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SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Fever,” the fourth episode of “Pose.”
In the premiere episode of FX’s “Pose,” aspiring ballroom culture mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) received an HIV-positive diagnosis. Just a few episodes later, ballroom MC Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter, learned he was HIV positive as well.
Although Porter admits there were “hints” at where the story would go early on, he didn’t know just how deep they would go with Pray Tell. But when he finally learned of Pray Tell’s diagnosis, he felt ready for it.
“I feel like I’m standing [up] for all of my friends who didn’t make it and whose stories were buried for so long,” Porter tells Variety. “Their stories are getting told [now] and I’m one of the people who’s getting to tell them, and that means everything to me.”
Porter came out in 1985 and shortly after lost his first friend to the disease, followed by quite a few more in the years that followed. He moved to New York in the 1990s and says he lived through a lot of the tension, fear, and heartbreak that the characters in “Pose” experience — along with a sense of community.
“I lived it, so that part of the preparation is already done,” he says. “There will be roles in my life that come later, that I have to dig deeper for things. But everything that I’m doing in this show is completely and totally in my wheelhouse.”
Unlike Blanca, Pray Tell opted not to share his diagnosis, which Porter feels is a very true response to the times.
“It was new — nobody knew how to do any of it,” he says. “We have 35 years now … of how to talk about it, how to explain it, but [then] it was like you got it and you were going to die. You were diseased. You were like a leper — even to the people who loved you. So the last thing he would want to do is tell anybody.”
Porter says that Pray Tell is still “trying to set an example” for the kids like Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who got tested, got a clean bill of health, and hopefully will make even safer choices.
“I think when you do have a ticking clock on your life, the bucket list comes out, the gratefulness for life comes out,” he says. “The one thing I will say that is new and interesting and fresh and fabulous for me is they’re giving me a love interest. They’re not cutting my dick off! There’s a version of the gay story that the straight world was comfortable with, and very often it’s very two-dimensional. … All of these characters get to be three-dimensional on ‘Pose’ and it’s just so refreshing.”
Porter acknowledges that such a story comes with extra responsibility, but it’s one that he is more than willing to carry.
“Responsibility is not a burden to me,” he explains. “I am a descendant of slaves and civil rights marchers and people who instilled in me the necessity of responsibility.”
Porter admits he never thought he’d “live long enough to see [a show like] this,” but the fact that he not only gets to see it but also gets to be a part of it is not something he takes lightly.
“This experience has taught me to dream about the impossible,” he says. “Art illuminates. Art is a catalyst for change. It always has been. That’s why the first thing that dictator-like governments want to take away — because it creates a space where people can think for themselves, think outside of the box [and] people can dream, people can become leaders. I think it’s something that’s empowering our community. … Visibility, I am convinced, is the first and probably one of the most important steps in self-actualization. When you can see something else that looks like you, you’re empowered to keep going.”
“Pose” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on FX.
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