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Billy Porter: Award-Winning Actor Shatters Stigmas Around HIV

Billy Porter wearing a blue suit jacket.

Credit: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Washington, D.C., June 2 – Billy Porter has had a long history of breaking boundaries. He came out at 16 years old in the middle of the AIDS crisis. His Tony-winning stint as Lola in Kinky Boots confronted stigmas around femininity. And his role as Pray Tell on Pose made him the first openly gay Black man to win any lead acting category at the Primetime Emmy Awards. But Porter is not finished breaking boundaries quite yet.

On May 19, 2021, Billy Porter gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter and revealed that he is HIV-positive and has Type 2 Diabetes. Both of these diagnoses came in 2007, but Porter kept his HIV status secret from almost everyone due to the stigma that comes with such a diagnosis.

It is not widely known that HIV counts as a disability, but according to the Department of Justice, “persons with HIV disease, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, have physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities and are, therefore, protected by the law.”

A big part of The Hollywood Reporter story revolved around Porter being afraid to tell his mother about being HIV-positive. Porter’s family was very religious, and his initial thought was that he would never tell his mother about his status so “she won’t have to live with the embarrassment of having an HIV-positive child.” Thankfully, Porter’s mother was supportive when he finally told her, saying “I love you no matter what.”

Although Porter wasn’t initially fighting stigmas around HIV in his own voice, he was normalizing the condition in another way. On his show Pose, Porter’s character Pray Tell is HIV-positive as well. Porter revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that he “was able to say everything that [he] wanted to say through a surrogate.”

According to a study published in 2012, fully 36 percent of women in the LGBTQ+ community and 30 percent of men in the community also self-identify as people with disabilities. Digging deeper shows that 26 percent of gay men and 40 percent of bisexual men disclosed having a disability, as did 36 percent of lesbians and 36 percent of bisexual women. Past work done in 2019 by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and the Center for American Progress estimated that nearly 5 million LGBTQ+ people live with some form of disabilities.

At 51 years old, Billy Porter has now found peace with his status, saying that he’s the healthiest he’s been in his entire life. “Im so much more than that diagnosis,” said Porter. “And if you dont want to work with me because of my status, youre not worthy of me.”

Meet the Author

Eric Ascher

Eric Ascher is the Communications Associate for RespectAbility. He is responsible for supporting RespectAbility’s Vice President, Communications in developing and implementing advocacy efforts and communications of various types. Ascher manages RespectAbility’s social media channels, website and emails; organizes and develops webinars; and supervises Communications Fellows.

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