In 2019, Billy Porter cemented his place in history as the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for — and then the first to win — a lead acting award at the Primetime Emmys.
On Tuesday he received his third consecutive nomination for best actor in a drama for his portrayal of Pray Tell in the groundbreaking FX series “Pose.” (Jeremy Strong of “Succession” won the award in 2020.) But this year feels different, he said, and not just because “Pose,” set in New York’s ball scene of the 1980s and 1990s, wrapped up its acclaimed three-season run in June.
In a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, he discussed why this nomination would be extra meaningful and what “Pose” has meant for his career and for the future of Black, queer stories onscreen. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You won this award in 2019. What would make winning this year different?
There is a consciousness and a healing that has sprung out of my journey with “Pose” and Pray Tell. For the first two seasons, I knew I was engaged in a healing conversation. But through quarantine — and then coming back after quarantine to finish Season 3 — has just been really healing.
The idea of using art as activism, using my art to heal my trauma, has really come to the forefront this year. So to win for that would send a different kind of message to the world: That it’s not just about the glitz and glamour of the award. There’s an importance to the work that we do that vibrates above and beyond just the surface.
It sounds “Pose” has changed you as a person, and as an actor. Now that it’s over, how do you think it has changed or shaped your career?
No one was interested in my Black, gay behind for a long time, and “Pose” changed that, period. Changed that and put me at the front of something. Put me at this intersection and elevated my platform. I’ve always stood at the intersection of being Black and being queer and being a Christian.
It’s important. Change has occurred. And we don’t talk about it a lot because I feel like we’re always inside of some sort of collective trauma, but I do want to bring light to the fact that lots of change has happened in the world. “Pose” has taught me to dream the impossible. What “Pose” is, is something that was an impossibility until we came along.
Do you think “Pose” will ultimately be a trailblazer, the first of many series to give queer and transgender performers, especially performers of color, a prominent platform? Or do you think it will be exceptional in this regard?
You know, I’m not a fortune teller, so I can’t tell. But what I do know is that what Ryan Murphy and FX have done, in terms of allyship, is to create a space for us. I always use the analogy of “You teach a man to fish, and he’ll never go hungry.” Through the opportunity of “Pose,” they’ve taught us all how to fish. They taught us all how to feed ourselves.
I am directing a film now that is a romantic comedy that follows a Black, transgender, high school girl. A coming-of-age story that is a new conversation now. We’re ready for a new story to be told. And I have been given the tools through this experience, in particular, to be at the forefront of moving the conversation forward and telling all different kinds of stories from this Black, queer lens.
That said, the industry’s track record with representation isn’t great. Do you think “Pose” will truly change things for queer and trans performers on TV?
I think it’s just like everything else in life. Particularly, I’ll use politics as an analogy. Fredrick Douglass said over 150 years ago, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” It’s up to us. It’s up to people like me to stay vigilant; I’m a vigilante. I personally am going to make sure the conversation moves forward — that I personally hold Hollywood’s feet to the fire.
And everybody who comes behind me and who’s with me, we’re holding Hollywood’s feet to the fire. We’re holding the world’s feet to the fire in every area. We have to be in charge of that. We can’t wait for other people to do anything for us.