Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” For Billy Porter, who plays the charismatic and outspoken Pray Tell on the award-winning show Pose, the latter seems to be more true. On the hit drama from FX, Porter’s character was revealed early in the first season to be HIV-positive. Over the course of Pose’s three-season run, Pray Tell’s story arc morphed from being in denial of his diagnosis to grief and anger to acceptance, and in the fourth episode of the third season, “Take Me to Church,” he goes back to his childhood home to confront his demons.
Three days after that episode, Porter has shown how much art has imitated his own life. In an exclusive with The Hollywood Reporter, the 51–year-old actor revealed he is HIV-positive. Porter explained to Lacey Rose:
“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.”
Porter also divulged to Rose that nobody involved with Pose knew he was HIV-positive.
“Then came Pose. An opportunity to work through the shame [of HIV] and where I have gotten to in this moment. 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.”
The actor recounted how his shame over his diagnosis was associated with his mother:
“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.’ 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.”
Porter then detailed that he was originally waiting until his mother died to write his memoir where he would reveal his status as HIV-positive. Porter assumed, after moving her into the Actors Fund Nursing Home, she wouldn’t be alive for too much longer, however, five years later, Porter explained, “She ain’t going anywhere.” While he and his sister were planning on telling their mother that he was HIV-positive face to face, Porter ended up revealing his truth to his mother another way:
“Then I woke up on the last day of [shooting] Pose; I was writing in my gratitude journal and my mama popped into my head. I was like, “Let me 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.’ And it’s all true. It’s my own shame.”
The full story on Billy Porter can be found on The Hollywood Reporter’s website.