After making history by winning an Emmy for his role as Pray Tell, an HIV-positive character on the FX series Pose, Billy Porter recently shared that he drew inspiration from his own life for the part. In a new article in The Hollywood Reporter, Porter revealed that he has been living with HIV since 2007.
Porter called the year he was diagnosed “the worst year of my life,” saying he was on the “precipice of obscurity,” while he also dealt with filing bankruptcy and being diagnosed with Type II diabetes. It was during a routine, bi-annual HIV test that he discovered he was 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,” he told the publication. “HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment.”
For years he thought about sharing his status, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He feared marginalization and retaliation, but he also couldn’t bear the thought of telling his mother. “My shame was really connected to my relationship with my mother and my ex-relationship with the church,” Porter explained. “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.”
That shame compelled him to remain silent. He made a promise to himself that he would wait until his mother had passed away before he ever went public as being HIV-positive. But years later he found a way to say everything that needed to be said through acting. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” Porter said of playing Pray Tell on Pose. Meanwhile, nobody involved with the show had any idea that he was drawing from his own life experiences for the role.
Porter decided that he didn’t want to keep his status hidden anymore. In a particularly touching section of the article, Porter described telling his mother that he was HIV-positive this year. She immediately responded with love and understanding, and said she wishing her son hadn’t felt the burden of keeping it a secret for so many years. Now, Porter is ready to move into a new chapter in his life.
“I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life,” he said. “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... 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.”