Unprotected: A Memoir
by Billy Porter
Reviewed by Chael Needle
If you watched the 2019 Oscar broadcast, you most certainly witnessed the dazzling red-carpet entrance by Billy Porter wearing Cristian Siriano. If you think the black tux/black gown creation was just another transient sartorial choice, clothes-maketh-man moment, think again! True, he made an impression, but he also commanded the stage, so to speak. A vision of empowerment, by design. Activsim, in black velvet. “I think that we as artists…have the power to change the molecular structure of people’s hearts and minds and change the world,” he said in a Variety interview. “That dress changed the world.”
If you want to know how Billy Porter found—or rather, created—his sense of self, his powerful voice, read his beautiful and powerful memoir, Unprotected, which he starts with an analysis of the transformative power of fashion.
As a child he was no stranger to stepping outside of gender norms, loving “all the wrong clothing,” the wrong colors, the wrong fabrics, and particularly floored by the apex of finery reached by the women in his church and their hats. He explains:
“Later I would come to understand that the finery donned by Black churchgoers was a powerful form of resistance. Many of them were employed during the week as domestic servants, or security guards, or custodians, and were required to wear uniforms meant to reinforce their status as less-than. To dress impeccably and regally on the Lord’s day, then, was to insist on their own dignity and worth in a world that sought to systematically strip them of both.”
The arc of the memoir, from hardscrabble beginnings in Pittsburgh to the Tony, Grammy and Emmy-winning turns of the last decade, traces this path toward making visible Porter’s own dignity and worth and the forces that aimed to mute or even destroy it.
Porter details these forces, providing context and consideration so that the reader understands and hopefully relates to his journey (they will). A stepfather who sexually abused him as a child leaves Porter struggling with trauma and its tricks of the mind and its stranglehold on his voice, literally. Growing up within a religious ideology that damned his sexual orientation and gender expression creates a strain on his relationship with his devout mother. Schoolmates try to punch the sissy out of him.
The systemic racism and gender normativity that structure his childhood interactions also structure the theater. Art becomes a mode of survival. His early entry into the world of musical theater brings much needed refuge from the sting of the world, and he is given a chance to shine and develop his craft. He wins early success on Broadway as part of the Miss Saigon ensemble, but his rise is not as meteoric as it should be. Art is also a mode of devaluation, with race an “unspoken roadblock” in the audition process and gender casting is tradition-bound as a fairy tale. Porter finds himself time and time again in a familiar and exhausting trap of being praised and punished for his talents and, ultimately, for just being himself. From an early age, he learned that “[j]ust because a stage was rightfully mine didn’t mean I would be allowed to mount it….I learned that day that if I wanted to stand in that light, I would have to fight for it, wage a fierce and tireless struggle with all my heart and soul and might.”
He does find mentors and allies along the way; he begins creating a space for himself by writing. He begins to heal.
Part of this trauma he experienced as an adult, a result of experiencing the loss of friend after friend after friend to HIV/AIDS. He is invited to join in an ACT UP march, and he quickly rolls up his sleeves to fight back:
“I went from theater queen to gay activist in 3.5 minutes flat and never looked back. And we been fighting ever since. Thirty years later…? Those of us who did survive know how to fight to the death. Past it. But we don’t know how to live…”
His AIDS activism continued and he also becomes a tireless fundraiser for organizations like Broadway Cares. And while he doesn’t dwell on his positive diagnosis, the reader understands how the threat of HIV/AIDS has been hovering nearby all of his life. Gay men of a certain age will understand this. As a reader I do wish Porter spent more time discussing the importance of Pose in relation to documenting the history of HIV/AIDS, especially among Black and Latinx individuals of trans experience, but that is a minor quibble in a well-written book full of honest, heart-healing passages.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.