When Billy Porter revealed that he has been living with HIV for the past 14 years, my immediate response was, “This is nobody’s business—but I’m grateful that he’s doing this for our community.”
In a May 19 interview with The Hollywood Reporter titled, “Billy Porter Breaks a 14-Year Silence: ‘This Is What HIV-Positive Looks Like Now,’” Porter acknowledges that it took years of working through trauma before he felt safe enough to tell his truth. That process was aided both by therapy and by speaking through Pray Tell, the character he portrayed on the revolutionary television series Pose, as a proxy for his feelings.
What Billy Porter’s HIV Disclosure Means for the Black Queer HIV Community
What emerges throughout Porter’s story is that his diagnosis is actually the least interesting thing about him. As the brilliant, openly HIV-positive playwright Victor I. Cazares told me in an interview: “HIV is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You could be a Republican.”
And yet that does not make Porter’s disclosure any less important for our culture. Though marriage between people of the same gender has been legal for nearly six years, and queer representation in media has increased since Ellen DeGeneres’ character first came out on her primetime TV show nearly 25 years ago, homophobia and HIV stigma continue to ruin people’s lives.
To this day, fear of being rejected for one’s sexuality or HIV status keeps many people from getting tested for sexually transmitted infections or using antiretroviral medications for HIV, in case they are “outed.”
That reality was recently made clear to me by Nathaniel Currie, D.S.W., LCSW, a clinical social worker and therapist, who told me about a Black Muslim patient who he was treating. This patient had resolved not to take his HIV medication in his home—which made adherence to treatment difficult— because he feared that his family and religious community might discover that he was involved with men and shun him.
Similarly, Craig Dietz, D.O., M.P.H.—the chief medical officer of KC CARE Health Center—revealed, during a prior interview with me about HIV in Missouri, that “people say all the time they don’t want to be seen coming into our clinic, because it is known as the place where you go for HIV testing. They’re afraid that word will get back to their families and friends that they might be gay.”
Billy Porter’s Background as a Queer Performer
Though Porter has been vibrantly open about his sexuality for years, his candor has not come without consequences. Long before the 51-year-old star became a household name, he was already a celebrated Broadway phenom whose stratospheric belt and scene-devouring performances often stopped shows cold as audiences leapt to their feet in adulation.
But in a 2017 New York Times essay, Porter revealed that despite his undeniable talent, typecasting and homophobia reduced the roles for which he was considered to nothing more than “clown-game offers.” And after he started demanding that he be seen for more nuanced parts, even those offerings dried up. He was even rejected or dismissed from auditioning for roles that he certainly would have rocked, including the gender-bending Emcee in the musical Cabaret and the title character in the radically queer, trans-adjacent musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Having already processed that grief—as well as spells of near homelessness and bankruptcy because he refused to compromise on being seen as his full self—it is easy to understand why Porter was not bursting to tell the world about his status after he was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. Doing so now comes after years of deserved, though recent, break-out success on Broadway, in the music industry, and on television.
That’s why I’m proud of Porter for declaring to the world: “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.”
Those words put me in mind of the social media maven Justin James, aka King of Reads, whose life-affirming video on accepting his status demolishes stigma while responding to the question, “Who gave you HIV?”
James’ answer: “Nobody gave me HIV, child. Nobody gave me anything, sis. I contracted a virus that I am maintaining every day when I take my medicine.”
In that video, King of Reads goes on to say that, much like Porter, he didn’t get there overnight. That’s why having him, Victor I. Cazares, and Billy Porter stand up as possibility models for the community of people living with HIV is so important.
Porter Is More Than His HIV Diagnosis
To quote another luminary in our community—the Afro-queer, HIV-positive playwright Donja R. Love, who spoke in late 2019 about why he wrote his play one in two, “We need to use our own voices to change things, because, whether we want to admit it or not, we have that power. ... [And] me putting a Black, queer, HIV-positive body onstage is a very political act, and I don’t take that lightly. I want to make sure that I do justice by whatever bodies and stories are onstage. That is important to me.”
It’s important to all of us, because HIV is not a death sentence. By sharing his status, Porter has taken on that banner of representing our community. Being diagnosed with HIV can happen to anyone, and it does not determine who or what you become. If you doubt that for one moment, just look at Billy Porter as your newest guiding star for all the wonderful things you can be.