For the first time, Billy Porter is speaking out about living with HIV.
Testing positive in 2007, he kept the diagnosis mainly to himself for 14 years. "For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew—except for my mother," the 51-year-old actor told The Hollywood Reporter. "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."
Deciding to "block it out" of his mind, he focused on work, starring in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots and nabbing a critically-acclaimed role as HIV positive Pray Tell in Pose.
"An opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment," he explained. "And the brilliance of Pray Tell and this opportunity was that I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate."
Now, Porter is taking center stage with his own experience. "I survived so that I could tell the story. That's what I'm here for," he shared. "I'm the vessel, and emotionally that was sufficient—until it wasn't. Until I got married [in 2017]. Now I'm trying to have a family; now it's not just me. It's time to grow up and move on because shame is destructive—and if not dealt with, it can destroy everything in its path."
For Porter, that shame was connected to his mother and the church. "My mother had been through so much already, so much persecution by her religious community because of my queerness, that I just didn't want her to have to live through their 'I told you so's,'" he said to the publication. "I didn't want to put her through that. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was the statistic that everybody said I would be."
So, he made a vow: He would let her die before without her knowing. "That's what I was waiting for, if I'm being honest," the Emmy winner revealed. "When we moved her into the Actors Fund Nursing Home, I was like, 'She's not going to be here long, and then I'll write my book and come out and she won't have to live with the embarrassment of having an HIV-positive child.' That was five years ago. She ain't going anywhere."
Ultimately, Porter realized his truth needed to be shared. "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,'" he remembered. "And it's all true. It's my own shame. Years of trauma makes a human being skittish. 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."
Today, he's at his healthiest—and finally free. As he put it, "the truth is the healing."
"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," Porter said, later adding, "I'm doing this for me. I have too much s--t to do, and I don't have any fear about it anymore."