Once upon a time, Billy Porter was told to keep his mouth shut.
In the ‘90s, as a young hopeful in a recording industry riddled with homophobia, his label had him under strict instruction to stay quiet, for fear that detection as a gay man would derail his career before it started.
That career faltered, but Porter did not. He went on to have a successful future as a theater performer, culminating in his win of both a Tony and Grammy Award for his performance in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots” in 2013. Now, even while continuing to act (as well as write and direct), he has made a return to the recording studio – his most recent album, “Billy Porter Presents the Soul of Richard Rodgers,” debuted last year, and on June 2 he brings those songs (as well as other material – “the full Billy Porter concert experience,” as he puts it) to the Soraya at Cal State Northridge (18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, Calif.) for a live performance.
“Getting back onstage and performing for people in concert, it was really amazing to remember, ‘You know, I love doing that!’ I had been so damaged by the record business that I had put that side of myself in a box – for many, many years,” Porter says.
Still, he doesn’t really have any regrets.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because at the end of the day, I failed – and I put ‘failed’ in quotes, because nothing is really a failure if you learn something from it. When I had my record deal, I gave myself away until I had given everything – and when it imploded, I wasn’t even being myself. That’s never going to happen again,” Porter explains.
He’s already proven that he means it. His stardom has given him a platform from which he has become a much-lauded advocate for the LGBTQ community; earlier this month he was honored by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles with their Courageous Voice Award, and in 2017 he received GLAAD’s Vito Rossi Award – bestowed on out members of the media for promoting acceptance. In his speech at that ceremony, he emphasized the importance of out artists using their voices to speak truth to power, saying that the days of “shut up and sing” are over.
He doubles down on that sentiment today.
“It’s not just ‘shut up and sing.’ Really, it’s just ‘shut up.’ It’s institutionalized silencing, and people want to act like it’s normal. No! We did that already. We’re not doing it again, not without a fight. At least, I’m not. Visibility matters. We continue to be marginalized if we stay in the shadows and act like our truth isn’t important to be told,” Porter says.
Telling that truth is a central focus of Porter’s upcoming role on “Pose,” the highly-anticipated Ryan Murphy series for FX, which premieres on June 3 and looks at life in the mid-‘80s underground ballroom scene of New York City.
“I play the character of Pray Tell, the M.C. of the balls – I’m the one that keeps the room spinning, and I make sure it is warm and welcoming, because I’m essentially the godfather of the entire community. I love my children, and I chastise them, and I set ‘em straight. I smack ‘em back when I need to. It’s a great responsibility because they look to me for enlightenment,” Porter says.
The ballroom culture was, of course, famously explored in the iconic 1990 documentary, “Paris is Burning” – a movie which had an impact on Porter.
“That film came out when I was in college, and it was the first time that we had seen anybody who looked like us – and I mean people-of-color gays, not white gays,” Porter says.
He chuckles a bit as he reflects.
“It’s still like that, really – to this day I can’t get a guest spot on ‘Will and Grace,’” Porter adds.
He’s not bashing that show, though.
“Marriage equality never would have happened without ‘Will and Grace,’ and everything else in that time period. Like Ellen, Rosie, Elton John coming out. I’m in the generation of people who could be out from the start because they paved the way,” Porter says.
It’s one of the reasons he thinks “Pose” is important.
“This is the ‘Will and Grace’ of the new generation, because you’re seeing LGBTQ people of color– and that includes the “T” which is usually forgotten. We have five transgender actresses of color in series regular roles. You get to live with these people on a weekly basis, it lets you understand how to relate to them as human beings – not as objects, or pawns for your political power plays,” Porter says.
He’s particularly proud of the authenticity in the show’s casting; the subject of straight performers “playing gay” brings out his thorny side.
“I’m over it. It’s offensive. Because it doesn’t go in the other direction. It never does. All these straight actors, they think ‘Oooh, if I play gay, maybe I can win an Oscar.’ And they do. But the only time I’m ever called in for a role, even with a Tony Award and a Grammy, is if the description says ‘flamboyantly dot, dot, dot.’ Whatever else it is, ‘flamboyantly’ always comes first. So, you know what? If I can’t play straight, then y’all can’t play gay. It’s 2018. Everybody in the room should know better,” Porter says.
“With ‘Pose,’ there’s none of that. It’s beautiful. Even the extras and day players and all that, they’re from the actual community, and it’s beautiful to watch this story finally be told – especially when the culture has been so appropriated. There’s not a pop star out there that hasn’t borrowed from this community, and so now we’re reclaiming it,” he continues.
All this speaking up and truth-telling, he says, is crucial to fighting the regressive thinking of the current powers-that-be.
“It’s time to start saying ‘This is who I am, this is what I believe in, if you’re with me, then come on, let’s do it.’ Thinking outside of what we used to do, and figuring out how to do it different, that’s what has to happen,” Porter says.
He chuckles again.
“These kids get it. It’s their turn now. They have the language – I mean they grew up with the internet, they grew up with something attached to their arm – whether it be an iPad or a computer. These old white people do not know what to do, they don’t understand social media, and these kids are like, ‘fuck that, tweet, tweet, tweet,’ and change is happening. It’s a whirlwind of change, we have to catch up – we can’t waste time pandering, that time is done,” he says.
For his part, he has no intention of pandering.
“I will never, ever shut up – because if it all goes in the gutter, and they start shipping us someplace, they’re coming for me first, anyway!” Porter says.