Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award-winner, star of the hit series Pose, and queen of serving stunning red-carpet looks, Billy Porter recently revealed that he has been living with HIV since 2007. While many in major news and social media outlets called the revelation brave, there was also a smattering of “so what?” reactions: Is it such a big deal, in this day and age, that an openly gay celebrity discloses to the world his HIV status?
In the 40-year span that HIV has been present in our collective consciousness, famous people who acquired HIV have been vital in spreading awareness. During the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it was thought—and reported—that only promiscuous gay men got HIV; before it was called AIDS, the illness was called GRID, for gay-related immune deficiency disease. Religious zealots called it “God’s punishment for the gays,” an idea that spurred the stigma of HIV that we still struggle with today.
The list of celebrities diagnosed with HIV in those early days countered that narrative by showing the diversity of human vulnerability to the virus. A famous face connected to an HIV diagnosis showed it wasn’t only those dirty gay men who get infected; it was also those cherished movie stars and honored athletes, too.
The complete inventory of HIV-positive celebs is too extensive to include here, but the list includes hunky movie star Rock Hudson and Psycho’s Anthony Perkins; TV actors like The Brady Bunch’s Mike Brady, Robert Reed, and Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty, Amanda Blake; athletes like tennis pro Arthur Ashe, basketball legend Magic Johnson, and Olympic diver Greg Louganis; dancers Gene Anthony Ray (Fame) and ballet star Rudolf Nureyev; fashion designers Halston and Perry Ellis; musicians Freddie Mercury (lead singer of Queen) and Bobby DeBarge Jr. (lead singer of DeBarge); supermodel Gia Carangi; and even young Ryan White, who became a celebrity only because of his HIV status.
Celebrity diagnoses kept HIV and AIDS in the headlines, changed the public perception of HIV, and helped force the U.S. government to take action in research, treatment, and care of people living with HIV.
But with the dawn of effective antiretroviral therapy in the late 1990s, HIV stopped being the hot-ticket news story it used to be. Thousands of Americans on successful treatment isn’t as sexy as thousands dying. Updates on treatments and prevention usually don’t generate eye-catching headlines.
As a result, although HIV is not a death sentence anymore, in many people’s minds it still is. The frightening images of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s—of men withering away, just skin and bones, covered in Kaposi sarcoma lesions—are burned in the memories of anyone who lived through that era. Emotional scars from that time have not faded, and the social stigma of an HIV diagnosis continues to be powerful and oppressive.
Only when a celebrity discloses their status does HIV briefly re-emerge as a lead story for news outlets. Seeing a beloved reality star like Jonathan Van Ness (Queer Eye) or Mondo Guerra (Project Runway), a Broadway great like Tony winner André De Shields (The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Hadestown) or Javier Muñoz (Hamilton, In the Heights), or former child star Danny Pintauro (Who’s the Boss?) come out as living with HIV can help chip away at the stigma associated with people living with HIV.
Hollywood bad boy Charlie Sheen (Wall Street, Two and a Half Men) did a lot for HIV awareness when he announced in 2015 that he was living with HIV. Because of the weight of Sheen’s fame, his disclosure got all the major media outlets talking about HIV. It was also the first time that the national news reported what it means to be living with an undetectable viral load. He may not have been the most genteel advocate, but Sheen’s news contained a powerful message about modern HIV, and it was widely seen and heard.
This is why Billy Porter’s coming out with HIV is important. At a time when the vast majority of new HIV infections in the U.S. are among people of color and men who have sex with men, Porter’s disclosure is especially vital.
Billy Porter is America’s fierce sweetheart, having won over hearts and minds of people across the country with his dynamic performances and unapologetic, theatrical grandeur. Porter heralding his status brings HIV back in the limelight and shows an updated image to the masses, a new idea of what someone living with HIV looks like. This star telling his authentic truth has the potential to encourage people to get tested for HIV, get into care if they’re living with HIV, or start PrEP to protect themselves from HIV—and, hopefully, he’ll inspire more compassion for folks living with HIV.
Billy Porter is boldly showing the world that people living with HIV can be strong, healthy, productive, sexy, and fabulous. And that’s a big deal.