Actor extraordinaire Billy Porter sat down with Tamron Hall today, May 19th, for his first interview since revealing he’s HIV-positive in the Hollywood Reporter.
Fighting tears throughout the hour-long episode of Tamron Hall, the Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner candidly explained how he learned he was positive in 2007, the survivor’s guilt he felt after many in the LGBTQ+ community didn’t, and how his Pose character Pray Tell helped him confront the trauma of his childhood, which included sexual abuse.
In 2007, Porter says he was not only diagnosed with HIV, but also learned he had type 2 diabetes and was facing bankruptcy.
“2007 we'll start there, the backstory ... was one of the worst years of my life,” said Porter to Hall as they sat in the studio. “I say I was on the precipice of obscurity and wasn't working a lot in show business. February of that year, I was diagnosed with diabetes. Type 2, hereditary, it's in my family. By March I was filing bankruptcy papers and by June of that year, 2007, I was diagnosed HIV-positive.”
Although he says he routinely had an HIV test every six months, Porter wasn’t expecting to test positive when he sought medical attention for a condition.
“So I had a pimple on my butt,” recalled Porter. “It just came on my butt, a regular pimple. A week it got bigger. Another week, it got harder. You know, then all of a sudden it felt like it was infected and I couldn't really sit on my right side and I had to maneuver. So I didn't have medical insurance at the time. And I went to the Callen-Lorde LGBTQ clinic, and the man at the desk said, ‘Well, do you want to get an HIV test?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, it's about six months. ( I'd do it every six months.) Yes, of course.’ And so I got the test. And the doctor looked at my butt and then I was waiting for about 20 minutes and then the doctor came out with that look. I knew exactly what he was about to say.”
He said he was ashamed of his diagnosis and hid his status for 14 years, and the shame physically manifested in his body as a stomach ailment.
“The shame engulfed me. I had stomach issues for 14 years and nobody could figure out what or why. You know, my stomach just felt like it was always in knots,” Porter explained. “You know, it felt like there was a hand on my heart, squeezing every day, all day. Every morning, I would wake up with dread, and try to find my way to work through it. Shame is a destroyer. It destroys everything.”
Though he suffered survivor’s guilt, Porter maintained his spirituality, which he credits with helping him understand that he survived so he could tell the stories of those who didn’t make it.
He continued: “Gay men of a certain age. I'm 51. I would say those who are mid to late 40s on up, who survived the plague, I often wondered in the survivor's guilt mode of what comes with that, for not just me, but for many. Why did I survive? You know, like, what's the point? Because there's something in the survival that is greater than me. And then Pose happened and I said, ‘OK God, universe, she, them, they, whatever we call the force. I understand because I was left here to tell the story to remind the world that we were here.’ We've always been here. We're still here and we're not ever going anywhere. That's powerful and in this space, and in this moment, playing Pray Tell on television, playing a character whose life parallels mine. He missed the antiretroviral drugs by one year. Pray Tell missed them and passed on, but Billy didn't. And look at God. Look at me, the God that’s in me, and I say God because we have to start speaking in the right terms. The first thing that's taken away from us, as LGBTQ people, from everybody, is our spirituality, is God. ‘God hates fags.’ No, he doesn't stop it. I can't do it, and I won't do it anymore.”
At one point, the conversation turned to Porter’s experience growing up queer in the Black church and community, at large, the messaging he received about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, and how that affected him as a boy who being sexually assaulted.
“Well, I can remember two specific times, first was in kindergarten,” said Porter. “I was sent to a psychologist every Wednesday after kindergarten, after kindergarten, because I was a sissy and everybody was afraid of that. Afraid of my mannerisms. ‘Oh, he wants to play with dolls. Oh, he wants to play Jacks. Something’s wrong with him. He needs to be fixed.’ That's the beginning of the messaging that you're getting when you're 5 years old.”
He continued, “Within a year my mother had met and married my stepfather who proceeded to sexually molest me from the time I was 7 to the time I was 12. And to me, but these are my man lessons, right? And then I'm sitting around the dining room table and the first account of HIV comes across and they start talking about homosexual, homosexual, homosexual, and then everybody at the church that's talking about homosexual, the abomination. ‘You're going to hell, you're going to this ... AIDS is God's punishment.’ And I'm like, ‘Wait, what is homosexual?’ And I actually looked it up and I realized, ‘Oh shoot I've been engaging in homosexual acts.’ So not only am I going to hell but I'm going to die of AIDS doing it. This is 12 years old.”
Porter said he told his mother he is HIV-positive only a month ago. “I told her and she said, ‘Son, I love you. I will always love you. I have always loved you. None of this matters. I just want to know that you're healthy.’”
He continued, “I'm the healthiest I've ever been. I'm a Black man who has to go to the doctor every three months. Like I'm the healthiest I've ever been. But...the thing she said to me was, ‘stop doing this son. Please stop doing this. I know that I didn't know how to be the mother that you needed me to be at the beginning of this journey, but it has been decades now. I need you to stop this.’”
When Hall asked him what his mother wanted him to stop doing, Porter said, “Stop withholding from her. She said, ‘You spent 14 years with this by yourself for no reason.’ That is what being a Christian means, that is what it is.”
Watch clips from Billy Porter’s interview on Tamron Hall below.