Billy Porter has opened up about a secret he’s been keeping from almost everyone in his life for the last 14 years. In 2007, he was diagnosed HIV-positive. He’s telling his story for the first time to The Hollywood Reporter because he wants everyone to know, “This is what HIV-positive looks like now.” That’s the pull-quote proclaimed across the cover of the magazine above a black and white image of the queer icon. Billy’s shirtless, striking a defiant pose (similar to A$AP Rocky’s GQ cover also released yesterday) that shows pride in the man he is at the age of 51, but also a vulnerability in exposing himself in a way he never thought he would. It took him a long time to be this honest, but now he’s got both feet firmly planted in his truth. And those feet enjoy a platform heel.
When Billy shared this yesterday I was a little shocked because his brand, at least as he’s entered the mainstream consciousness in recent years, has been authenticity and unapologetically living his truth no matter how uncomfortable it made others. It’s been admirable and just purely enjoyable to watch him reject the idea of toning down his queerness for anyone, no matter what space he was entering. Billy doesn’t code-switch his queerness and that takes bravery. But even this man who I’ve seen as such a brave individual had his own shame that was keeping him from completely living his truth.
In the piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Billy explains the factors that kept him from openly acknowledging his status for 14 years. First, he never wanted his mother to find out. He explains how at that point she’d already been through so much at the hands of her religious community because of Billy’s queerness and he “just didn’t want her to have to live through their ‘I told you so’s.’” He felt those people he grew up with in the Pentecostal church would see his status as God’s punishment for his gay sins. Billy’s relationship with his mother and the church was just explored through his character on last week’s episode of Pose, the trailblazing drama around Ballroom culture for which he won the Emmy in 2019. I’d highly recommend that episode if you want to become a puddle of tears or just witness Billy at his best. It’s so powerful knowing he’s drawing inspiration from his own trauma as he tells these stories. Which also included some extreme raw moments between his character, Pray Tell, and his mother over the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepdad. Unfortunately, more art imitating life.
But his mother wasn’t the only one he was keeping it from. Billy was afraid if word got out he’d be discriminated against in an already discriminatory field of work. The diagnosis is part of what makes him call 2007 the worst year of his life, but it was also a horrible time in his career: “I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it.” Just three months prior to that doctor’s office visit, he was signing bankruptcy papers. Thankfully a few years later his career was on the up after starring in the Broadway musical, Kinky Boots, which allowed him to work through some stuff with his stepdad as his character forgave their father eight times a week on stage. Then a decade after the diagnosis, he got Pose, where he was able to use his character (who is also living with HIV) as a surrogate to say everything he’d never said out loud.
Still, he wasn't ready to (in his words) embarrass his mom, and figured he’d write a tell-all book after she passed, but he tells THR it turns out, “she ain’t going anywhere.” Now, having started trauma therapy last year during COVID-forced downtime he felt it was time to tell her first and then everyone else.
“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.”
Even when you have your family in your corner, it still takes courage to admit something like this, something you feel not only immense shame about but also survivors guilt, having witnessed so much death because of it. And we have to remember it’s not shame over a disease, it’s the weight of the shame society has put on individuals diagnosed with it. In the grand scheme of things, the worst years of the epidemic were just yesterday and we’re still feeling the effects and trying to remove the stigma and misinformation so widely circulated at the time. I remember seeing PSAs to go get tested regularly running on BET when I was young and that’s pretty much the only talk around HIV I was being served and those commercials didn’t tell you what it was and or how to proactively prevent it. Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness revealed his positive status in his 2019 memoir and that was seven years after being diagnosed. Before that I can only remember Charlie Sheen’s widely publicized reveal in 2015. He’s not the best poster boy for removing the stigma but he too felt shame, even paying people who threatened to expose his secret.
I’m happy Billy feels free enough to release himself of the pain of hiding a secret and selfishly I’m thankful he’s doing society a service. On Pose, he’s educating the younger queer community on what life was like when HIV/AIDS mercilessly ripped through the community in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now in real life he’s using his platform to help remove the stigma by showing how far we’ve come. He’s currently working on a Ryan Murphy-produced Netflix documentary about his life, a memoir, which he’d understandably been dragging his feet on prior to this, and he’s playing the fairy godmother in Cinderella — the man is booked. He tells THR, if people don’t want to work with him because of his status, they’re not worthy.
“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.”