Billy Porter, the Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning performer, has something to say about HIV/AIDS — and he won’t be quiet.
He saw too many of his friends die during the height of the epidemic in the early 1980s. And while medical advances since then have transformed the disease from a death sentence into a chronic illness, more than 2.2 million people are newly diagnosed with the virus each year. Many people are not on treatment for a variety of reasons including HIV-related stigma.
Porter has teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to highlight some of the critical health issues facing communities around the world, with a focus on advancing health in HIV.
Johnson & Johnson has been working to fight the disease for 25 years. Over this time, they’ve developed eight HIV medicines and are partnering on a potential long-acting injectable regimen and currently working on an exploratory vaccine that could one day prevent HIV. The healthcare company has also sponsored more than 100 philanthropic programs in more than 50 countries in an effort to support, educate, and care for people living with HIV.
The partnership is a natural fit for Porter, who plays the character of Pray Tell on the hit series Pose. That’s because he doesn’t just portray the history of HIV/AIDS activism on TV — he lived it firsthand.
Porter was just 20 years old when he participated in one of the most visible AIDS protests of the 1980s: the disruption of Sunday mass in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral — the same demonstration he would later help dramatize in an episode of Pose.
The protest, organized by AIDS and women’s health activists, was intended as a response to several controversial statements made by Cardinal John O'Connor, the then head of the New York archdiocese.
"The arts was probably the hardest-hit community during the AIDS crisis,” Porter told NewNowNext. "It was terrifying. It was relentless. It was like you were in a perpetual free fall of terror. When am I going to get it, not if, and when am I going to die?”
About 4,500 protesters arrived that morning, with dozens more sneaking inside with plans to disrupt the proceedings. Ultimately, activists chained themselves to pews, lay immobile in the aisles, and even heckled O’Connor and other parishioners.
The scene was chaotic. In all, police arrested 111 people, including 43 inside of the church. The incident was picked up by news outlets all over the world, and stands as one of the largest protests staged against the church in its history.
As Porter points out in his NewNowNext interview, these young men and women were fighting for their lives.
"I buried more friends by the time I was 21 than my 85-year-old grandmother,” Porter said. “The devastation it has reeked on my psyche is not lost on me. Especially inside of how I move through life, how I function inside of intimate relationships. I have PTSD [as a result]. I know it."
I came out in 1986 when I was 16 years old. I went straight to the front lines to fight for our #LGBTQ lives. I survived the plague. I'm still here and that's for a reason. I am even more committed to #equality and justice than ever before. We ain't going back. I intend to fight for what's right until my dying day. Who's gonna join me?
Porter has witnessed the evolution of the epidemic over the past 30 years but he knows the fight is not over. “I think it’s important to use my powers for good,” Porter said. “I have a platform. I’ve always had a platform, but it’s exponentially larger as a result of Pose. It’s what I have to give back. It's a no brainer for me.”