More than a decade ago, Billy Porter (beloved fashion icon and star of FX’s Pose) had what he called “the worst year of [his] life.” After career anxiety and financial issues struck, he was given health news that rocked him: just months after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes, he found out that he was HIV positive. In an as-told-to with the Hollywood Reporter Porter made the decision to disclose his status and to share his experience navigating the pandemic and letting the world (including his mother) in on this part of his health story and his larger journey toward healing.
“Having lived through the plague, my question was always, ‘Why was I spared? Why am I living?'” Porter begins. “Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story. There’s a whole generation that was here, and I stand on their shoulders. I can be who I am in this space, at this time, because of the legacy that they left for me. So it’s time to put my big boy pants on and talk. I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway.”
Porter shared that he’d only gotten his results that June after going to the doctor to have a zit on his butt looked at: “I went to the Callen-Lorde clinic and the queen at the front desk was like, “You want an HIV test? They only $10.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s time.” I got tested every six months, like you were supposed to. So I went in, got the pimple drained and got tested, and then the doctor came back and looked at me. I was like, “What?” He sat down, and I was like, “No. Nooo.” And he said, “Your test came back positive.”
And while it’s been a solid decade plus of the world learning and growing and getting a bit kinder toward people living with HIV, Porter said that the times (plus his Pentecostal upbringing) meant there was a good deal of “shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in [his] life” that led to him keeping his diagnosis a secret.
“For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew — except for my mother. 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,” Porter said. “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 fuck up.”
— Billy Porter (@theebillyporter) May 19, 2021
Having a preexisting condition in the pandemic meant that he and his husband had to prioritize his health and keeping him safe (like many other immunocompromised people have had to do) and, for Porter that was a chance to, for the first time, really embrace self-care (like the real work of it, not the sterile “buy a facemask” version).
“I’d never been given the luxury to even think about self-care or balance on any level before. It’s like I had to just keep going. COVID created a safe space for me to stop and reflect and deal with the trauma in my life. Now, I’ve been in therapy for a long time. I started when I was 25, and I’ve been going on and off for years. But in the last year, I started real trauma therapy to begin the process of healing,” He said. “I started peeling back all these layers: having been sent to a psychologist at age 5 because I came out of the womb a big old queen; being sexually abused by my stepfather from the time I was 7 to the time I was 12; coming out at 16 in the middle of the AIDS crisis. There has never been a moment that I’ve not been in trauma, which is what I’ve discovered this last year. And it was my engine for a very long time. My trauma served me, my story has served me, in terms of forward motion.”
And a big part of his self-care journey was finally making the move of telling his mother about his diagnosis. Porter says he and his sister made a plan: post-vaccination, they’d go together and they’d break the news in person. But then, in the final days of shooting Pose, Porter says he thought about his mom while journaling and decided to just call her: “Not two minutes into the conversation, she’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ She’s like, ‘Son, please tell me what’s wrong.’ So I ripped the Band-Aid off and I told her. 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 that holding back from his mom for those 14 years was ultimately motivated by his own fear, shame and trauma, but opening up and letting that truth out has been transformative and has made room for so much joy and excitement — which is such an important thing to have in our larger cultural narratives around people living with HIV and members of the LGBT+ community so frequently bombarded with stories of trauma without peace, healing or resolution.
“But the truth shall set you free. I feel my heart releasing. It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years — for years — and it’s all gone. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” Porter said. “Every single solitary dream that I ever had is coming true in this moment, all at the same time. I’m getting ready to play the fairy godmother in Cinderella. I have new music coming out. I have a memoir coming out. Pose is out. I’m directing my first film. And I’m trying to be present. I’m trying to be joyful, and one of the effects of trauma is not being able to feel joy.”
Before you go, check out some of our favorite comforting and inspiring quotes about coping with grief: