Billy Porter is speaking out about "living with that shame in silence" in his first comments about being diagnosed with HIV 14 years ago.
The "Pose" star shared in The Hollywood Reporter that he only told a small circle of people in 2007 that he had been diagnosed, and didn't even tell his own mother until this year.
"There’s happiness, yes; there’s surface joy, but there was also a feeling of dread, all day, every day," he said. "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."
Porter, 51, had been getting tested every six months when he went to a clinic for a separate health issue, decided to get tested for HIV and found out he was positive. It came at a particularly difficult time in his life, as he had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and declared bankruptcy only months earlier.
"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 said. "HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment."
He kept the news to only a small group of people.
"For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew — except for my mother," he said. "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."
The Emmy winner initially decided he would never tell his mother.
"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," he said. "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."
However, during a phone conversation earlier this year, he finally broke down and told his mother about his life with HIV.
"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 said. "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."
Porter's character on "Pose," HIV-positive fashion designer and emcee Pray Tell, was a crucial outlet for him as he lived in silence about his HIV status.
"An opportunity to work through the shame (of HIV) and where I have gotten to in this moment," he said. "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."
After getting married, going to therapy to address past traumas, and now speaking publicly about his HIV status, Porter is now looking forward to the future, which includes a starring role in Sony's reimagined musical version of "Cinderella," an upcoming memoir, new music and the third season of "Pose."
"The truth is the healing. And I hope this frees me," he said. "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."