The Deciding Decade: Billy Porter on redefining masculinity and finding truth within
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is The Deciding Decade.
Sometimes people say politicians are like actors, and when they say that they usually don’t mean it as a compliment. There’s some truth to that — just look at our president, who was a reality TV star who feels like he’s acting more than governing most of the time.
But I think that comparison often sells short the importance of actors, of artists. In their vulnerability, their creativity, their courage, artists bring meaning to our lives that we simply couldn’t find anywhere else. So I don’t think we give artists enough credit for shaping, and maybe even saving, so many lives.
Art has shaped my life, especially music and literature that helped me to understand who I am. For my husband Chasten, theater and film have been the most impactful. And I’ve noticed that we’ve both turned to and dug further and further into these creative sources to help us navigate the times that we’re facing right now. And we’re seeing how many of the experiences of the most vulnerable are being given new expression through the arts today.
So what can art do for us going forward? And what can we learn from those who are shaping our time through their creativity and courage?
My guest today speaks to this and embodies this with boldness, courage and grace, and I’m very eager for you to hear from him.
Pete Buttigieg: Billy Porter is an actor, singer, fashion icon, and activist who you have hopefully seen in the extraordinary and compelling TV show Pose. He has starred on Broadway, off Broadway, in film, in television. He performed at the 2020 Democratic National Convention this summer. He’s a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner and was the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for and win in any leading acting category at the primetime Emmys. On and off screen, he has inspired so many in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond with his authenticity and his courage, and whose activism I think is helping to change what’s possible in our future.
Welcome, Billy, and I have to ask having mentioned your awards in the introduction, what’s the plan to get that Oscar?
Billy Porter: [laughing] I don’t really have a plan! First of all, thank you for having me. It’s so good to be having this conversation with you.
Pete Buttigieg: It’s a pleasure.
Billy Porter: You know, I’m trying to get some movies. I’ve got some movies, I’ve got some plans. We’re trying to make it happen. I don’t know. I’ve been in the business long enough to hold the idea of awards in a very specific kind of space. I don’t do it for the awards. I’m an artist first. I’m going to be practicing my art whether I win awards or not, as that has been proven for the 30 years prior to this-
Pete Buttigieg: That’s right.
Billy Porter: …moment in my life. Simultaneously, who doesn’t like to win awards? To be truthfully honest with you, as a Black, gay artist they actually do mean something for me.
Pete Buttigieg: Absolutely.
Billy Porter: A lot more than they do for my white counterparts. They do open doors for me that are open to my white counterparts anyway. So they don’t have to win awards to have these doors opened, but I’m very grateful to be in this position. Doors have been opening, and I’m walking through every single one of them that I have the energy and breath to do.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, I have little doubt that there are more awards in your future. Of course, you’ve made news not only with the awards that you’ve earned and won, but with your appearances. I think I’m not out of line describing you as a fashion god. That’s an intimidating conversation for me because I routinely will come downstairs and Chasten will look at me, an eyebrow will go up, and all he’ll say is, “Are you going to be wearing that?” And I know it’s time to go back upstairs and improve upon myself. It strikes me that, especially for people who aren’t very involved or aware of fashion, it can be maybe viewed as something that’s not as important in this very important time of big world events and social upheaval. Yet, I think it’s clear in the way you’ve spoken about some of your fashion choices that have made headlines that this is language.
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: That maybe even fashion in this way is activism.
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: I wonder, what have you sought to say with that language and what impact do you seek to have when you’re making the splash that you so often make when you appear on a red carpet?
Billy Porter: Yeah. First and foremost, being first generation post-civil rights movement, the focus of Black people were to make sure that your children were educated first. Second on the list was, you’re judged by your appearance. The first thing that people see is what you look like. So, one must dress for the job one wants, not the job one has.
Pete Buttigieg: What you’re saying is not just a job, job but a level of regard in society.
Billy Porter: Right, speaking metaphorically. It’s like, fashion is art. For me, art is activism. It always has been. Artists have always been at the forefront of creating change, of speaking truth to power. We always have. We always will be. I use this pandemic as an example: You’re locked in your house for six months. What are you doing the most of? Watching television, reading books, arts and crafts, listening to music. We all go back to the art. It’s important.
Pete Buttigieg: Especially now.
Billy Porter: Especially now. So therefore, coming up in the business and understanding the impact that fashion can have, mainly for women. You know, because women can wear anything. Men are relegated to the penguin suit and that’s it.
Pete Buttigieg: Which is something you’ve challenged.
Billy Porter: Correct, and you can get it in different colors. People are starting to wear patterns, but it’s a suit. It’s considered masculine. Masculinity is top on the list for everything and everybody. The patriarchy is masculine, so unconsciously we live in a space where we all receive the message that masculine is better.
Pete Buttigieg: I want to explore this because you said in an interview once, you said, “My masculinity was in question before I could even comprehend the thought.”
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: So I’m wondering first of all, when you did comprehend the thought, what did masculinity mean to you? Especially growing up in Pittsburgh, and how has that changed? Are you seeking to change the definition of masculinity, or is it something that you view as set that you’re seeking to confront and challenge?
Billy Porter: Both things, actually. It’s standing up and confronting and challenging the status quo while simultaneously trying to change the conversation. What does being a man truly mean? What does that mean? I was five years old when I was sent to a psychologist for a year every Wednesday after kindergarten because my family was confused, scared, in fear of the other, in fear that their boy was too effeminate, was not going to be masculine enough. Therefore, would not be able to be successful in the world because that’s the messaging, and it’s true for a lot of people. I personally took myself out of that game, and challenged myself to look at myself in the mirror and go, “What would it look like if I was just showing up as myself?”
Pete Buttigieg: Was there a specific moment when you felt conscious of making that choice, or was it something that you grew into?
Billy Porter: Yeah. I was watching Oprah. Oprah 20 years ago, and she had on Maya Angelou and Iyanla Vanzant, and they were talking about setting an intention for your life and making sure that that intention is based in service. When the intention for your life is based in service, no matter what it is, everything else will work itself out. So, I asked myself the question, in a world, in an industry that’s inherently narcissistic, what does service look like for me? And it hit me like a ton of bricks. It is your gayness. It is your queerness. It’s the very thing that every single solitary person in your life is telling you, “Billy, your gayness is your liability. Butch up. You won’t make it unless you’re masculine enough.” That was the only messaging that I got for the better part of my life, and still today it can infiltrate.
I am challenging that with my very presence. It’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular. That was not popular. That meant I don’t work, that meant I don’t eat.
Pete Buttigieg: How did you know that wasn’t where the story ends? How did you know-
Billy Porter: I didn’t.
Pete Buttigieg: That you had not, by being yourself, chosen? Were there moments where you gave up hope? Were there moments where you thought that, “I’m myself, but that’s cost me everything?”
Billy Porter: Yes. Yes, absolutely. It was not glamorous, it was not easy. There were many, many days where I couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. There were many self-destructive behaviors that came along with this journey.
Pete Buttigieg: But there was something you must have held onto to bring you through that to this point. Was it in yourself?
Billy Porter: Well, I was just talking about this. I didn’t have a plan B. I don’t have a plan B. I can’t do anything else. This is the gift. These are the gifts that I’ve been given. This is what I can contribute to the world. So when it’s all you have, there is no choice but to continue to just put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I focused on. Don’t look at the mountain. Don’t look at how far you have to climb. Look at, what’s the next step today?
Pete Buttigieg: So, what does that tell us about what the next steps are going to be in the years ahead? I’m thinking about a show like Pose. It’s an extraordinary television show that might not have been possible, would not have been possible, 10 years ago. Might not have been possible five years ago.
Billy Porter: It was impossible. It was not possible.
Pete Buttigieg: So, what do you think is now going to be possible, five years from now or 10 years from now, that we can’t even imagine today? What are those next steps?
Billy Porter: Well, I have to say that Pose and Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, and the entire team, Janet Mock and Lady J, casting me in this show and being in this particular show has taught me to dream the impossible. My dreams have always been big, and huge, and grand but they’ve always been based on and springboarded off of things that I had already seen. The impossible has happened in my life. That’s what Pose is.
I also relate it to something for us gay men of a certain age, gay marriage. Marriage equality. There was no context to even place the mustard seed of a dream inside. It just wasn’t the thing. You know, I never ever in a million years thought that my life would look like this. I spent the first 30 years of my career trying to be straight enough so I could eat, trying to be masculine enough so I could eat and now I’m being called to just simply be myself.
Pete Buttigieg: And by being yourself, you’re changing what people I think understand to be possible.
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: I should say for people who haven’t seen it, Pose centers on the lives of largely Black, queer Americans in the 1980s and I kept thinking as I’m watching it what those characters would think to see where we are today. Do you ever imagine a dialogue between you, Billy Porter 2020, and the character you play or the characters you’re surrounded with in the show?
Billy Porter: Yeah. I mean, I’m just gobsmacked. Every time I get a script, I just weep with joy. I just can’t believe it. I’m 51. I lived through the AIDS crisis. I lost a lot of friends. We lost a generation of queer people, of people in general but mostly queer people and queer artists. And to be able to step into that void.
Pete Buttigieg: You came out in the 1980s right at the peak of the AIDS crisis. Do you think having lived through and confronted AIDS gives the queer community any kind of special insight, or special preparedness, or special compassion when it comes to what the world is facing with COVID? Or is it a completely different experience?
Billy Porter: Well, I think there are parallels. I’m Black and I’m gay. So, the parallels inside of this virus in general, the layers of how it started, we don’t know what it is. How do we contract it? What do we do about it? Is there a vaccine? All of that part, it’s so PTSD inducing.
Pete Buttigieg: Because it throws you right back to it.
Billy Porter: It’s just, we’re right back and I had a lot of friends who are experiencing the same kind of PTSD. As a Black man, the fact that this particular COVID-19 virus is affecting people of color in a larger proportion to the rest of the population is also reminiscent of the AIDS crisis. So, I have been really just trying to work on in this time, of this global reset is what I’m calling it, working on self-care, working on boundaries, working on balance.
We’re the first generation in full as gay men to be living this life out, loud, and proud in public. We’re the first generation to be doing that. There’s a learning curve. There’s a steep learning curve, and I’m doing it specifically in the middle of all of this. The pandemic, my career taking off. It all happens at the same time. There is a power in that. There is a peace in that, in knowing that what we’re going through right now as a community, as a culture, as Americans is not new.
Pete Buttigieg: That’s a remarkable thing to hear, the word peace used to describe the incredibly complicated and painful moment we’re living in, but the peace is in the connection to other times, or where do you find that peace?
Billy Porter: Well, there’s a peace that passes all understanding, right? That’s in the Bible. There is in this moment, for me, this global reset has caused me to go inside and do all of the work. I say I’m putting my oxygen mask on first. I’m dealing with old traumas that threatened to thwart my progress. I’m dealing with all the bad habits. I’m dealing with the shame that is insidious inside of the gay community. The shame that propels us into darkness and very often into the type of darkness where there is no light. I’m not doing that. I’m not going out like that. That’s a choice, that’s a decision, and then one must do the work to make sure that the outcome from this work is of some sort of use. I can’t be of use to anything or anybody until I take care of myself.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, part of that work that you’re describing for you takes place at that intersection of being Black and being gay.
Billy Porter: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Pete Buttigieg: At this moment. I saw in an interview you said that, “This moment has lit a fire inside of me and truly thrusted me into using my platform to deliver the message that Black, queer people are Black first, queer second.” When I first heard that I felt that that was a really interesting choice I wanted to ask you about.
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: Then I wondered, is that a choice or are you saying that the world will always see Black, queer people first according to their Blackness and then according to their queerness?
Billy Porter: There’s a reality that I’m responding to, and the reality is you look at my skin and I’m Black. That’s what people are judging me for before I open up my mouth, before I take a step, before any of the things that are detectable, behaviors cue anybody in on my sexuality, the decision has already been made based on the color of my skin. So, that’s just the truth of it. I have found in my quest for understanding and my quest for being part of my own community that I do stand at the intersection of these two struggles. The queer community is in the civil rights fight of their life right now.
Pete Buttigieg: Especially the trans community.
Billy Porter: Especially the trans community.
Pete Buttigieg: Which as gay men, we have a complicated relationship to, right? We’re under this umbrella of LGBTQ+, but the gay community has not always been there for the trans community.
Billy Porter: No, no. We haven’t always understood. Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.” We know better. It’s time to do better but with that said, I have lived a life of feeling very misunderstood, rejected, dismissed from my own because of my gayness. That’s a conversation, and a really complicated conversation, that I am having with my own community because unfortunately and historically communities of color, particularly the African American community in my case, I’m only speaking from my experience, the homophobia, the transphobia is so toxic and so destructive that I’ve seen it literally kill people. And like I said before, I’m not going out like that.
Pete Buttigieg: Another thing I’m thinking about watching Pose is thinking about, and my life is very different from these characters, mostly characters of color in and around the New York ballroom scene, very different from my life but I feel on one hand connected by the simple fact that I’m part of a community or a tradition in the LGBTQ community that threads back through their lives.
Billy Porter: Yeah.
Pete Buttigieg: On the other hand, seeing what they were up against and seeing what they confronted within living memory, even within my lifetime technically, but not within my lifetime that I was aware of the world, I’m also mindful that the acceptance, not total, but the acceptance that I’ve known as an out candidate for president is built in part on their living their lives authentically. Yet knowing that many of them were destroyed for it.
Billy Porter: Yes, and it’s not lost on me that I am a part of the generation who kicked the door down. I’m a part of the generation who blazed the trail. And it’s not lost on me that very often the people who are the trailblazers are not the ones that get to benefit from the trail having been blazed. I am getting to experience both. That takes my breath away, because it creates inside of me an unquenchable fire that will never go out, because I have the history. That is the worst of all of it.
When you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it. It is on purpose that we don’t know our history. It is on purpose that our public school system does not teach the truth about anything in our history. I go back to learning about Christopher Columbus, and it was a cartoon. A cartoon about how these lovely white people came and discovered America, as if there was nobody else here. You all stole it is what happened. You colonized a group of people. We don’t know the truth, and that’s a difficult thing. When I think about the young people, you know, the last election cycle who when Bernie didn’t win the nomination took their toys and went home and didn’t show up at the polls. This is not blame, this is not to harp on the past but I say this in context of they didn’t know. We just wanted a better life for our kids, and they were born into this life that was better. They didn’t have the history.
Pete Buttigieg: There are some people I’m sure who are thinking, even now, who are thinking about how they’re going to vote but what really worries me are the people who are thinking about whether they’re going to vote. You have been so vocal and so outspoken on why it is so important to vote and why you don’t just get to take your toys and go home. But what is the message to people who believe because they’re under no illusions about the problems in America, are therefore so cynical about the entire system that they want nothing to do with it, even voting?
Billy Porter: That is the whole point of what voter suppression means. Voter suppression isn’t just intimidation at the polls. Voter suppression is getting into the psyche of the culture and making us believe that our votes don’t matter. That’s called voter suppression, and when you think that way and when you allow that to take hold, they have won. And I use they in quotes. That’s the whole point. To destroy democracy is to make people think that the very action that makes a society democratic doesn’t work. The one thing, the one right that we have still, is to get out and vote. Why do you think they’re attacking it so much? Why do you think that it’s not a national holiday, why do you think that? It’s on purpose.
So, what we must do is continue to use our right or we lose our right. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how you look at what has happened in the last four years and there’s still a question of if. If Biden and Harris. I don’t understand the logic, and this is not democrat and republic speak. I’m not talking about that, because I’m the kind of democrat who will vote for a republican if they’re better. I’m looking at the policies. I’m looking at the human beings. It’s really not about democrat or republican. You know I’m very progressive so most of the time it will be democratic, but in this moment, I’m talking about specifically in this moment today, after what we’ve seen over the last four years, how is it even a question?
Pete Buttigieg: Part of how I talk about it is that we may have disagreements, especially within my party, over how to do certain things. How to make good on the reality that Black lives matter, how to raise wages, how to get everybody healthcare but the question we’re going into in November is whether to do any of those things. Whether to expand or reduce healthcare-
Billy Porter: Cut it out altogether.
Pete Buttigieg: Whether to raise wages or keep… Exactly, yeah. That’s just a different conversation, and then I hope we will have good people elected, and we can go right back to arguing over exactly how to do these things in government. But first, we’ve got to settle the question as a country over whether we’re going to be moving three steps forward, as you say, or two steps back. Or five steps back.
Billy Porter: Right, and I have to say this. This is the reality that keeps me up at night. The reality is, the Republican party as it stands today, I’m not talking about the party of Lincoln, I’m not talking about that. These people chose whiteness over humanity. They held their noses and they voted for this monster. They closed their eyes and lined up behind him. Every white man particularly in a position of power to check him and stop him chose to not do it.
I can go all the way back to Comey. I can go to Mueller with his anemic response. To Mattis, I’m calling them all out. You all had a chance to make sure that the American people were taken care of, and you chose your whiteness instead. Period. Because I assure you if it was the Black president or the woman president doing any of this, they would have been removed without pause.
The Republican party was fine with everything that he’s doing because they want to cut social security, because they want conservative judges on the court, because they want to steal the Supreme Court, because they want social security to go away, they want Medicaid and Medicare to go away. They want all of those things, and they thought he could be a puppet to make sure that all of that stuff could happen. They did not anticipate COVID and narcissism. They didn’t anticipate the power of narcissism intersecting with a pandemic.
Pete Buttigieg: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and now we’re seeing what’s at stake.
Billy Porter: They didn’t plan for that.
Pete Buttigieg: I remember conservatives I talked to sometimes saying, “All right, look. We don’t like him either, but it doesn’t matter that much who the president is. We’ll deal with it.”
Billy Porter: Yes, it does.
Pete Buttigieg: Exactly, and now we’re seeing just how much is at stake.
Billy Porter: And that’s privilege. Because when Reagan got in office in 1980, that changed my life and everybody I know for the worst. So anybody who says, “The president doesn’t matter that much,” are people who are not affected.
Pete Buttigieg: Right.
Billy Porter: Who have the privilege of not being affected by policies that take everything away.
Pete Buttigieg: Which is also the kind of privilege that would make somebody think it’s okay not to vote.
Billy Porter: Right.
Pete Buttigieg: I want to turn to a question that Chasten, who was very excited to know that we’d be speaking, asked of me. In fact, I remember. I don’t know if you remember this, we were somewhere in the middle of the campaign. We were at LAX waiting to catch a flight.
Billy Porter: Yep, yep.
Pete Buttigieg: Chasten nudges me and says, “That’s Billy Porter over there.” I said, “What?” He said, “That’s Billy Porter. Go talk to him.”
Billy Porter: I was doing the same thing on the other side. I was like, “Oh, that’s Buttigieg.”
Pete Buttigieg: Well, we struck up a wonderful conversation and I’ve been glad to be in conversation ever since. Well, Chasten wanted me to ask you something that I know is on his mind and ours, because he’s been thinking about those who aren’t seen within the queer community. He said, “Many people in the queer community feel left out, unseen, or unsafe in this country,” and you, Billy, have a way of inviting people in. Of making people feel seen and harnessing your own story and your own talent to help do that and to do good. So for someone as visible as you are, who even though it was not guaranteed, learned the power of being yourself, what do you have to say to others who aren’t quite ready to share their truth or who are questioning whether they’re ever going to belong?
Billy Porter: Well, I mean, RuPaul says it all the time. If you don’t love yourself, how the hell can you love anybody else? It seems really simple. We hear it so often that we stop hearing it. We hear it so often that I don’t believe that as a collective we totally understand what that means. This pandemic, this global reset, has taught me that the only way I can move forward is to figure out how to love myself, is to figure out how to let go of the shame.
Pete Buttigieg: What a wonderful response to the moment we’re in, because I think some people have become clearly very productive in this moment. Others have found it very hard to get anything done, but if I understand you right, it feels like you’re saying that turning inward is not a bad thing when it comes to being ready and able to have more to offer out in the world.
Billy Porter: Yes, yes.
Pete Buttigieg: Because you have to get that right first.
Billy Porter: You have to get yourself right first. You have to get yourself right first, otherwise your foundation is built on sinking sand. I’ve built a strong foundation. It’s been through the years, metaphorically the concrete. I poured the concrete my entire life. I’m standing on some strong foundation now, and I’m ready for whatever comes. For whatever this election is, for whatever comes, I’m ready. There are people who came before me on whose shoulders I stand, who died for me to be here. So who do I think I am that I’m just supposed to flip through life with no problem? No. I’m going to be here and I’m going to make it better for those who come behind me. That’s my goal, that’s my service.
Pete Buttigieg: One of the things that strikes me talking to you is you have zero illusions about the problems that surround us, the pain of our moment, the trouble in the history and the present of this country. And yet, you have never sounded to me pessimistic. You talk about a global reset, you talk about time and space for enlargement, you talk about hopes and dreams for the future. Do you believe that 2030 is going to be better than 2020, and why?
Billy Porter: I do. I believe that 2030 will be better. It’s my faith, it’s my hope. That’s one of the good things that I took from religion that I believe to be manmade. Religion is manmade, spirituality is divine. Faith and hope was instilled in me. It’s the only way that I understand how to move through life, because otherwise I’m debilitated. I’ve seen the other version of what darkness can bring. So, be the light that you want to see and hope for the best. I mean, that’s all we’ve got. And remember to embrace possibility and positivity.
Pete Buttigieg: There were a lot of poignant moments in that conversation. And one moment in particular is when Billy said, “Just tell the truth.” And it makes me think that it’s more important than ever to find truth, not just publicly but on the inside. More important than ever to find personal, deep truths and then find ways to give them expression. There’s humanity there that we all really need to tap into and are going to continue to need, amidst all of the devastation that’s happening around us.
I really do hope that we can continue to find belonging, love of others by better loving ourselves, and real truth through art. I very much believe it’s going to be central to shaping and saving ourselves and our country, and I’m so grateful for people like Billy doing this service simply by being the remarkable people that they are.