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This story is part of a series, “I See You Man,” about depictions of manhood and masculinity running through the month of November, which is Men’s Health Awareness month.
Billy Porter has had a hell of a year. He wore an instantly iconic tuxedo gown to the Oscars in February, floated onto the red carpet at the Met Gala as a winged Egyptian pharaoh in May, kiki’d with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show in July, and in September, he quoted James Baldwin while accepting an Emmy for playing Pray Tell on Pose, which aired its celebrated second season on FX over the summer. In every one of those appearances, Porter wore clothing traditionally deemed for women and each time, the overwhelming public reception was either yaaas bitch! or casual nonchalance. Porter’s sudden ubiquity and mainstream acceptance could give some people the false impression that there were always opportunities for him to be the global superstar he is now. But no, this is all very new for Porter.
Porter, like the ballroom emcee he plays on Pose, is making peace with the newfound freedom to fully express his masculine and feminine sides, and in the process, both Porter and Pray Tell have become emblems of a wider social movement that’s overthrowing old ideas about what sexuality, gender expression, and masculinity means today. “Let me tell you something,” he told TV Guide last year, “to be an out gay black man in this world, to live out and proud … that’s about as masculine as you can get.”
While Pose‘s second season featured many marvelous moments for Pray Tell, including a powerful love scene, one of the storylines that speaks most directly to Porter’s real-life experiences occurred in the finale, “Walk in My Heels.” In it, the gay men who govern the ballroom scene are dethroned temporarily, so that Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Angel (Indya Moore), and other women who keep the system afloat can finally get some of their overdue credit. It’s Pray Tell’s idea to have the men of the ballroom council walk the “Butch Queen First Time at a Ball” category, which means he and the other participants will have to literally walk in women’s shoes as a way of understanding their experience.
But when the time comes to actually put on the heels, Pray Tell goes into fight or flight mode and storms out of the room. His beau, Ricky (Dyllon Burnside), goes to his side, and Pray Tell pours his heart out. “My father used to tell everybody ‘That boy is too soft.’ He hated my sissy ass. He would walk past me and push me to the ground. The pushes became slaps, and the slaps became punches.” Pray Tell starts to cry and Porter conveys the character’s agony with gut-wrenching honesty. “He was determined he was going to beat the man into me,” Pray Tell recalls. Ricky says that it’s time for him to embrace all of himself, and in the the episode’s triumphant conclusion, he does. But it took unpacking a lot of negative messaging from other men about how he was supposed to move through the world in order to do so. Pray Tell’s resistance, and eventual acceptance, of his feminine side illustrated how many men, no matter how they might identify, spend so much of their lives obsessing over ways to avoid seeming feminine — a struggle all too familiar for Porter.
Porter has had constructs of masculinity weaponized against him his whole life. He grew up in an abusive environment where he learned to do everything he could to avoid seeming feminine. At Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, teachers told him he had no chance of being a leading man. As an adult, an executive from his record label forbid him from speaking while appearing on the The Rosie O’Donnell Show for fears he’d come off too gay. Whatever masculine was, people told him he wasn’t doing it right, and the criticism did lasting damage. “It’s trauma that we carry with us for the rest of our lives, instilled in us,” he told TV Guide. “We’re supposed to hate ourselves.” But, as Porter recalled, it was embracing playing the role of a drag queen, Lola, in Broadway’s Kinky Boots “that got Billy Porter to where he is now.”
“Listening to naysayers wasn’t what got me here. It was being myself,” declared Porter.
The actor’s 2013 Tony win for the role paved the way for Ryan Murphy to ultimately consider Porter for a part in Pose, ironically confirming that everything people told him to suppress was exactly what made him a star. Pose, he told People earlier this fall, “cracked my brain open and helped me get to a different space and understanding about myself, the dilemmas I was putting on myself even just about what I can wear, what was acceptable, what was masculine enough, what was acceptable.” This year, he arrived at the Tonys wearing, basically, an “eff you” outfit: a gender fluid evening suit made from the Kinky Boots curtain that was part pants and part dress, covered in 30,000 Swarovski crystals and designed like a uterus, as a means of making a point about abortion rights. Check and mate.
Of course, Billy Porter is hardly the first famous man to rock a blouse or a skirt. Men like Pharrell, Jared Leto, and Steven Tyler made heels, dresses and makeup part of their personas. And for some, the idea that a gay man might have any hesitation at all in embracing his feminine side could be confusing; thanks to the gender fluid imagery championed by queer pioneers like RuPaul, even the most tolerant, open-minded person might erroneously assume that gay or queer males gravitate toward heels and makeup as naturally as fish take to water. But Billy Porter is not a drag queen, nor does Porter express a stated preference for nonbinary pronouns like they or them. Porter’s self-expression is rooted in malehood, but it’s a malehoood that’s nonconformist, playful, and borrows liberally from femininity. But what he represents is bigger than his clothing. Through Pose, Porter has been given a platform to challenge the toxic masculinity that imprisons men into narrow, suffocating cages.
Pray Tell understands this by the end of Season 2. Though he’s still visibly terrified walking into the ballroom in full drag, he does it and earns the respect of his peers, particularly Elektra, who holds Pray Tell up as an example of courage and guts. Knowing what Porter had been through, it was almost as if the man who’d already slayed this dragon in real life was reenacting it for the world to see.
And clearly something about what Porter’s saying and doing is resonating; he was recently cast as the fairy godmother in Disney’s forthcoming live-action Cinderella.