Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning performer Billy Porter, has seen it all.
In his expansive career, Porter has been victorious in nearly every facets of the entertainment industry: stage, music, film, and telvision. Through it all, he continues to mold new territories for himself while inspiring a multitude of fans to own their space.
But if there’s one thing you gotta know about Porter these days, it’s that he is not messing around with this election.
“Voter suppression is very devious,” he tells Out. “And one of the tent poles of voter suppression is psychology. The psychology of making the voter think that their vote doesn't matter. That's the point.”
“We the people must engage in our democracy, or it goes away. That's just how it goes. It's an experiment,” he continues. “It's called the democratic experiment. It's an experiment. Sometimes we are on a succeeding side of it and sometimes we're not. Right now, we're not, as far as I'm concerned. And we all have an opinion about that right now. So, while we still have a voice and an opinion about it, get your little asses to the polls! I don’t know what's so hard about that!”
Porter’s activism isn’t new.
Since moving to New York City in 1990 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, an era that’s portrayed in the award-winning series Pose (which Porter won an Emmy for in 2019 and was nominated again this year), his creativity has been molded around his activism. But, it wasn’t exactly by choice.
“I don't know how to do anything else,” he says. “I'm first generation post-Civil Rights movement. I came out at 15, 16 years old in 1985 and was thrown right into fighting on the front lines for the AIDS crisis. So I understand that it's about the people coming together and making sure that change happens and that change sticks.”
In his latest project HBO Max’s EQUAL, Porter narrates a retelling of important moments in LGBTQ+ history prior to that fight.
EQUAL honors the queer rebels of our past with never-before-seen archival footage alongside stylistic depictions, chronicling significant landmarks in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
The series is divided into four sections: the first exploring the rise of early organizations, The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The second chronicles the 1966 Compton Cafeteria riots, which was led by Black trans woman and is believed to be one of the earliest queer uprisings. The third expertly documents the prominence of Black figures in the movement, and the fourth ties in the decades-long struggles that led to the Stonewall uprising, an act that ultimately led to the movement we know today.
Produced by Scout Productions, the team that brought us Queer Eye and Legendary, the series stars Cheyenne Jackson as Dale Jennings, Anthony Rapp as Harry Hay, Sara Gilbert as J.M. From Cleveland, Alexandra Grey as Lucy Hicks Anderson, Theo Germaine as Jack Starr, Isis King as Alexis, Samira Wiley as Lorraine Hannsberry, Keiynan Lonsdale as Bayard Rustin, and many more.
For Porter, the importance of art and storytelling can never be understated.
“Traditionally and historically, the arts has always been at the forefront of change,” he says. “We as artists have always been able to speak truth to power in a way that is not didactic, in a way that can reach into the hearts of people and change the molecular structure from the inside out. That's what we get to do. And that's the only thing that sticks, you know. I feel like that's where we are right now — and that's what EQUAL does.”
“There was a lot of stuff that was new information for me,” Porter says of the stories centered in EQUAL. “I really feel like history grounds us, you know, it lets us know that we're not alone. And community is empowering. And to be empowered is to move forward. The world only spins forward, Tony Kushner says in Angels in America. It’s going to spin forward no matter what roadblocks are put in place. The inertia will always spin it forward eventually. And love always wins.”
Porter is now on the Board of Trustees for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a nonprofit that raises funds for HIV-related causes across the United States. This year, the organization has been fundraising to create emergency assistance for those in need as a result of the ongoing global pandemic. For the actor, asking to be on the board was a full circle moment.
“Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is the organization that taught me how to activate, taught me how to be an activist,” Porter says. “I moved to New York City, December 27, 1990, to begin rehearsals for the original cast of Miss Saigon. Broadway Cares was probably about four or five years old at that point and I always say, it’s like, ‘Tell me where to show up and I'm there.’ That's what they presented for me. They taught us all how to show up because they gave us the blueprint. They showed us how to activate and be there. So, a large part of my activism, and how I am active, came from learning how to do it through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It is an honor to have been asked to be a trustee.”
As for advising the future generation of artists, Porter can’t help but cite a lesson from one of his mentors, playwright and director George C. Wolfe: “Don't wait for anybody to give you permission to practice your art. You should be practicing it all the time, even when no one's listening. And most of the time, no one will be listening.”
“There's no plan B on life,” he says. “I was lucky to know very early what I wanted to do in terms of the profession, and that has never changed. And so I think that freed up emotional space for me to then dive into that side of things because I know that I can't be of use if I'm a crazy person. I want to be of use, so I'm going to do the work… to hold on to my sanity in this world where there's a lot of stuff that can drive you crazy — especially now.”
EQUAL premieres October 22 on HBO Max.