‘Bitterness is death’: Billy Porter makes an impression at the Festival of Books
Billy Porter spent the first half of his career being told his queerness was a career liability, but after four decades of waiting for his big break, the star of FX’s “Pose” is no longer letting other people’s expectations define him.
“My humanity has been up for legislation every single f—ing day of my life and I’m done with it,” Billy Porter said to a crowd on Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Seated at the main stage on the USC campus — though occasionally leaping up to make a particularly emphatic point — the actor and fashion icon spoke with Times Metro reporter Justin Ray about his new memoir, “Unprotected,” which recounts his grief and trauma growing up as a young Black gay man during the AIDS crisis.
“I’m trying to be a walking piece of activism,” Porter said of his unique sense of fashion. “What I’m sick of is this conversation that exists in our society that if I’m a man who’s wearing a dress, I’m gonna come and molest your children. Stop that.”
Writing his memoir during the pandemic, Porter couldn’t help notice the parallels between current messaging on both physical and mental health — including state legislation targeting LGBTQ children — and the silence and inaction of the Reagan administration in the AIDS epidemic.
Panels, prizes and people — lots of them. Coverage of the L.A. Times’ first in-person Festival of Books since 2019 begins below.
“We lived through this already,” he said. “I did this already. And now y’all want to snatch us back to the ’50s like we didn’t just spend the last 100 years making the world a better place.”
Porter, at least, is in a better place. He spent years persevering through financial struggle and professional frustration before “Pose” came along.
“[I was not] able to sign for my own apartment, at 42 years old,” said Porter, now 52.
“Bitterness is death. It will kill you,” he added. “There were moments where I had my hand on the doorknob of bitterness. I just never opened it and I never walked through it.”
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Coming into fame later in life, Porter said, has given him the breadth and maturity to maneuver celebrity.
“I had a long life before celebrity, and I’m grateful for that,” said Porter. “I had 35 years of a career to finally get here so I know how to navigate it.”
Porter warned against confusing his candor with a flair for scandal — and his own personality with the one he portrays on screen.
“Playing the character of Pray Tell everybody thinks I’m a dishy queen and I just want to read people all the time,” said Porter. “That part of him was the antithesis of me. I don’t do that.”
Take Porter’s revelation last year that he had been HIV positive for more than a decade. He had planned to save it for his memoir, but his publicist thought it best to go public during the final season of “Pose,” when Pray Tell dies of AIDS.
“I lived under the cloud and stuck in the quagmire of the shame of [my HIV status] for 14 years,” said Porter. But the choice to celebrate his announcement through a Hollywood Reporter cover story became an empowering moment.
“It’s a photo shoot. It’s a celebration,” Porter said. “I’m so glad we did it like that.”
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When asked by an audience member whether he identifies as nonbinary, Porter marveled at how language has grown more expansive since his own youth — opening up conversations around gender identity that make him optimistic about the new generation.
“For the first 20 years of my career, I was trying to sit inside of a masculinity model placed on me from the outside so I could eat,” said Porter. “[These children] are challenging us to be better human beings. They’re challenging us to question the status quo that’s built on sinking sand.”
He teased the audience by saying that while he’ll always identify with masculinity, he won’t rule out a dip into they/them.
“I literally just said the other day, ‘Well, I don’t know how to do anything but be a cisgendered queen,’ ” said Porter to his laughing audience. “You know, I’m a he/him but I might be a them/they in a couple of minutes.”
As for his future more generally, he told Ray he’s caught up in a whirlwind of projects, from new music to his own production company.
“Now that work is back full time, I’m trying to figure out how to have the balance and the boundaries and the self-care while I’m trying to be the king of the world.”
After a few years of virtual ceremonies, the 42nd Los Angeles Times Book Prizes was held in person Friday at USC, kicking off the Festival of Books.
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