There are a dozen good reasons to read actor and singer Billy Porter’s debut memoir, Unprotected. Usually, I’d scoff a little at adding “debut” there, because not many actors or musicians manage to write a second book, but Porter definitely should.
Newly minted, fair-weather fans of his beware: if you’re coming to Unprotected for a behind-the-scenes look at Porter’s work on Ryan Murphy’s FX network television show Pose, save your money for that next book, Henny. This ain’t that. But what it is will prove well worth your hard-earned coin. Because now, in his early 50s—and let’s face the fact that many queer, HIV+, Black men do not live to see their 50s—Porter is finally beginning to believe that he finally does have some very hard-earned protection. So now he can talk about that long period when he didn’t.
He can talk about getting gay-bashed on his first day of school. What it feels like to have been sexually abused by his stepfather for years. He can talk about being cast out by his church. What it feels like to lose roles explicitly described as “flamboyant” to straight white guys because Porter was considered “too flamboyant.”
He can talk about drowning out all the terrifying sorrow of a boy too fabulously swish to hide in any closet, about belting out the songs that kept him alive while the whole world seemed to conspire to keep him quiet. What it feels like to be in direct competition with his nearest and dearest because of the bogus scarcity of even the most stereotypical roles for Black leading men. He can talk about how free classes, a few kind words from a handful of allies, and thousands of Pittsburgh city bus trips gave him what he needed to bust his ass in service to his dreams.
He knows what it feels like for his dreams to be always held just out of his reach no matter what he did in the theatre, film, and music industries to snatch them. He’s endured the harrowing adventures of auditioning and the perilous climb of awards season. He’s endured homelessness and lovelessness. It’s all just your basic, utterly enraging, life-long traumatic gaslighting in the face of the real tea that each of us is beautiful and our authenticity is the wellspring of our power.
I started crying pretty hard somewhere toward the end of Chapter 11, after a particular trying cadre of Broadway producers fail in their attempt to bully Porter into doing permanent damage to his body and he shares the note left for him by fellow understudy Phillip Gilmore, who died of AIDS a year later: “The world’s not ready for you yet, Billy. But they gettin’ ready! Ain’t nobody like you. You just gotta be patient. Never give up. It’s gonna be hard on you, but know this—you are the head and not the tail, you are above and not beneath. The power of the divine is all over you. I can feel it” (146). Deuteronomy realness!
Porter was not quite ready to receive this prophecy at the time, so deep in the struggle to stay alive was he then. But now the lessons are here to be shared with anyone who may need them, and a lot of us need them.
Lesson One: “Being a star for fame’s sake is ego-driven. Being an artist requires stripping away ego and grounding oneself in service.” (156)
Lesson Two: “Your service is leaning into your truth, your queerness, your authenticity. Yeah, the thing you been told needed to be fixed. Yeah, the thing everyone told you would be your lifelong liability. You are enough, just as you are.” (274)
Unprotected maps the soulful journey Billy Porter has taken to reframe his own unerring realness as an asset instead of a liability. It’s a self-help book for all future legendary children in need of having patience and setting boundaries so that they can stay alive to reach their potential. And this is how it goes for many of us who have been relegated to the margins, werking it for half the pay and none of the respect that we could have if only we’d “tone it down” or other polite euphemisms for selling out by assimilating.
The 50 years of wounds laid open in this book are still fresh because of how their central themes recur in Porter’s life and echo across the intersections of our culture. His message rings loud and clear for artists and “others” from all walks of life. Gives copies to your church elders, your glee club geeks, your Black men, your queers, your school admissions officers, your aspiring Broadway stars, your perspiring screenwriters, your city bus drivers, your casting directors, and definitely to your wealthy white ladies who are an inch away from willingness funding the revolution.
In many ways, Porter is still pinching himself, still convincing himself that the ground he’s broken in the past few years is solid enough to hold him steady. With a voice that is both literally and metaphorically at once charmingly specific and resonantly universal, his time has finally come.
Give this book to people who still don’t know who Billy Porter is—people who somehow persist in having no comprehension of what the lived experience of a queer Black man must be like whether he speaks of it in the Queen’s English or in the jive of ball house culture. His voice on the page is the same as it is in conversation—a stunningly effective mix of high and low forms shot through with the introspective energy of a preacher.
For example: “When did intelligence become something to be mocked and shamed for? So now here I was again with a Black man clownin’ me for not tap-dancing black enough. […] ‘If that’s what y’all want, you need to rent a studio at a later date and have some hoofing sessions with me. But as for tonight—I’ma do what I know. Unless you would like to perform in my stead.'” (144) This flawless piece of shade was handed to an angry director with one hour until showtime.
Diva tantrum? Porter is divine, but he is no diva, concluding this anecdote with “I wonder why my low-key reputation in the business was that I was difficult to work with. Hmm—well, pardon me for respecting myself enough not to let bitches take advantage of me!” Indeed, he pulls no punches and can be counted on for a point of view whether the subject is the events of his own compelling life, the industries he has worked in, or global politics at large. The words and attitude shining through this memoir lead me to believe that the Pray Tell character Murphy created for him was simply a vessel for Porter’s own voice.
Billy Porter considers the arts to be his ministry and he is planning on building an empire. If he’s getting a late start, it’s definitely not for a lack of trying. He’s been here slaying the whole time. It is within our power to ensure he remains protected, so let’s sashay this bitch onto the bestseller list, Henny.