"I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate," Billy Porter says of playing his HIV-positive character, Pray Tell, on Pose, while no one on the show knew of his own diagnosis

By Jen Juneau
May 19, 2021 09:39 AM
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Billy Porter is speaking his truth.

In a candid new essay for The Hollywood Reporter, published Wednesday, the 51-year-old actor reveals for the first time that he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2007 — which he calls "the worst year of [his] life."

"I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway," writes Porter. "I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive."

Billy Porter The Hollywood Reporter
Billy Porter for The Hollywood Reporter
| Credit: Photographed by Lia Clay Miller

As the Pose star recalls, "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."

"HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God's punishment," Porter adds.

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Billy Porter The Hollywood Reporter
Billy Porter for The Hollywood Reporter
| Credit: Photographed by Lia Clay Miller
Billy Porter The Hollywood Reporter
Billy Porter for The Hollywood Reporter
| Credit: Photographed by Lia Clay Miller

He goes on to say that "everybody who needed to know, knew" about his diagnosis "for a long time," except for his mother.

"I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn't certain I could if the wrong people knew," he writes. "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. But quarantine has taught me a lot. Everybody was required to sit down and shut the f--- up."

One group of people who had no idea of his diagnosis at first were his fellow cast and crew on Pose, the FX series for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2019 for his role as the HIV-positive character, Pray Tell. The show, Porter says, offered "an opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment."

"The brilliance of Pray Tell and this opportunity was that I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate," he continues. "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."

Billy Porter The Hollywood Reporter
Billy Porter covers The Hollywood Reporter
| Credit: Photographed by Lia Clay Miller

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Of his diagnosis, Porter says that he goes to the doctor "every three months" and is "the healthiest I've been in my entire life," adding, "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 says that a conversation with Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy during the show's first season — in which Murphy, 55, encouraged him to "lean in to the joy" of his character —inspired him to tell his mother about his diagnosis that same morning, as well as the Pose cast and crew.

"I told them the truth because, at a certain point, the truth is the responsible road. The truth is the healing," he says. "And 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. I'm doing this for me. I have too much s--- to do, and I don't have any fear about it anymore," Porter adds. "I told my mother — that was the hurdle for me. I don't care what anyone has to say. You're either with me or simply move out of the way."

The final season of Pose is currently airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.