In a candid interview, Billy Porter talks to Awards Daily about the blurred lines between the actor and character on FX’s Pose and how both the church and American politics use the Bible against oppressed groups.
*Interview performed by Jordan Walker
In 2018, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, involving the alleged assault on Christine Blasey Ford, triggered something in Billy Porter, the way people discredited her memory of the event. This spurred Porter to write an op-ed piece detailing his own sexual abuse, which got picked up by Out.com.
“Within a couple of hours, Ryan Murphy called me and said how sorry he was,” said Porter. “And he asked me if I would be willing to talk about it, to unpack it using Pray Tell as the surrogate. And I said, absolutely.”
Within its first season in 2018, FX’s Pose quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television, not just for its content surrounding the AIDS crisis and ball culture community of the ’80s and early ’90s, but for its inclusivity in casting trans actors for trans roles. Porter used the opportunity of Pray Tell, the emcee and father figure within the ball scene on the series, as a bit of therapy.
“As artists we get the unique opportunity to work through our trauma vis-a-vis our art. If you can do it in a way that is healthy, like you find the emotional space you get with the right kind of therapist, it’s really good.”
After Porter tackled his sexual abuse through Pray Tell, the Pose team came back to him and asked, “What else would you like to talk about?” Porter knew exactly what he wanted to address.
Season 3, Episode 4, “Take Me To Church”
In Season 3, Episode 4 titled “Take Me To Church” focuses on Pray Tell and his upbringing. In the episode, Porter’s character returns home to tell his family that he is dying from AIDS. With this homecoming, he reunites with a former flame-turned-preacher Vernon Jackson (Norm Lewis), which causes old emotions and responses to resurface. In this case, Porter uses Pray Tell to tell his own story with the church.
“My relationship as a Black gay man with the Black church is something that needs to be addressed in a way that’s direct, compassionate, respectful, loving, and with accountability, because that’s actually the conversation that I’m having. All of our organized religions that weaponize the Bible to use it against oppressed groups of people that they don’t have any interest in understanding. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the cherry-picking of the Bible, that was written over 2,000 years ago by men, by artists, just like our artists today. I am 51 years old and it has been on my mind since I could comprehend thought.”
Porter continues by connecting the dots between politics and religion, citing that even voter oppression stems from shortsighted beliefs relate to the Bible.
“When I have to watch Don McClurkin show up to a Republican national convention and talk about being delivered, ain’t nothing to be delivered from. God made us this way. I know you don’t understand it, but white people don’t understand why we were made Black. Enough.”
In terms of accountability, Porter also puts under a microscope the idea of people who are oppressed doing the oppressing, especially pertaining to the Black church and its relationship to the LGBTQ community.
“How can we as Black people demand our rights, our equal human rights, and then turn around and oppress another group of marginalized people and think that that’s okay? I don’t care what you think about it. That’s not the conversation. I don’t believe in your hell. I don’t believe in your heaven. And that is my prerogative. And you don’t get to create policy that takes my human rights away because I don’t agree with you.”
A Higher Calling
In recent years, Porter has been everywhere on the circuit, from his avant-garde fashion statements on the red carpet to most recently to filming his directorial debut What If? in his his hometown of Pittsburgh. Porter sees his status as a way to do good, something that people who read the Bible should understand, that sexual orientation is not linked to going to heaven or hell.
“I’ve been elevated to this position for a reason. It’s my calling. It’s my purpose. It’s my ministry. Everyone wants to talk about Jesus all the time. Jesus was a radical and they crucified him for what he believed in. We forget that part. They forget that Jesus was hanging out with people like me.”
Porter believes there are a lot of people in the church who believe in equality for everyone, including the LGBTQ community, but that they are just afraid to speak up. Post-Pray Tell, Porter will continue to spread love through his actions, writing, and discussions, whether it’s online or through his film and TV projects. Like the one on Pose, it’s going to take a surrogate family of fighters against oppression to change people’s hearts.
“And whoever is with me, c’mon and let’s be warriors and have this conversation.”
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.