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2021's Amazing People Living with HIV: Actor and Advocate Billy Porter

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Billy Porter is an amazing person by any measure, starring in acclaimed stage and screen productions, winning major awards, dominating red carpets with his fabulous outfits, penning a memoir, and becoming a director. But his success has come after years of trauma that, he revealed this year, left him unable to feel joy — including an HIV-positive diagnosis in what he’s called the worst year of his life. 

The Pose star opened up about living with HIV in a Hollywood Reporter article in May. Born in 1969, he had lived through the worst years of the AIDS crisis and got tested for HIV regularly, but a test came back positive in 2007. “I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway,” he told the Reporter. The result came in a year when he’d also been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and filed for bankruptcy. He’d had some success as an actor and singer, but by that year he was “on the precipice of obscurity,” he noted.

He was no stranger to trauma, “having been sent to a psychologist at age 5 because I came out of the womb a big old queen; being sexually abused by my stepfather from the time I was 7 to the time I was 12; [and] coming out at 16 in the middle of the AIDS crisis,” he said. But the trauma also propelled him forward, and he’s worked through much of it in his career — forgiving his father and stepfather as his Kinky Boots character, drag queen Lola, forgave her father, and confronting HIV stigma as his Pose character, Pray Tell, faced the virus and its complications. Also, the COVID-19 lockdown gave him an opportunity to reflect on his life, and this year, before the Reporter article appeared, he finally told his mother about his positive diagnosis. She responded with acceptance and love.

Porter’s career has been on an upward trajectory for several years. He won a Tony Award for Kinky Boots in 2013 and an Emmy for Pose in 2019, becoming the first out gay Black man to win for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He shared in a 2014 Grammy for the Kinky Boots cast album, so he only needs an Oscar to achieve the rare EGOT status. This summer he received glowing reviews for playing a genderless fairy godmother in the latest movie version of Cinderella, so it appears he’ll be in demand for some time to come.

He’s expanding beyond performing as well. He’s making his directorial debut with What If?, a film about a romance between a transgender teen girl and a cisgender boy; the release date has yet to be set. He’s going to be writing Fruits of Thy Labor, a drama series about three generations of a Black family, for NBC streaming service Peacock. Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy is making a Netflix documentary about Porter titled Rise, and Porter’s memoir, Unprotected, is out this fall. In an advance review, Publishers Weekly called it “revelatory.” He’s married to Adam Smith, co-owner of eyewear brand Native Ken, and thanks to good medical treatment is healthier than ever — and undetectable. And ready to experience joy. 

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