"There's no more stigma—let's be done with that."

Olivia Harvey
May 19, 2021 @ 11:49 am
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Billy Porter
Credit: Santiago Felipe, Getty Images

In a May 19th essay for The Hollywood Reporter, Pose star Billy Porter broke his decade-long silence on living with HIV. He was diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in June of 2007, and since receiving that diagnosis 14 years ago, Porter has remained mum about it in fear of ostracization from both his peers and the public. But now, he's finally free.

"I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate," Porter said, regarding his HIV-positive Pose character Pray Tell. Up until now, no one involved in the FX series had any idea that he was drawing inspiration from his own story, and with Pose coming to an end, Porter doesn't want to enter the next phase of his life, which includes producing a memoir and a Netflix documentary, shrouded in shame.

"I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway," Porter begins his THR essay. "It was 2007, the worst year of my life."

On top of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and bankruptcy, Porter said, "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."

Porter described the lead-up to his HIV diagnosis as "a fluke." He had a pimple on his butt that got larger and harder and began to hurt. "I went in, got the pimple drained and got tested [for HIV], and then the doctor came back and looked at me. I was like, 'What?' He sat down...and he said, 'Your test came back positive.'"

Everyone who needed to know about his diagnosis found out immediately, Porter said, "except for my mother" and "the wrong people." He continued, "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, Porter pushed it to the back of his mind for over a decade. "But quarantine has taught me a lot. Everybody was required to sit down and shut the fuck up."

Due to a preexisting condition, Porter and his husband rented a house away from the chaos and confusion of COVID, which forced Porter to take time to "stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life." The peeling back of layers began and Porter realized, "There has never been a moment that I've not been in trauma."

"I survived so that I could tell the story," he continued. "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."

The shame Porter felt was directly connected to his relationship with his religious mother, who Porter said had been through "so much persecution by her religious community because of my queerness." He knew being HIV-positive would result in "I told you so's" from that same community.

"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," he said. "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."

But despite being moved into a nursing home, where Porter thought she would only spend a short amount of time before passing, mom is still going strong five years later. "She ain't going anywhere," Porter said, so he "ripped the Band-Aid off" and told her via phone call earlier this year. "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," Porter recalled, adding, "And it's all true. It's my own shame."

Finally saying those words to his mother released Porter's heart. "It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years—for years—and it's all gone." And now he is finally able to lean into joy without underlying dread clouding the feeling.

"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," Porter said. "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."

He continued, "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," later adding, "I don't care what anyone has to say. You're either with me or simply move out of the way."