The roads that led to Billy Porter: How Black queer artists set the stage for the actor to shine

LGBTQ Entertainment News


Last September, actor-musician Billy Porter shared a few choice words with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) while speaking at the Stonewall National Education Project’s “Back to the Drive Celebration” in Florida. 

Porter was speaking against DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay Law,” which prohibits classroom instruction on LGBTQ+ identities through 12th grade. 

“Whatever this fight is — and I can talk about DeSantis because I am down here — GAY, GAY, GAY! Yes, we will always say gay,” Porter said. “I don’t know what he is trying to do, but it will never work. Because he has to meet me. Bring it!”

Porter has always spoken up for the LGBTQ+ community and has long cemented himself as a cultural icon. But a lot had to happen to reach a point where an actor like Porter, who wears elaborate gender-bending outfits and speaks openly about his battle with HIV, could rise to such mainstream prominence.

Why we celebrate

About half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Black History Month was born. 

In September 1915, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodsen and prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by African-Americans and people of African descent. 

The same organization, now known as the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), held its very first Negro History Week during the second week of February in 1926. 

Schools and communities nationwide organized celebrations, performances, and lectures to celebrate Negro History Week. The event was such a success that it became an annual call for celebration. 

Each year after that, Negro History Week was celebrated around the same time, and by the 1960s it had fully metamorphosized into Black History Month. 

We now celebrate Black History Month according to its theme. This year’s theme is African-Americans and The Arts.

The rise of Black queer performers

Though only making up about 6% of the characters portrayed on television between 1955 and 1986, Black folks have appeared on television since its inception. 

Because queerness of any kind was considered a perversion at TV’s launch, queer representation on television was scarce and limited to white men. Black queer characters —like Bobby McCoy from Blacula, played by Ted Harris — didn’t make their debut until the 1970s.

Back then, Hollywood actors, both gay and straight, were unwilling to play gay characters for fear they would be typecast in those roles and their careers ruined as a result. 

If an actor was indeed brave enough to play a gay character, the character would be portrayed in a negative light. In Blacula, Bobby and his lover were dismissed as “f***ots.” 

Black folks only became more widely known in music in the late 19th century, with George W. Johnson being named one of the earliest Black recording artists in 1890.

An influx of Black queer musicians emerged around the 1970s and played a massive role in the growth of Electric, House, and Disco (the same genres favored at underground queer clubs during the infamous drag ballroom “house” culture of the 1980s). 

One could argue that the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, spearheaded by Marsha P. Johnson, opened the door for queer representation in television and music. They took place just a few years before it became more common to see queer folks performing in various mediums.

Since then, we’ve not only witnessed a surge in Black queer representation in the arts, but Black queer representation in both supporting and leading roles, too.

In 1996, for example, Queen Latifah played Cleo, a tough lesbian who decides to rob a bank with her friends in Set It Off. People like her set the stage for the rise of Billy Porter, paving the way for a gay African-American actor, musician and LGBTQ+ activist, to flourish. 

Strike a pose

Porter was born on September 21st, 1969 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, as well as the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he studied acting, music, and dance. He later attended Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in Pittsburgh, graduating in 1991.

In 1991, Porter made his Broadway debut in a production of Miss Saigon. He amassed three Tony Awards that same year and a Grammy in the years to follow. 

Porter pursued a career in the music industry after winning the 1992 season of the talent competition Star Search. He released a self-titled R&B album in 1997 with A&M Records and has since released four more albums.

In 2000, he took a break from acting but returned in the mid-2010s. He has since starred in the most popular LGBTQ+ series to date, Pose. 

The series follows the lives of queer people living in New York during the height of ballroom culture and the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. Pose was the first series to not only have a Black trans woman as a lead character but also a cast of mostly Black trans women and queer men.

Porter’s performance as Pray Tell in this series led to him becoming the first Black gay man to be nominated for an Emmy and also to win. 

Having amassed so much success and respect, Porter now uses his platform to speak on issues near and dear to him. 

His love for activism started in his late teens when he joined his cast mates from a Montclair State University production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for New York City Pride. 

He marched alongside an organization that combats AIDS, and as he told Forward Times, Porter didn’t know what the group was at the time, only that he needed to be there. 

It was the nonprofit organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that would teach young Porter the importance of being an activist and how to show up.

Since then, Porter has used his platform to voice his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the LGBTQ+ community. 

In June 2020, Porter not only made his support of the Black Lives Matter movement clear, but he also expressed that his definition of protecting Black lives included queer folk too. 

In a video uploaded to Instagram, Porter called out Black people for their ill-treatment of queer folk.

“And Black people hear me, ‘cause y’all ain’t gone like this one,” Porter starts. “The Black community’s relationship with the LGBTQ community is appalling — at best. And eerily similar to that of White Supremacists versus Black folks. I’m calling y’all out! Right here and right now! You cannot expect our demands of equality to be met with any real legislative policy and change when y’all turn around and inflict the same kind of hate and oppression on us.” 

“LGBTQ+ Black folks are Black people, too!” Porter goes on to say. “Our lives matter, too! So this is my response to those of y’all who don’t understand that: F**k you! And, yes, I am cussing. It’s time for cussing.”

In addition to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Porter also makes donations to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Planned Parenthood, and Sierra Club. 

He has won the GLAAD Vito Russo award for making a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the Elizabeth Taylor Commitment to End AIDS award.

Porter not only believes in engaging in direct forms of activism, but activism through art as well.

Fashion is one way Porter communicates his activism. He believes in challenging the status quo by donning ever-more expressive clothing that challenges gender norms. 

Porter also believes in using media to accomplish change. Equal, a 2020 four-part documentary narrated by Porter himself, chronicles the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement leading up to the Stonewall Riots. To quote Porter, this documentary was meant to “activate” the public ahead of a presidential election.

It’s thanks to the queer aunties and uncles that came before and broke through barriers that we have Black queer artists/activists like Billy Porter. It’s why we have artists like Garren Keith Gaynor, Chris Witherspoon, Laverne Cox, and Lena Waithe. 

Beyond the folks cemented in history, if it weren’t for Porter’s supportive mother, Cloerinda Ford, cheering him on throughout his youth, as well as his big breaks on Broadway and Star Search, the world probably wouldn’t know this beautiful soul. And he would not have accomplished all that he has. 

Porter’s activism has earned him the respect of queer and straight folk alike. The depth of his compassion is only matched by his fierce talent. 

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