of [his] life," the diagnosis coincided with another, for Type 2 diabetes, in addition to a declaration of bankruptcy. Coming from a religious family who were a big part of the Pentecostal church, Porter felt nothing but shame for a long time, keeping his secret hidden from the industry, friends and family. "I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn't certain I could if the wrong people knew," he explained. "It would just be another way for people to discriminate against me in an already discriminatory profession."
But the tide started to turn. He bagged a role on Broadway, as drag performer Lola in Kinky Boots, for which he was won a Tony award, and met and married the love of his life, Adam Smith.
It was Pose that catapulted him into the limelight, however – making him something of a cultural phenomenon. (For proof, see his spectacularly camp entrance to the 2019 Met Gala, which nodding to Ancient Egypt, saw him carried in by six shirtless men).
Last year, on the last day of filming Pose "[he] ripped the Band-Aid off and told [his mum]. 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.” After that, he found the strength to tell his colleagues: "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”. He continues, "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”.
The news comes as Porter is set to embark on many exciting projects. After its third season, Pose will end, but a Netflix documentary about his life is in the works. Alongside playing the role of Fairy Godmother in the new adaptation of Cinderella, working on a memoir (slated for publish before the end of the year), and making his feature directorial debut with coming-of-age story What If?.
You can read his full essay here.