Billy Porter Is HIV Positive—Here’s What That Means and Why He’s Going Public 14 Years Later
"I've been living it and being in the shame of it for long enough."
Billy Porter, the Emmy-winning actor who plays an HIV-positive character in the FX series "Pose," is coming out—as HIV positive. Porter disclosed his status in an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.
The 51-year-old revealed that he was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade ago but hid it from castmates, collaborators, and even his own mother, the publication reported.
"It was 2007, the worst year of my life," Porter told the industry magazine. He said he'd been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and filed for bankruptcy earlier that year. By June, he learned that he was 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," Porter confessed in the interview. "HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God's punishment."
Playing Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character in Pose, gave him an opportunity "to say everything I wanted to say through a surrogate," he said.
Porter described coming to terms with his truth while sheltering with his husband in a house on Long Island. COVID "created a safe space" to reflect on the trauma in his life, which includes being sexually abused as a child and coming out at age 16 in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
He's since come clean to his mother who reportedly scolded, "You've been carrying this around for 14 years? Don't every do this again. I'm your mother, I love you no matter what."
What does it mean to be HIV positive?
HIV, short for human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body's immune system. A diagnosis of HIV used to be considered a death sentence because there were no effective treatments. The infection can progress to full-blown AIDS (aka acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) if left untreated.
While there's still no cure for HIV, there are very effective treatments that allow people to live healthy lives and protect their partners from infection, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIV is now considered a chronic condition.
In the US, HIV is mainly spread through anal or vaginal sex, or sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment, per the CDC. The virus can be transmitted through semen, vaginal fluid, or blood. While anal sex poses the greatest risk of infection, women mostly get it through vaginal sex. The virus can enter the body through the mucous membranes of the vagina and cervix, CDC notes.
How do you know if you have HIV?
While HIV may cause flu-like symptoms during the first two to four weeks after infection, the only way to truly know if you've been infected is to get tested. A simple blood test or cheek swab can detect the infection. If it's positive, follow-up testing is needed to confirm the diagnosis.
It's recommended that everyone 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once, but frequent testing is important for anyone at risk. That includes men who have sex with men, people who inject illicit drugs or share needles, and anyone with multiple sex partners.
How is HIV treated?
Anyone diagnosed with HIV should begin taking HIV medications, called antiretroviral therapy, right away to reduce the amount of HIV in the body (aka your "viral load), according to the CDC. When taken as directed, these medicines can suppress that viral load in a person's body to an undetectable level, which keeps the immune system humming along. It also prevents the spread of HIV to a partner through sex.
There are also medicines that people at high risk of contracting HIV can take to prevent infection, called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). There are also drugs that can stop HIV in its tracks after a single, high-risk exposure, so-called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), but they have to be taken immediately after exposure. PEP doesn't replace other preventive measures. It's not intended for routine use; it's given in emergency situations, per the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It's typically given to health care workers and first responders who may have been exposed to the infection through blood or other body fluids, say, through a needlestick injury, HHS points out.
To prevent HIV infection in the first place, using a condom every time you have sex will slash your chances of getting infected, per the CDC.
As for Porter, he feels that he survived HIV and the trauma in his life so that he could tell his story.
"The truth is healing," he said. "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."
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