• Sara Reeves

Billy Porter: ‘this is what HIV-positive looks like now’

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

On the 19th of May, Billy Porter announced a 14-year secret – he is HIV-positive.

Porter first came onto my radar when he strutted onto the Oscars red carpet in 2019 in his tuxedo style Christian Siriano gown. It was commentary on the inherent ‘gender’ we have placed on clothing, and was, quite frankly, a work of art. The Porter name became one that piqued my interest when mentioned, so this announcement was fast to reach my social feed.

Let’s first define what HIV is. According to the CDC.com, “HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)”.

Once contracted, it is a life-long virus. Now consider what his honesty means for him, and the community of HIV-positive people. Porter himself was diagnosed at 37, and has been living with this diagnosis for the past 14 years. He spoke on the taboo of his condition, “HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment.”

He continued on the subject of being HIV-positive while trying to live ‘regularly’, “I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn’t certain I could if the wrong people knew. 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 fuck up.”

Societally, those who are diagnosed with HIV often keep their condition a secret for their own safety. Many cultures have a stigma surrounding the contraction of HIV – understanding it only as something that was caused by an ‘immoral act’. It is often believed that one can only contract HIV from prostitutes, adulterers or homosexual encounters. It is the ill understanding that we can ‘tell’ someone has HIV based entirely on their lifestyle, when the virus can potentially develop in an unborn child – meaning that the child is HIV-positive from birth.

The stigma puts those that are HIV-positive in risk – as they are often asked to explain how they contacted the virus, which can be damaging especially if it was due to a situation that was out of the control of the HIV-positive person.

Further than this, the stigma around the discussion of HIV and AIDS can occasionally cause ‘AIDS phobia’ – the fear of potentially contacting or even being in close contact with someone who is HIV-positive. “In the minds of [some] people with AIDS phobia, HIV may be the inevitable result of a wrongful act. They may feel that HIV is the "punishment" for a "crime" they committed and that the guilt that they carry is somehow both reasonable and deserved.”

Apart from a couple of health classes, there is little proper education on this condition – and ‘abstinence’ is often taught. There is no effectiveness to this method – it only further stigmatises STIs.

I never understood what it meant to have someone speak out positively towards being HIV-positive until reading Porter’s words. Erasing the stigma means saving those who are stigmatised.

“This is what HIV-positive looks like now… I’m the healthiest I’ve been in my entire life. So it’s time to let all that go and tell a different story. There’s no more stigma — let’s be done with that. It’s time. I’ve been living it and being in the shame of it for long enough. And I’m sure this will follow me. I’m sure this is going to be the first thing everybody says, “HIV-positive blah, blah, blah.” OK. Whatever. 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.”