By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Shavonne Wong and Into Action
“Now that I have a massive platform, and now that the people want to listen to the Black sissy, I’m gonna talk,” Billy Porter says, fired up, leaning into the camera. On Zoom, Porter commands a computer screen like he does a red carpet.
In this particular moment, his fiery passion stems from a call he received from screenwriter-actress Lena Waithe, who raised an eyebrow after Porter made history as Essence’s first openly gay man to grace the magazine’s cover. Porter says Waithe got him on the phone to talk about the anonymous letter written by current and former Essence staffers calling themselves “Black Female Anonymous.” The letter was published on Medium on June 28 and called out the magazine for its toxic work environment, just before Porter’s cover story hit newsstands. “I had to stop her,” he says. “I said, ‘I hear you, I see you, I feel you.’”
But Porter simply didn’t know about the letter, he says. Until she called, he hadn’t even seen it. “I don’t give a fuck about social media,” he scoffs, talking about his refusal to be engaged on social platforms. “I don’t adjudicate my life or humanity in sound bites on social media. I don’t fight with nobody, I don’t have Twitter fights.”
The reason, he says, is “I’m 50 years old. Everybody has to remember that I built a career before social media.”
Porter’s mainstream breakthrough, playing ball emcee Pray Tell on FX’s trans-centric series Pose, is an accumulation of dedication to his craft as a singer and actor that began in his 20s in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He released solo albums that weren’t widely known. He met music industry standards for Black artists (you had to be R&B). And then, later, he dismantled those standards (he could sing show tunes, and did). In 2013, he originated the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, which led to both a Tony and Grammy award.
In September 2019, Porter made history as the first openly Black gay man to win in any lead acting category at the Emmys for his role on Pose. Though winners won’t be announced until Sept. 20, Porter recently received another nomination for his portrayal of Pray Tell.
Despite the pandemic, Porter is remaining prolific. He recorded an updated version of the 1966 protest song “For What It’s Worth,” which he performed on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, to address our current political landscape; he’s also featured on The Shapeshifters’ disco number “Finally Ready,” which reflects, in part, his decades-long journey living through the AIDS crisis. He’s writing two books, his memoir and a children’s picture book. He also has starring roles in two upcoming films: a live-action Cinderella remake, as the Fairy Godmother, and in out Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti’s big-screen take on Little Shop of Horrors.
My recent interview with Porter was scheduled as an audio-only Zoom call, but because not even Porter’s handlers can stop Porter from setting his own rules, he appears on video in a caftan, casually eating in a rented beach house. A bag with “Vote Betches” written on it is propped up in back of him. Expecting to see none of this, I’m in the clothes I went to bed in: a tank top and sweat shorts, with a hat I threw on. I tell Porter that I thought this was an audio-only interview. Porter responds incredulously; he can’t understand why anyone in their right mind would not use the video feature. “We have Zoom! Why are we not doing Zoom?”
I leap out of my computer chair and run to the closet in back of me, throwing on the first shirt I see. I realize in that moment that Emmy winner Billy Porter is watching me get dressed. “There is no need for you to put a shirt on for me,” he says with a playful smirk.
It’s early July when we speak, and our interview knows no bounds: from Buddhism, which Porter practices now, to how, even with notoriety, Porter still experiences racism in his everyday life, especially from those within the LGBTQ community. He laid bare his beliefs and opinions, and went off on a variety of other topics too because talking about them, he says, with a rip-roaring laugh, “helps me stay sane.”
I read that you’ve gotten into Buddhism.
Lightly. I’m still learning.
What have you learned, and what drew you to the practice?
What has drawn me to the practice is that it’s a revolt against religion. Religion is man-made. Spirituality is divine. All of the wars that have existed in this world, all of the bullshit that we go through, is in the name of somebody’s man-made God. And I’m over it. I’m just over it.
I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. They systematically taught parishioners how to hate, disguising it through Bible verses. We’re living in a country right now that is being run by people who say they’re Christians and believe in Jesus and God, and they’re letting people die in the streets. That is not God. That is not Jesus. Y’all can take your Bibles and your religion and shove it. I am so done.
I had people actually say to me back in the day that they were voting for Trump because of his religious values. That motherfucker has been in the church three times, for his three marriages. That’s it. And yet we still sit here every single day and talk about morals. I can’t do it anymore.
Buddhism says life is suffering. That’s useful to me. You’re not going to get out of life without suffering. That takes me to radical acceptance, that takes me to radical compassion, which allows for me to have a foundation where I can feel what I feel and simultaneously be empowered to be a part of a movement for something different. Otherwise, I am useless.
You’re a success story. And despite your success and the fact that you are an openly gay leading man and you’ve won major awards and shattered the glass ceiling for queer Black people, you’re still a gay Black man in America right now.
I’m Black first. Which I have to remind my own people of, by the by. But keep going. Ask me the question.
What experiences of yours as a Black gay man might surprise people who look at you and think, “He’s famous, he’s good, he doesn’t have anything to worry about”?
We were out on Long Island and we were meeting some friends of ours for a social-distance walk at this place called the Hog Farm. I pulled in with my husband (Adam Smith). It looked like private property to me. No signs, no real parking lot. There was a farm stand. It looked like a farmer’s market, and there was no one there. And my friends weren’t there and they texted and said they were late. So we sat there for a minute. Then out of nowhere a little white girl comes flouncing out, and she looks around and sees the car, and then she goes back to wherever she came from. I don’t know where it was. I didn’t see any doors. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was immediately filled with anxiety because: Where is she going? Where is this little white girl going? And who is she telling that there’s a Black man sitting out front on our property in a BMW? Never mind my white husband beside me. There’s a Black man. That’s where I live. Every day, all day. That’s before the gay. So I deal with that, and then I turn around and my own people are just as violent toward me.
So, I’ve never had anywhere to go. I’ve never really had a place where I have felt comfortable and embraced fully by any community. The racism that exists in the LGBTQ community is at the top of the list. They’re fucking racists just like everybody else. Inside that community, there’s racism. And inside the Black community, there’s homophobia.
Where are you going now as far as music? What do you listen to get you through the moment and help you recharge?
I’m in the middle of trying to figure out what that is. Music was and still is very healing to me. As I reenter the mainstream music market, I’m going back to disco, back to house, back to ’70s funk.
Sylvester. I’m trying to pick up the torch from where he left off when he passed way too soon. Because there’s something healing inside of that energy, inside of that space as a 50-year-old Black man who came out in the ’80s. We went to the clubs to find fellowship, we went to the clubs to heal collectively, we went to the clubs to party on the weekends so that we could shake the terror and the anxiety and the pain of just having gone to five memorials that week for friends who passed away in their 20s, in a world where nobody cared about you. The government didn’t care about us. (They thought) we deserved to die simply because of who we are. Something about this coronavirus is mirroring it, mirroring that, giving me a lot of anxiety, a lot of PTSD.
The last time we spoke, you told me you were working on a contemporary gospel-musical about your experience of surviving the AIDS epidemic.
I am still.
As you work on that while living through another pandemic, what is that experience like for you?
I am just trying to get a handle on the full landscape. This time it’s different. And first of all, the reason why we’re in the position that we’re in in terms of this pandemic is due to whiteness. It’s due to white supremacy. It’s due to the fact that everybody knew going in that Orangina 45 was not the choice. But whiteness overrode any consequences – that’s not quite the word. It overrode anything, because, “It’s still Republican, it’s still white, and whatever he’s doing, he’s doing what we want to get done so it’s not so bad. We’ll just deal with him for four years, get all of this shit we want to get done, done: appointing the courts, taking away healthcare from citizens, rolling back all of the work that we’ve fought for the last 400 years. Let’s just roll all of that back. Because we know we can’t stop it, but we can roll it back enough that it will take another 40 years to get back to where we’ve already gotten, or more. So let’s just roll everything back.” He represented that to white people.
It was at the expense of anyone who’s not a white straight man in this country.
Right. So he can look at this administration and have the anemic response that he had and allow this country to continue to sink because in the sinking, whatever it was, whatever this bitch does, was never gonna affect him.
Now we’re 50 million unemployed, motherfuckers are in the street every day, 60,000 cases of the virus that could have been contained, and in an economy that’s tanking but we’re still, in our whiteness, talking about books on the news that are written about him by his niece.
In 2014, I asked you if you were the kind of artist you want to be. You said, “I’m not sure that there is ever a scenario where I will feel like I have arrived or like I’ve made it.” Can you answer that more definitively now?
Yeah. I have made it. I’m leaning into that, with as much grace and humility as I can. And I’m trying to use the space that I’ve created for myself to re-enter the music industry in the mainstream on my terms. That’s what I’m working on. And the two singles that I have out right now, which may seem diametrically opposed, are exactly who I am.
“For What It’s Worth” was written in 1966, but is obviously still relevant today. What memory do you have of hearing Buffalo Springfield’s version for the first time?
It’s so ubiquitous, I don’t have a memory of the first time. It’s everywhere, it’s always been everywhere. Any war movie you watch, that’s what they play. It’s just been that for the whole time. So I don’t have a first time, but I do know when my manager suggested it I had to look at it and look at the lyrics and figure out, because I hadn’t really listened to the lyrics: What does this mean to me today? How do we take this song and make sure we’re speaking in the present? And not just as an observer, because it’s a very observational lyric, but how do we ignite the spirit of engagement and change with this song? And so that was the goal for that one. I recorded that the day after the Emmys, before all of this mess was happening. So my goal was to always have this ready for this political season.
The time seems ripe for an entire Billy Porter protest album. Have you considered recording one?
There is no music from Billy Porter without hope and without protest. It all is that. And I’m working on that new album right now. I’m signing a new deal right now. And I have some shit to say. It’ll be protest, it’ll be dance, it’ll be love, it’ll be all of it. Because those are all the things that I am. I no longer have to compartmentalize the wholeness and the fullness of myself anymore. I don’t have to do that anymore.
What advice do you have for Black LGBTQ people who are still pushing against an oppressive society that doesn’t allow them to be exactly who they want to be?
Don’t wait for anybody to give you permission to be who you are. Just be it. Just be it and let those motherfuckers catch up. I said, “When you catch up, you’ll figure it out.” But that’s not my journey. Y’all need to catch up. I’m not the problem. We have to stop thinking that we’re the problem. We’re made to feel like we’re the problem and we need to be fixed. No. Y’all are the problem. If you have a problem with my authenticity, that’s your stuff that I will no longer take on or receive, and I’m going to make sure that I sit in the fullness of myself and give that 100 percent, no matter where the chips may fall.
And I’m living proof that that actually works out. It’s not fast. It’s not always fast. And I think that’s a lot of the problem: that we have gotten more and more microwavable in the way we live, in our expectations. We live this microwaved life; everything is instantaneous. It’s like, I’m 50 fucking years old, y’all. I’ve been doing this since 1985.
Do people realize that you had to put that time in before you became Emmy winner Billy Porter?
No, they don’t. Because I’m Black and Black don’t crack. It’s all good. But like, no, I’m 50. And as a result of that I have no more time to give any fucks about what other people think about what I’m doing. I don’t have time. I am middle-aged! Ha! I have to say exactly what I want to say and do exactly what I want to do. Period.
Reflecting on Kinky Boots and Pose, how do you think those projects changed the conversation when it comes to LGBTQ communities of color?
Well, there are Black people in these spaces. When the LGBTQ stories started being told in the mainstream, it was all about white people. Always. I’m still waiting for my guest spot on Will & Grace. Still.
Have you auditioned?
Never a call, never a thought. Never anything. I’m not saying this because I’m angry about it or I’m trying to call them out or anything. We write what we know, and what those white people knew was white people and that’s what they wrote about. So now, I’m in a position of power and I’m gonna write about my people. I’m going to do it about myself.
You wrote a TV pilot.
I’ve written several things, but yes, most recently I’ve written a pilot. I’m writing my memoir. It’s in my hands. I can’t wait for other people to give me permission, I can’t wait for other people in positions of power to validate me. I can’t wait to be invited to the table. I’m at the table. I crashed the party. I’m at the table. Here I am.
That’s how you got to where you are – you kept crashing the table.
I crashed the party. I crashed the dinner party. And I’ma keep doing that.
I think the deadline for the memoir is in October, right?
You really do your research.
What can you share about it with me at this point?
It’s in transition. What’s really interesting is that, because of COVID, because of the lockdown, because of the work that I’ve been doing in lockdown on myself, it’s not a memoir just about recounting my disappointments and my successes. It’s deeper than that. And I’m trying to figure out what that is. And I’m just trying to allow myself to let it come and not be so Virgo about it, so planned about it. It’s like, yeah, I wrote the proposal; but what I’m feeling in my spirit is connected to that but also much deeper and much different than what it originally started out to be. So I’m literally in the space of trying to just let it come.
Is it tough to keep up with what’s happening internally at this moment while working to meet your October deadline, as we move through the Black Lives Matter movement?
(Sarcastically.) Oh, it was easier to deal with it until you have brought it up three times today.
I was actually doin’ all right until the three times you brought it up today.
I’ve triggered you is what you’re saying.
Yes, you have! No, it’s all good. I’m just trying to be compassionate with myself and give myself the space to be wherever I am emotionally – to be wherever I am spiritually, to be wherever I am creatively and move through it, not compartmentalize it, not put the pain away, not ignore it. None of that. Move right directly through all of it. That’s what I’m trying to do.
You recently got some backlash for telling Black people to stop killing Black trans people. How do you respond to those who have an issue with what you said?
The African American community’s relationship to the LGBTQ community is horrible. It always has been. The Black community is the most homophobic, in my experience, and so the backlash was not a surprise to me. And I was called out by some friends – some really lovely friends – who said in this moment of heightened sensitivity the specificity of language is very important. I said “Black people.” I didn’t say homophobic Black people. I didn’t say homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic Black people. So I actually recorded an addendum to my message so that I could deal with the semantics of that. Even though y’all know what I’m talking about, I will deal with the semantics of it in this moment.
Please understand: I hear you, I will be more specific on who I’m calling out. I’m calling out homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic Black people who are in the streets killing their own. That’s who I’m calling out. And I meant it. I am comparing it to white supremacy. I am because it is. Everybody has to look in the mirror at themselves. We all have to do it. We all have blind spots. The blind spot in the African American community, one of them, is that. It is. I created a simple do-unto-others metaphor that people had problems with. If you have a problem with it, you need to look at yourself and ask yourself why you have a problem with that.
One of the things my friend told me – because I don’t read comments – was that with all of the pushback, there was pushback to the pushback, (people) saying, “But did he lie?” That was a phrase that I heard that kept coming up in these comments when people were trying to drag me. I’m not lying. Deal with it however you want to. But this is the truth. And I’m a truth-teller.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.