Billy Porter helps examine origins of gay rights movement
Billy Porter is busy, pandemic or not.
He’s just appeared in a virtual play about nurses on the front lines. His series “Pose” is returning to production. He’s soon to appear in the “Cinderella” remake. He’s writing a memoir — a project he calls the hardest thing he’s ever done.
And starting this week, he narrates “EQUAL,” a new docuseries on HBO Max that traces the history of the LGBTQ movement through the Stonewall uprising in 1969.
Porter was born just a few months after Stonewall. He learned about that galvanizing moment for the modern gay rights movement as he grew up. Still. he says, there was a lot about the movement’s earlier history that he didn’t know, and was able to learn through the docuseries.
In four episodes, the series, premiering Thursday, looks at the rise of early gay rights organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis; the 20th century transgender experience; the role of the Black community in gay rights; and then Stonewall.
Porter sat down recently to speak to The Associated Press about the project, his other work, and how he’s been coping during the pandemic. (The interview has been condensed for length.)
AP: You were born just after the Stonewall uprising; do you remember when you first became aware of it?
Porter: I came out when I was 15, about 1985. The research wasn’t really at our fingertips as it is now, but we found it some way. There were some older survivors who would teach us. It was always nice to know as a baby gay that there was somebody out there who was fighting for our rights. Just as I intersect with the African American community and our civil rights. The two are aligned in many ways for me. It helps remind those of us in the fight on the regular that good is possible. And the work is eternal. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty is what Frederick Douglass says.
AP: Tell us about “EQUAL.”
Porter: It was really interesting for me as somebody who knows a lot about LGBTQ history... there’s a lot of stuff in the four-part series I had not heard about before. So it’s always nice to learn something new. (It’s about) everything before the Stonewall riots. I think there’s a lot of information at the fingertips post-Stonewall, (but) there’s not a whole lot of talk about what came before Stonewall, so it’s really interesting.
AP: You recently did a public service announcement during the Emmys, basically saying that Hollywood is making an effort toward more inclusive representation, but there’s a lot farther to go.
Porter: That is the direct message for the entertainment industry. But in the macro, it’s the message for the world at large. Not just America, for the entire world. You know, it’s time. It’s time to make a change and a change for good. And it’s about people rising up and making that so. So that’s what you’re seeing right now. And I think what’s interesting about this series is that it’s about people taking charge of their lives and rising up and making sure that we live up to what our Constitution boasts, which is that all men are created equal.
AP: The pandemic has changed lives. How has yours changed?
Porter: It’s a global reset, that’s what I’ve been calling it. I’ve really been trying to make lemonade out of lemons. I’ve leaned in to my self-care work. I’ve leaned into boundaries and balance in relation to how I engage in the business and how I protect my relationships, my marriage, my family, everything. You know, I really feel like, as horrible as this is, the silver lining is that everybody is awake. And if you’re not awake now and if you don’t see it for what it is now, you never will. All of the issues have been laid bare.
AP: Your roots are in live theater, a world obviously in crisis now. What do you you see happening with theater?
Porter: I don’t know. We’ve never been here before. ‘The show must go on’ has always been the motto. But the show is not going on. It is very depressing to walk through New York City and midtown. I have never seen it like this. I do believe that when it’s time to come back and it’s safe to come back, people will come back. But who’s to say when it’s going to be safe?
AP: Do you see yourself performing live theater again?”
Porter: Of course. I will always do theater. Theater is the first love, theater is the reason why I’m sitting here. So I will always, always return to the theater.
AP: How about fashion. Where do you see that world going?
Porter: Fashion is art. And art always survives. Art is how civilizations heal. That’s what (late author) Toni Morrison says. Art has to reflect the time that it’s in. What that looks like, I don’t know. You know, that’s up to the artist, personal discretion and personal voice. But I know for certain that it will come back. It actually hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s been flourishing. I was just at Christian Siriano’s show at his new house in Connecticut last week. And it was was breathtaking to see the political fashion art that has come out of this. It’s a direct response, an antidote to what we’re living through.
AP: You’re writing a memoir. How has that process been?
Porter: It’s a very difficult process. Yes, it is! It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. Because I’m trying to tell the truth and I’m trying to help somebody. So that means digging deep, and it’s hard.