Billy Porter: ‘I was told my queerness would be a liability. Now it’s my superpower’

·10 min read
Billy Porter: ‘The reason for the terror from the other side is because the change has already happened’  (Meredith Truax)
Billy Porter: ‘The reason for the terror from the other side is because the change has already happened’ (Meredith Truax)

Billy Porter is about to recite his mantra. Sitting in his light-filled New York apartment, with a slice of Manhattan skyline visible in silhouette through the blinds, the 52-year-old Emmy, Grammy and Tony-winning actor and singer is relatively dressed down, especially if you’re used to picturing him bejewelled and bewinged in his red carpet finery. He famously wore golden wings and a headdress to the Met Gala in 2019, embracing and embodying the theme of “Camp”, while for the 2021 Emmys his wings were black and ruffled. Today it’s just a loose, colourful smock and thick black glasses. Long braids cascade over his right shoulder and there are flecks of distinguished grey in his neat goatee. “I have a mantra,” he reveals. “I do not now, nor will I ever, adjudicate my life or humanity in soundbites on social media.” He says it with Shakespearian gravity, his chin tilted upwards, enunciating every word as if he were projecting his voice over the breadth of Broadway. He then mimes mindlessly thumbing his phone. “I will go on and waste time and scroll,” he says. “I do do that, but if negativity starts to show up I have the discipline to put it down. I just don’t engage with it.”

Porter has had good reason to ponder the many ways the internet has reshaped social interaction, and not just because of his 2.2 million followers on Instagram alone. After two decades directing for the stage in New York he’s just helmed his first feature film, Anything’s Possible. A sweet-natured contemporary coming-of-age tale, it made history as the first major studio romcom to feature a Black trans protagonist. In the film, Kelsa – played endearingly by newcomer Eva Reign – documents her transition on YouTube, while dreamy beau Khal (Abubakr Ali) writes unusually sensitive posts on Reddit. Their experiences online are both specific and to some degree universal, as Porter weighs the worrying dangers of viral overexposure against the promise of finding genuine connection through the screen.

“It’s so weird to me, because it’s real and not real at the same time,” says Porter. “In my day, the bullies were alive, in my face, and they beat my ass in real time. I don’t understand cyberbullying, because I lived before there was a cyberanything. There’s a whole generation where this is all they know, and I have to say, it breaks my heart a little bit. We as a society and a culture, all around the world, have yet to understand the balance of it. It’s still the Wild West right now.”

Making Anything’s Possible took Porter back to school in a very literal sense. He shot much of the film at his alma mater, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, as well as at scenic locations around his hometown, including the lushly beautiful Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the Andy Warhol Museum. “I wanted to create a love letter to the city that raised me,” says Porter. “While I suffered a lot of trauma there, there were also a lot of angels in my life that made sure that I could be set up for success in this world.”

William “Billy” Ellis Porter III was born in Pittsburgh on 21 September 1969. His father moved out while he was still an infant, leaving Porter to be raised by his disabled mother, Cloerinda Ford. “Everybody asks me: how are you so powerful and unapologetic?” says Porter. “Well, first of all, my mama.” At 78 and living at the Actors Fund nursing home, she still inspires him. “She doesn’t have any mobility, but when she moved in there the fight was that they weren’t getting her up early enough,” he recalls with pride. “She said, ‘You’ve got to get me out of this bed, because I have a life to live.’ That’s who I come from.”

A recent appearance on the US version of ancestry reality show Who Do You Think You Are? led Porter to learn that his maternal great-grandfather, Thomas Richardson, was shot in the back by a police officer in 1923, alongside other familial revelations. “My great-great-great-great grandfather on my father’s side was a barber who made enough money to buy his own freedom and his family’s freedom, before the Emancipation Proclamation,” says Porter emphatically. “That’s where I come from! I’m not putting up with no s***. I stand on the shoulders of giants in this world.”

He needed that strength from a young age. In his 2021 memoir Unprotected, Porter describes himself as an effeminate child. He recalls being sent to a psychologist who told his mother in front of him that what Porter needed was a man around the house, to teach him to be more masculine. Within a year, his mother had met and married his stepfather, who molested Porter from the age of seven to 12. “In my mind, I thought those were my man lessons,” Porter told CBS News last year. “I didn’t realise it was abuse until I was in my late twenties.”

Porter with golden wings on the Met Gala red carpet in 2019 (Getty Images for The Met Museum)
Porter with golden wings on the Met Gala red carpet in 2019 (Getty Images for The Met Museum)

He also received unwanted attention at school, where he was a frequent target for bullies. That was until he sang at a fifth-grade talent show and won, at which point he noticed the other children started treating him differently. He threw himself into performance as a form of self-preservation, both in class and at after-school programmes. “I was lucky to have found the creative side of things early,” he says, adding that he’s grateful to have grown up at a time when those sorts of opportunities were being paid for by the state and not considered luxuries. “I was in the last generation of students who got to benefit from government programmes that were free,” he says. “You know, when our government actually cared about us?”

By the time he left school in 1987, Porter had taken music, voice, acting and dance classes. “Every piece of training I got creatively was free,” he points out. “They now call that entitlement, but I don’t see it like that. I didn’t have nothing, so I would never be where I am if those programmes weren’t in place to just level the playing field.”

Porter studied drama at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University before making his way to Broadway. He worked his way up through small parts in big productions like Miss Saigon, Grease and Little Shop of Horrors, before landing the star-making role of drag queen Lola in Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s musical Kinky Boots in 2013. His performance won him the Tony for best lead actor in a musical, as well as the Grammy for best musical theatre album. “I was broke and unemployed for a long time,” he says of the wilderness years before his breakthrough. “Queer stories, particularly queer stories with people of colour, were not being told.”

Porter with actor Eva Reign on the set of ‘Anything’s Possible’ (Tony Rivetti)
Porter with actor Eva Reign on the set of ‘Anything’s Possible’ (Tony Rivetti)

Thankfully, in recent years that’s started to change. In 2018, Porter found a natural role as flamboyant MC Pray Tell in Ryan Murphy’s drama series Pose, set in the underground Ballroom scene of Eighties New York. Ballroom culture began when Black and Latino drag queens started organising their own pageants in opposition to the racism they experienced on the established pageant circuit. Porter won an Emmy for his performance, becoming the first openly gay Black man to win in any of the Emmys’ lead acting categories. The series was greatly inspired by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, a film Porter says gave him an early appreciation of the importance of on-screen representation. “Paris Is Burning was one of the first times that I saw myself reflected back,” says Porter, “and it was all trauma.” As well as celebrating the exuberant scene, Livingston’s film also explored the impact of HIV, racism, poverty, violence and homophobia. “I was in the middle of it, being on the frontlines during the Aids crisis, and it’s a film about a community that chooses life, love, chosen family and joy in spite of everything,” adds Porter. “That’s what I was personally able to latch on to and find hope inside of.”

Last year Porter revealed he is living with HIV. First diagnosed in 2007, he didn’t tell anyone for 14 years. His role on Pose became a proxy for what he wanted to say to the world. “I said when I first saw Paris Is Burning that these stories need to be kept alive,” he says. “It was a very niche, fringe movie. Not a lot of people knew about it. Thirty years later, to be able to tell that story [in Pose] as a HIV positive survivor… it’s like: ‘Why did I survive? Why am I still here? And so many of my friends and colleagues and mentors are not?’ I’m here to tell the story. That is profound, to me, and I do not take that responsibility lightly.”

Porter in his Emmy-winning role as Pray Tell in ‘Pose’ (Copyright 2021, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.)
Porter in his Emmy-winning role as Pray Tell in ‘Pose’ (Copyright 2021, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.)

Having witnessed an explosion in queer stories being told on screen, Porter says it’s important to make sure they’re not always the same one. “As a gay man, I got so sick of the ‘coming out story’,” he says with a wry smile. “I can’t see another coming out story.” His next project will see him return to acting in Bill Oliver’s Our Son. The film casts Porter and Welsh Beauty and the Beast heartthrob Luke Evans as husbands going through a divorce and fighting over the custody of their young son. When I ask what first attracted him to the project, Porter can’t resist. “First of all,” he says, peering over those thick black frames. “Have you seen Luke Evans?”

In truth, he quickly adds, he was signed on before Evans. As with Anything’s Possible, he sees it as a chance to explore new ground. “This is something we’ve never seen before,” he says. “It’s in the vein of Kramer vs Kramer meets Marriage Story, and it follows an interracial gay couple dealing with child custody and divorce. It’s the next layer of storytelling.”

We write, we speak, and this is how civilizations heal

Billy Porter

It’s also, he says, a story about hope. Just as with Anything’s Possible, which includes moments of transphobia but is very much, in Porter’s words, “not trauma porn”, he wants his work to offer a glimpse of light in the world. “In this time right now I’ve been really conscious about the positive, even with everything that’s going on,” explains Porter. “As artists, we have the power to heal. [Nobel Prize-winning author] Toni Morrison says, ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ There’s no room for fear. There’s no need for silence. We write, we speak, and this is how civilisations heal.”

For Porter, that encompasses acting, producing and singing, including on several original songs on the Anything’s Possible soundtrack. As you may have noted from his sensational red carpet appearances, he’s a man comfortable wearing many hats. “All of it, honey!” he beams. “I don’t put no boundaries on it!” He’s keen to get behind the camera again, of course. “I definitely want to direct a big budget musical,” he says. “An original musical of some sort.”

Having witnessed the entertainment industry transform beyond recognition in his own lifetime, Porter says that in the face of cultural pushback it’s important to remember how much society has evolved in the right direction. “A lot of times all you’re hearing is the negative, when in fact the reason for the pushback, the reason for the terror from the other side, is because the change has already happened. Progress has already happened,” he says. “Can we reframe it now? For me, that feels like an oxygen mask that I can put on myself and go, ‘Oh, right, the change has already happened.’ When I entered this business they told me my queerness would be my liability, and it was. For two decades. It’s not any more. It’s my superpower. That’s because: The. Change. Has. Already. Happened. So what are we going to do with that energy?”

Well, for Porter, Anything’s Possible.

‘Anything’s Possible’ is available to stream now on Prime Video