Billy Porter has come to redefine the industry and shatter every boundary and binary in his way. Though he’s been in the industry for over 30 years it’s only in the last few that this incredible star had been getting the recognition he deserves. A conscious choice made when Porter chose his authenticity over fame; a decision few would have had the tenacity to follow through on. But today his hard work, dedication, and unwavering moral stance have earned him the role of a lifetime. Starring as the enigmatic Pray Tell on the hit TV show Pose, Porter serves us Ballroom Culture realness as he emcee’s the nightly challenges. But before we get to that, let’s start back at Billy’s childhood. *And before we start. We do want to add a trigger warning as we will be discussing sexual abuse and trauma*.
Billy Porter’s Childhood
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 21, 1969, Porter grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood. While Billy’s father was abusive and eventually abandoned the family, his mother inspired him with her strength. Cloerinda Porter had been disabled due to medical malpractice.
Had she been white, it is most likely she would have been able to sue for compensation. However, as a young black woman in the 1940’s when the incident happened, Cloerinda instead lived the rest of her life with an undiagnosed neurological condition that caused her to walk with a gait. Still, she managed to support herself and her young son for several years.
But her disability limited her mobility and made life extremely difficult, and her blackness made government support limited and at times nonexistent.
In addition to her own limitations, Billy was also suspected of having a different type of disorder. This ‘mental illness’ was more nefarious and drenched in fear and stigma. His energetic and flamboyant personality caused people to pause and wonder about his so-called inclinations. He tells of how he was often bullied and of how a cousin threatened to kill him if he ever “turned gay”.
By age 6, Billy was forced to undergo weekly evaluations by a psychologist to determine if there was something wrong with him. He describes in his oped with Out Magazine how he understood that his desires for other boys and his enjoyment of things feminine were something his religious family frowned upon.
Being very smart and quick to catch on, Billy was able to tailor his answers to eventually pass the evaluation. There was also a sincere desire to be good and do good in the eyes of his family. A natural inclination of any child is to please those they love and to seek validation.
Still, it was suggested that a man in Billy’s life may help to toughen him up. So when Porter was seven his mother became Cloerinda Johnson and the two moved in with Billy’s new stepfather. Sadly, from ages 7 to 12 Billy was molested and sexually assaulted by his stepfather. Today Porter is very open about his story and has since become an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. But at the time he felt alone, unable to find help and safety. He says of this time:
“At seven, at twelve, I could look around and see all of these adults with no capacity to do anything to help me. I knew there’s not an adult around me that knows what the fuck to do. I will do it myself.” [source – Esquire]
Little Preacher Man
What stung the most was the way Billy was both praised and yet rejected by his House of Faith. On the one hand, he was nicknamed ‘little preacher man’ and constantly told that one day he would fill a pulpit. His beautiful voice rang through the congregation and gospel hymns were the first songs he was allowed to listen to and sing. And as a young boy, he did occasionally preach a sermon or two. It’s an odd practice that some churches have where small children are brought up and allowed to preach. Most of the time the children have no idea what they’re even saying but they get a taste of that glory heaped upon preacher boys in these environments.
Yet, on the other hand, he was constantly critiqued for being too feminine. And he heard the traditional messages that gay people were going to hell. His personality made him both liked and scorned at the same time. Another observation of this odd dichotomy was made by journalist Justin Kirkland in his Esquire article on Porter:
The church has a funny way of doing that with exuberant young men who also happen to be gay. The pageantry and excitement left unchanneled could lead to unwanted questions, but if that radiance gets focused into ministry, it’s permissible. In other words: If you’re going to be flamboyant, at least do it for the Lord.
The freedom of theater
Afraid of being swallowed in the darkness at home, Billy found an out in the theater. By age 15 he was performing in the local Kennywood Amusement Park. His salary and the demands on the job allowed him to move into a hotel during the summer months. And during the school year, he left early in the morning, went straight to rehearsal after school, then arrived home late at night and locked himself in his room.
He told his mother once of the abuse. She believed him, but she never left her son’s abuser. Billy told her to stay. Not only did her disability limit her but Cloerinda and Billy’s stepfather had since had a little girl together. “I told her to stay.” he said, “I would save myself. What else were we gonna do?”
For the next two years, he was able to avoid his stepfather for the most part and things continued on as if the secret had never come out. Then one day he returned home past curfew and a fight broke out between Billy and his mother. When his abuser emerged from a room with a belt and began to whip Billy.
Cloerinda intervened and finally confronted her husband about his sexual assault. The stepfather lied, telling his wife that there was something ‘off’ about Billy just like everyone had always said. Porter was tired of trying to be ‘good’, in other words, straight. And he could no longer take the abuse and the trauma of living with his molester. So he moved out of the house at age 17 and never went back until his stepfather died of a heart attack 3 years later.
Porter laid the story down in graphic detail in his oped. It’s hard to read and shows the immense pain endured during this time period. He also speaks frankly of how survivors of sexual assault struggle to reconcile their belief that they lead their abuser on or that they wanted the abuse to happen. Billy even called his assault an affair for many years. In his searing article he articulated the feeling:
Yeah – can you believe that shit? I called it an affair for 20-years before my therapist helped me change the language.
“Seven-year-old boys do not have affairs with 50-year-old men. It’s called sexual abuse. Plain and simple.”
And for those of you who like to conflate being gay with sexual abuse or having a weak mother figure or any of that nonsense – let’s be clear, my mother is anything but weak and I was molested because the predator knew I was already gay, so stop it! [source – Out]
He continued on to tell of the last few moments at his dying step father’s bedside and the intense emotions that followed for years.
My mother begged me to “be a Christian” and go to the hospital to maybe have a rapprochement. I begrudgingly decided it was the right thing to do so I went to visit him on my lunch break from school. I literally had not laid eyes on the man in over a year and some change. His demeanor was different. He seemed pensive. Remorseful even. He told me he was proud of me. He told me to not let anyone change who I am. Ummm…da fuck…? I left that hospital dazed and confused yet hopeful, I guess. In less than 24-hours later he was dead.
The words spill over into a poem of the rage and anger that so many survivors have felt.
I don’t have nightmares much anymore – really,
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it.
Every choice, every decision, every relationship, every fucking breath I take…
Then he died.
The motherfucker died before I had a chance for resolve.
I hate him for that!
I hate him for robbing me.
He dumped his shit on me and then disappeared.
Now it’s my shit!
And WE have to live with it.
The Sins of the Father…
The hate consumes me with a power that paralyzes.
I’m better sometimes.
I have really great days,
I have really bad ones.
Trying to sort things out.
PLEASURE turned to SHAME turned to RAGE.
I understand now how people lose their minds.
I understand the addict who needs a fix ’cause he just wants the pain to go away,
Or to subside at the very least
And just when I think it’s over…
Every time I feel like I’ve made progress –
Forgiving the world, the universe,
The shit comes back…
Morphing into yet another terrifying monster,
Coming for me bigger and stronger than the time before,
laughing at me, just laughing… [source- Out]
Powerful prose that radiates with the anger and anguish one suffers when trauma is inflicted upon them. And this could have been the end of Billy Porter’s story. He could have resigned himself away from the public to sit in his wounds and he would have had the right. Yet he pushed through and in his journey found a deeper understanding and appreciation for himself. No doubt, it contributed to his firm resolution to live in truth. In Porter’s own words he states:
“I’m just saying that I wish more young people could get to the space of I don’t need your tolerance, I don’t need your acceptance. What I demand is your respect for my humanity.”
While it may not have seemed so at the time, the death of Billy’s stepfather seems to have set him free. He had enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh after graduating high school. Then, after earning his undergrad degree in Fine Arts he went off for his masters at UCLA. While Porter recognizes that a college degree isn’t necessary for success, he also points out how marginalized people have to stack their resumes for the bare minimum recognition.
“I didn’t have the same kind of opportunities as my white counterparts who were famous 20 years before I got this opportunity — because they’re white,” he explained in an interview with Metrosource. “So I needed to back my s**t up with real stuff…..When I walk into the room with an undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon, a graduate degree from UCLA and two honorary bachelor’s degrees, white people listen to me. Period. You’ve gotta know what the game is.”
Billy Porter hits Broadway
With his schooling behind him, Billy hit the stage on Broadway in 1994 scoring a small role as a teen Angel in the reboot of Grease. For the next 20 years, he consistently worked yet gained little attention or acclaim for his performances. Starring in numerous plays and a few movies, providing back up vocals, covering popular songs, even appearing on RuPaul in 1999.
Then in 2005 his one-person autobiographical show “Ghetto Superstar; The Man that I Am” earned him a GLAAD Media Award. And finally started a slow shift in his acting career. His 2010 performance in the popular play Angels in America was a full-circle moment for Billy Porter.
Twenty years earlier the budding actor had sat in the seats of the Walter Kerr Theater watching the new play in town. This one hit home as it addressed the AIDS crisis engulfing the nation at the time and gay community struggling for survival. More poignantly it spoke to deeper issues. Porter would tell the New York Times.
“When the curtain fell, I sat weeping in my seat. The house manager had to peel me out and escort me to the street. I was so moved because, after watching the character of Belize, I realized I had never seen an image of myself reflected at me in any way, in any positive form — ever. Belize was a black gay man who was not the butt of a joke, or the reviled one, or the one to be to be pitied or killed. He was the voice of reason. He was the spiritual and moral compass guiding all the white folks to some sort of peace in the midst of the storm that was our plague. I thought: “This is me. And nobody knows …” [source – NY Times]
That moment Billy Porter decided to stop taking roles that degraded and mocked queer people and people of color. “Six years passed.” He told the Times: “Clown-game offers abounded, but when I demanded to be seen as a three-dimensional human being, the work dried up. The pigeonhole I had put myself into was so tight that I was shut out of even auditions for anything of substance.” Eventually, Porter left Broadway, refusing to take part in the games and dehumanization. Until finally, over a decade later Billy would return and play the role of Belize in the 20th Anniversary production of Angels in America.
And that was just the beginning. Staying true to himself, Billy originated the role of Lola in the smashing hit Kinky Boots. He knew this was his shot to introduce a new gay character to the world. And he understood the gravity of making sure the world did not mistake Lola as a straight man or a person ashamed of their identity. So he made the character as gay as he could, ‘super gay’ to be exact. And laid out his reasons clearly.
“For me having gone through all of the things that I went through in my life — choosing myself, choosing my sanity over my fame, choosing my authenticity and taking all the hits that come with that to finally get my shot — to be starring in a Broadway show as a drag queen and say that that character is straight would be irresponsible of me,” [source – The List]
His patience and dedication to his identity and his community paid off. Porter would go on to win a Tony for his performance as Lola and later a Grammy for the musicals soundtrack. He also began to finally be seen for who he was by both Hollywood and Broadway. And was inspired to follow a new dream which was to work for Ryan Murphy.
Billy Porter in Pose
When buzz of a new show about ballroom culture and queer people of color began to swirl, Billy went in for a reading. Originally auditioning for the part of a house mother on the unconventional and daring show, Pose. And was taken back when they told him he wasn’t the kind of person they had in mind for the role.
Yet Billy Porter knew this was the show for him. This was a show ABOUT him and the many queer and genderfluid black and brown people overlooked by society. Those who found solace and comfort in the ballroom scene and a place where they could truly express themselves.
“listen: I lived through this era. I think it would serve everybody if I was in that world because I’m from that world.”
He told casting directors before leaving the set. So they called him back to have a chat with one of the head producers himself, Ryan Murphy.
Porter wholeheartedly supported Murphy’s plan to uplift transgender women on the show. He saw the importance and significance of this bold step. So he countered with another argument:
“I said, ‘That’s an amazing idea, but they’re going to need a father figure,” Porter recalls. “They’re going to need a male energy over there, right? Like a godfather, and there wasn’t one. There wasn’t a male leading man in the show. There was a lead boy, but not a grown man. So he called me in for a meeting and I just sat and talked to him. And so we talked about the emcee, and he had five lines in the first episode and it was not a character. And so he said, ‘Come in and I’ll create something for you.’ So that’s how it came about.” [source – Metrosource]
And the rest is history. Pose has defied every standard and every law creating a legacy that will last forever in television history. Janet Mock became the first trans woman of color hired to write for a TV series and the first to direct on a series. Her influence is directly responsible for the empowering and strong characters portrayed in the show. With season three set to air this year, the production has hired over 140 LGBTQ individuals and boasts the largest transgender roster of any show ever.
But even more exciting is how incredibly exceptional the show is all around. From the sets and designs to the acting and music, everything on Pose screams success. It’s almost as if it was a genius idea to allow queer people of color to portray their own culture. A concept that has taken 100 years of the film industry for directors and producers to finally catch on.
Award winning actor and fashion icon
And as for his self-made role? Billy Porter would go on to win an Emmy in 2019 for his role as legendary Emcee, Pray Tell. Becoming the first openly gay black man to ever do so. And he has been nominated both years for an Oscar. Meaning he is one letter away from the industries coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). And what’s really thrilling for everyone else is getting to regularly see Porter on the red carpets in all his glory.
Finally being appreciated for his flamboyance and grace, Billy has stolen the show each time he’s graced an event. Wowing audiences with fearless fashion that defies gender norms. From his golden winged ensemble at the Met Gala last year to his red Uterus suit to his bold tuxedo ball gown, every step of the way he raises the standard in fashion.
Yet he makes it clear that this isn’t about drag, a common misconception thought among many people. “I’m not a drag queen, I’m a man in a dress!” He writes in a piece for Vogue.
“When I landed a role in Kinky Boots, the experience really grounded me in a way that was so unexpected. Putting on those heels made me feel the most masculine I’ve ever felt in my life. It was empowering to let that part of myself free.
My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up. To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean? Women show up every day in pants, but the minute a man wears a dress, the seas part. It happened to me at the Golden Globes [when I wore a pink cape], and I was like, really? Y’all trippin’? I stopped traffic! That Globes outfit changed everything for me. I had the courage to push the status quo. I believe men on the red carpet would love to play more. This industry masquerades itself as inclusive, but actors are afraid to play, because if they show up as something outside of the status quo, they might be received as feminine, and, as a result, they won’t get that masculine job, that superhero job. And that’s the truth.” [source – Vogue]
Like so many before him, Porter found freedom in breaking the binaries of expression. As we’ve discussed many times, there are gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. And often, we can get caught up in the stereotypes of who should dress and act which way. Or we buy into the lie that once a person expresses themselves one way they can’t go back and express themselves another way. Once an individual declares their orientation, that descriptor cannot evolve or change.
In reality, queerness is all about change and evolving. Porter’s own story reminds us that Billy Porter identifying as a gay man with a gender-fluid expression is exactly who Billy Porter is at this moment. His identity could have always been this way and also his verbiage or identifiers could evolve in the future.
In the queer world, and hopefully, in every other world, we make space and embrace this bold defiance of binaries and standards. Roles meant to keep folks in line and to deny their authenticity. A word that has come to define Billy Porter. Today he continues to march through expectations and barriers on every side.
Porter sets an example for any person willing to listen and observe. But the question is, will we allow ourselves to grow? Will we fight against the hate? Will we continue to uplift those brushed aside by society? We will look at tragedy and rejection and stand resolute in truth? From a child pushed to join a faith that rejected him, to a man confident in who he is, Porter states his life purpose simply:
“[Today] My ministry is something different,” he says. “It’s authenticity in the face of abject oppression and phobia.” [source – Metrosource]
Your recommended resource is any of the following, watching the show Pose (season one is available on Netflix). Listening to the soundtrack of Kinky Boots on Spotify. Browsing Billy Porter’s incredible red carpet looks online. Or, you can read his oped in Out Magazine, though we do warn that it is very graphic and could be triggering.
- The List – https://www.thelist.com/168661/the-untold-truth-of-billy-porter/
- Out Magazine – https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2018/10/31/pose-star-billy-porter-reveals-past-sexual-abuse-searing-op-ed
- Esquire Magazine – https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27817829/billy-porter-pose-interview-2019/
- Ballroom Culture – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_culture
- Porter Wiki – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Porter_(entertainer)#Personal_life
- Metrosource – https://metrosource.com/interview-billy-porter-pose/
- New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/theater/billy-porter-the-first-time-i-refused-to-keep-playing-a-stereotype.html
- Vogue – https://www.vogue.com/article/billy-porter-oscars-red-carpet-gown-christian-sirian