Porter was diagnosed in 2007. “I was the generation that was supposed to know better, and it happened anyway,” he says. He told people in his close circle, but largely kept the diagnosis a secret to prevent discrimination in the entertainment industry. And he didn’t tell his mother.
The performer, a Tony and Grammy winner for Kinky Boots, and an Emmy winner for Pose, put on his playwriting hat to pen his 2014 Off-Broadway play While I Yet Live. The semi-autobiographical work chronicles his relationship with his deeply religious mother and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather.
Porter credits his work in Kinky Boots with allowing him to practice forgiving his father eight times a week and his work on FX's Pose, now in its third and final season, to work through the shame of his HIV status. “And the brilliance,” Porter says of playing HIV-positive ball emcee Pray Tell on Pose, “was that I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he says. In 2019, Porter became the first openly gay Black actor to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
On his last day of filming for the series, he called his mother and he told her about his status. She admonished him for carrying the secret and assured him that she loved him, he says: “I feel my heart releasing. It had felt like a hand was holding my heart clenched for years—for years—and it’s all gone.”
Porter says he then went to work and told the cast and crew. "One of the most profound realizations that I’ve had as a 51-year-old man who is finally getting my whatever-we’re-calling-this-moment-in-show-business is that I’ve had a lot of time to sit back and observe the lights that came before me and burned out too soon. I’ve had a lot of time to investigate why, and the answer for me always circled back around to authenticity. So I got up in front of the cast and crew and all of the people who helped to create this space, and I told them the truth because, at a certain point, the truth is the responsible road. The truth is the healing."
Porter's upcoming projects include a memoir due out in October, directing his the feature-length film What If?, playing the non-binary Fairy Godparent role in an upcoming Cinderella movie musical, and Rise, a Netflix documentary about this period in his own life.