The 51-year-old actor kept his condition a secret from even some of his closest friends and colleagues.
Porter says he kept his diagnosis a secret from almost everyone in his life, choosing instead to live vicariously through his HIV-positive Pose character, Pray Tell.
“I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he says, noting that no one involved with Pose knew he was drawing from his own experience for the role.
He tells his story to THR with Pose creator Ryan Murphy by his side as well as "a cadre of documentary cameras."
"Having lived through the plague, my question was always, 'Why was I spared? Why am I living?'" Porter says. "Well, I’m living so that I can tell the story. There’s a whole generation that was here, and I stand on their shoulders. I can be who I am in this space, at this time, because of the legacy that they left for me. So it’s time to put my big boy pants on and talk."
He talks about a dark time in 2007 where in addition to his HIV diagnosis, he had also been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and filed for bankruptcy.
"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," he says.
Porter, who is an Oscar shy of an EGOT, went on to explain that he was afraid to share his diagnosis for fear of what it would do to his career at the time.
"For a long time, everybody who needed to know, knew — except for my mother. I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn’t certain I could if the wrong people knew," he says. "It would just be another way for people to discriminate against me in an already discriminatory profession. So I tried to think about it as little as I could. I tried to block it out. But quarantine has taught me a lot. Everybody was required to sit down and shut the f**k up."
Porter says he initially planned to wait until his mother died before going public with the news, to spare her further "persecution" that she had already experienced in her church community "because of my queerness." But as the years went on and his mother remained alive, he finally decided to tell 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,'” Porter recalls of telling his mother, Cloerinda Ford.
Porter says that much of his shame came from the fact that "it had happened in the first place."
"Yes, I am the statistic, but I’ve transcended it," he says of moving past the stigma. "This is what HIV-positive looks like now. I’m going to die from something else before I die from that. My T-cell levels are twice yours because of this medication. I go to the doctor now — as a Black, 51-year-old man, I go to the doctor every three months. That doesn’t happen in my community. We don’t trust doctors. But I go to the doctor, and I know what’s going on in my body. I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life."
As for the critics, Porter has a clear message, "I don’t care what anyone has to say. You’re either with me or simply move out of the way."
Following Porter's announcement, GLAAD released a statement supporting the actor and encouraging future portrayals of fictional characters living with HIV, like Porter's Pray Tell.
“The tremendous levels of stigma facing people living with HIV today can only be broken by icons like Billy Porter showing the world that HIV is not at all a barrier to a healthy and successful life,” said DaShawn Usher, Associate Director, Communities of Color, GLAAD. “People living with HIV today, when on effective treatment, lead long and healthy lives and cannot transmit HIV, plus medications like PrEP protect people who do not have HIV from contracting HIV, but these leaps in HIV prevention and treatment have largely been invisible in the news and entertainment industries. When the groundbreaking show Pose goes off air in a few weeks, there will be zero television characters living with HIV. That is truly unacceptable when 1.2 million Americans and about 38 million people globally are living with HIV. Billy’s powerful interview needs to be a wake-up call for media and the general public that it’s time to end the stigma that people living with HIV face and to educate each other about HIV prevention and treatment.”