no apologies

Billy Porter came out as HIV+ to liberate himself–and others–from shame

 

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This profile is part of Queerty’s 2021 Out For Good series, recognizing public figures who’ve had the courage to come out and make a difference in the past year, in celebration of National Coming Out Day on October 11.

Name: Billy Porter, 52

Bio: Porter grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the surrounding suburbs. From an early age, he gravitated toward the performing arts, showing a proclivity for music and theatre. As an adult, he broke into showbiz with an appearance on the popular show Star Search where he won a $100,000 prize. A high-profile role in Grease on Broadway followed, as did parts in several regional productions, before his career stalled due to homophobia–Porter never bothered to hide the fact that he’s a gay man. He rebounded in 2013 with a Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, and landed the leading role in the FX series Pose. Porter became the first openly gay African-American man to win the Best Actor in a Drama Emmy Award for his work. Since then, his career has stayed hot with roles in Like a Boss, Cinderella and the upcoming Little Shop of Horrors remake.

 

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Coming Out: Throughout his career, Porter has shown advocacy for LGBTQ and racial awareness-related causes, performing at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, and delivering the LGBTQ State of the Union Address on behalf of Logo in 2019, 2020 and again in 2021. For all his outspokenness, however, Porter still managed to shock the world in May 2021 when he came out as HIV+. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he opened up about his diagnosis, and the effect it had on his life.

“I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway. It was 2007, the worst year of my life. I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive. The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment.”

In the same interview, Porter also said that he shared his diagnosis only with a handful of friends and family; even his mother didn’t know. Porter has said he feared coming out as HIV+ could further hurt his then-stalled career. Finally, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and with his career back in high gear, Porter decided to speak out.

 

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Chosen Family: For Porter, years of reflection and therapy culminated in his coming out HIV+. “I survived so that I could tell the story. That’s what I’m here for,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. He also told his mother and sister about his status, no longer wanting to live in shame.

In the same interview, he also elaborated on finding meaning in his diagnosis, and the relief of no longer hiding.

“There’s happiness, yes; there’s surface joy, but there was also a feeling of dread, all day, every day. It wasn’t a fear that [my status] was going to come out or that somebody was going to expose me; it was just the shame that it had happened in the first place. And as a Black person, particularly a Black man on this planet, you have to be perfect or you will get killed. But look at me. Yes, I am the statistic, but I’ve transcended it. This is what HIV-positive looks like now. I’m going to die from something else before I die from that…It’s not the only thing I am. 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.”

Porter’s words capture the essential power of coming out: it’s political, it’s personal, it’s a sign of courage, emancipation from shame. And, most important of all, coming out is a sign of solidarity–a powerful message to others that no one in this world is really alone. Billy Porter wants everyone to know he lives as a proud, gay, African-American HIV+ man. Nobody should be afraid to do the same.

 

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