Billy Porter, who plays the flamboyant ballroom emcee Pray Tell in FX’s “Pose,” made Emmy history Sunday night by becoming the first openly gay black man to win the lead actor in a drama category.
A newbie to the Emmy scene, the Tony- and Grammy-winning actor headed into the evening already making history with his nomination, but the win added to his golden night. (While the television academy doesn’t track such information, a review of previous nominees and winners supports the distinction.)
“The category is love, y’all,” Porter said on accepting the award.
Later, in the press room backstage, Porter became emotional speaking about his victory.
“Visibility and representation are the only things that create change,” he said. “It’s when we’re visible that we have the power to create empathy through the way we tell stories. Being black and gay and out and being in this position and speaking from where I get to speak from is the change. I hope that young queer people of all colors can look at me and know that they can.”
“Pose,” from Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, explores the extravagant subculture of the LGBTQ ballroom scene in late 1980s and early 1990s New York, as well of the lives of the people of that community. Porter’s visceral portrayal of Pray Tell has been praised by critics since the show’s launch last year. The first season, for which he was nominated, saw his character reckoning with an HIV diagnosis.
Before “Pose” came along and had people taking notice of his performance — and his bold and fashionable red carpet moments — Porter made his mark on the stage. He played Teen Angel in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Grease!” and originated the role of Lola, a drag queen and cabaret performer, in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots.” He’s also released a handful of albums.
When “Pose” came along, Porter had nearly thrown in the towel on a Hollywood breakthrough.
“I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck crossing over from theater into film and TV,” Porter told The Times earlier this year. "[There was] lots of dismissal, dismissive energy surrounding what I do, what I bring, whatever. But a few years prior, I started looking at the landscape and going, ‘Well, who would get me? Who’s in the showrunning position that could get me?’ And Ryan Murphy came up and I just went — Ryan Murphy, and started typing him in my journal, started saying him in my prayers — so when the phone rang, and they said, ‘Ryan Murphy, “Pose,” and it’s set in the LGBTQ ballroom culture,’ I just started laughing.”
“I was told that who I am is never going to work,” Porter added in his press room remarks. “I was told that who and what I am is never going to be successful. Period. That’s what I was told. I did not believe them.”
Porter also addressed an awards show moment that picked up steam on Twitter — as RuPaul gave his speech after winning for reality-competition series for “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a camera pan caught Porter looking less than enthusiastic.
“There’s never a side eye coming from me, there’s never anything negative coming from me,” Porter said. “RuPaul is a friend of mine. I am so proud of him. I stand on his shoulders. ... He paved the way for me, so there’s never a side eye about that.”
“Pose,” which has been lauded for its contribution to transgender visibility and representation on TV, received six Emmy nominations this year, including Porter’s category and drama series.
The second season of the drama wrapped its run last month on FX.
Times staff writer Makeda Easter contributed to this report.