‘A plague that nobody wanted to talk about’: Billy Porter on AIDS crisis and art creating political change

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

The FX drama series “Pose” takes a vivid and emotional look at New York’s drag ballroom scene in the 1980s and 1990s. It also gives a glimpse into the devastation of the early AIDS crisis. 

The third season, which premiered last week, takes place in 1994. It was the year AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44. 

KCRW talks to the show’s star Billy Porter, who rose to fame through  Broadway shows including “Grease” and “Kinky Boots.” 

The Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning actor talks with KCRW about living in New York during the AIDS crisis, gender identity, and queer visibility in the media. 

Losing hundreds of friends from AIDS, parallels with COVID

It wasn’t until COVID-19 lockdowns that Porter says he was able to start processing healing from the grief and trauma he experienced during the AIDS crisis.

“I was completely re-traumatized the first two seasons. I didn't even know I was being traumatized, because I was just so excited somebody was taking me seriously as an actor. It was during the COVID time to take a step back. Everybody was on a break, everybody had to just stop. I was able to look at it from a distance and go, ‘Oh, I have a lot of healing work to do.’” 

Unbeknownst to him, Porter’s work on “Pose” paved the way to reflect on when he lost loved ones. 

“I'm 51 years old, I lost hundreds of friends. I was at one to five funerals a week for over a decade. A lot of friends. It was a plague. It was a plague that nobody wanted to talk about. It was a plague that nobody cared about.” 

Porter sees the echoes of the AIDS crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic, including how the American government handled each of them.

“This is the same stuff. They got to it before four years [the amount of time it took former President Ronald Reagan to address AIDS] because it wasn't just gay people. It wasn't just Black people. It affected the whole world, so they got to it before four years. But Reagan didn't utter the word AIDS for four years.”

The political power of “Pose”

The main cast of FX’s “Pose” attends the premiere of season two at the Plaza Hotel in New York, NY, June 5, 2019. Photo by Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

Porter says he still feels the rage over a government that  isn’t supporting vulnerable communities. 

“How many anti-trans bills are going through the government in America right now? We're still legislating people's basic human rights. We still think that's a thing. It's crazy.”

But he points out that political change can be made through shows like “Pose.”

“That's the whole point of art. That's the whole reason it exists. It's only in this time that something like ‘Pose’ can exist because it has to. Art is important. Art changes things. Art speaks truth to power. ‘Pose’ is the antidote for what's going on right now because we need one.”

He adds, “It's always through a narrative. It’s always through a story. It's always through a piece of music. It's always through a painting. It's always through a book. That's why political people love to attack the arts first, because the art creates independent thinkers. And independent thinkers aren't followers. And if everybody on this planet was an independent thinker, Trump never could have happened. Hitler never could have happened.”

Porter notes that TV shows like “Will & Grace” and ‘“All in the Family” pushed the needle and helped shift the cultural mindset. 

“The vision, the hearts, and minds of people, they're affected by what they see. And when you can see it, it becomes more comfortable. How many Black men played president before there was a Black one? That's not by accident.”

Fashion can be political too

Flowing gowns, skirts, and other traditionally feminine attire is standard fare for Porter. Remember when Porter wore the black Christian Siriano tailored tuxedo jacket over a velvet gown at the 2019 Academy Awards?

He says it’s 100% intentional and 100% political. That’s partly due to a double standard in the media, where women are applauded for dressing in traditionally masculine clothing. 

“I need to understand why when women wear pants suits, nobody bats an eye. Lady Gaga can dress up like a full-on man for a Frank Sinatra concert. Literally, pompadour and all, tuxedo, and perform like a man singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ and nobody bats a friggin’ eye. When women do it, it's considered art. When a Black gay man tries to do it though, I'm perverted.” 

He continues, “I am a cisgendered man, not trying to create a feminine illusion in my face. I'm not trying to be a woman. I am a man, man, man, man, man, man, choosing a feminine silhouette.”

In the director’s seat

This summer, Porter is making his directorial debut with the film “What If?” It’s a coming-of-age story about a Black teenaged trans girl.

“It's about the normalization of the othered. It's the opposite of ‘Pose’ in that it is about acceptance. The girl is accepted by her communities. She's accepted by her mom. There's no … trans violence porn or trans sex worker porn, or trans trauma porn. There's none of that. It's really trying to put in place that this is how it is.”

Billy Porter attends 87th Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center in New York, NY, December 4, 2019. Photo by Lev Radin/Shutterstock.