Billy Porter's Identity As A Free, Queer Black Man Should Inspire All Men To Be Comfortable In Their Masculinity

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Billy Porter's Identity As A Free, Queer Black Man Should Inspire All Men To Be Comfortable In Their Masculinity
Self

The man was happy, but it presented a question I couldn't answer.

We often talk about living your life on your terms. We encourage people to be themselves. Live in your truth, forget what people think, and truly love yourself.

But do we really mean it? What if you see someone who is doing just that? A person who is comfortable in their own skin, able to move throughout life while ignoring insult and judgment, and embracing their station in life? Why is it that some of us have an inkling to tear that person down?

I first saw Billy Porter on the television show Pose. Playing the character Pray Tell, Porter is brash, extravagant, vulnerable, and honest. Watching Pray Tell MC the Balls — an LGBTQ+ subculture that showcases drag performers walking in themed outfits and costumes, competing for trophies and bragging rights — praising and cutting down ladies in one scene and mourning the loss of his partner to AIDS in another, Porter displays a range that has very few equals.

I remember watching Pose with my lady Michelle, saying to her, “Billy Porter is amazing.” I was and still am in awe of his performance.

In fact, watching Pose made me a fan of Porter. He's a great actor and has an incredible singing voice. But when I saw his red carpet pictures, I began to look at him differently.

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The first photo that raised my eyebrows was Porter’s MET Gala outfit. Dressed as the Egyptian goddess Isis, in gold body paint, Porter’s costume was only one-upped by his entrance. 

Watching six muscular Black men carrying him into the celebration, I said, “Uhhh okay...” I then saw other photos of Porter’s extravagant looks, many in dresses and other female clothes. I shook my head, rolled my eyes, and asked myself, “Why does he have to wear a dress?”

Men wearing female clothes has always been a touchy and confusing subject for me. It's something that I cannot wrap my mind around.

Growing up, gender lines were very clear: Men wore clothes that were designated for men, and women had garments that are marked for women. I never knew anyone trying on their mother's skirt and jackets. That was so foreign to me.

Of course, I also came of age in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the more conservative places in the nation. Still, the boys that I knew didn’t want to wear a dress.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Diego, California that I saw my first drag show and was taken aback. This tall man, strutting around in a two-piece women’s business suit, singing a caberet song, was interesting and a culture shock altogether.

I was fascinated at what a man got out of wearing clothes that were made for women. It wasn’t disgust; he could do what he wanted to do, I just didn’t get it.

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The man was happy, but it presented a question I couldn't answer.

For me, at that time, seeing a man wearing women’s garments represented weakness. Real men don’t do things like that.

As a boy who was reared primarily by a single mother, we were taught by her that boys act a certain way, and this thought was reinforced by the streets. Anything associated with being a "sissy," "gay," "not manly" or feminine in any way was not tolerated by folks in my neighborhood. We had to be "hard" to survive in an area where softness was not allowed.

In retrospect, it was all a protective behavior — we were all scared and thought the best way to not be messed with was to fall into this slim view of manhood.

Being a Black man in America, masculinity equals aggressiveness, strength, and confidence. A person who was certain about where he stood.

For me, a man dressing as a woman seemed confused. It was a linear definition of being a man, and for Black men whose masculinity had been compromised by white supremacy — being abused and not able to properly protect himself or his family; being defined as less than a man; being subjected to treatment that no dog would envy, all the while being shown that white men are the standard for masculinity — I can understand why any deliration from that narrow belief would be met with defiance.

When I would see Black men on TV, magazines, or in real life wearing dresses, skirts, and other women’s clothes, I would say to myself, “Why do they have to have the brother looking crazy?” I would shake my head.

However, many of these men would also be wearing the biggest and best smiles known to man! They were happy and loving themselves, comfortable in their masculinity. These dudes were owning who they are. I had to look inward and ask myself, “If they don’t have a problem with it, why do I?”

As a person who is very supportive of LGBTQ rights, has close friends within that community, and has walked in multiple Pride parades, my attitude towards men wearing dresses didn’t fit. I didn’t like the way I was feeling and it contradicted everything that I am. I had to really sit myself down and reflect.

There is a great line from a Nas song called “Stay.” He says, “Hate is confused admiration.” And that was it.

I realized that I was envious of not only Billy Porter, but other men — other people who could live their life in a way that was so unapologetic, exist in a world that says, “You can't do that” but do it anyway, and truly live on their own terms.

To walk into a room and say, “I don’t give an F what you think” without even saying it is brave.

Here I was, a Black man who grew up being teased for his dark complexion and stutter. Who is a target of white supremacy daily, and is judged and prosecuted because of my skin. I have beat the odds of being a statistic — not dead, drug-addicted, or in jail — and here I am giving dirty looks and foul words at another Black man for the way he was moving through the world. I shake my head at that.

I'm not proud of the glances I would give Billy Porter or any other man who chooses to dress the way he wants. Billy Porter is living his life and owning his s***, and that alone should be praised.

I'm not going to lie, I still struggle with why a man wants to wear a dress. I don’t get it, but there's something I learned a long time ago: “Everything is not meant for you to understand.” And I'm cool with that.

I admire Billy Porter not only for his talent, but because he's truly one of the few free Black men today. This man is the real deal, and he and other queer Black men who choose to step outside of the narrow box that is Black manhood don’t need our judgmental BS. Just let them live. All the things they went through to get here? Just let them live.

All these young trans kids and adults coming up in the world, trying to figure out who they are and where they fit — let them live. You don’t have to understand where they are coming from, but let them be themselves. Things are rough enough as it is.

I recently bought Porter’s new single “Love Yourself,” and it's so appropriate. It's a high-tempo house song that showcases Porter’s towering vocals, encouraging people to be themselves. It's the kind of song we need in today’s climate of assimilation and fear of standing out.

Porter ends the song in a cappella, singing, “Always remember who you are / Don't let anyone get in your way / We need old-fashioned love in the world today." And I couldn’t agree more.

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LeRon L. Barton is a writer from Kansas City, Mo. His essays have appeared in Salon, The Good Men Project, Eastbay Express, Those People, AlterNet, Buzzfeed, Gorilla Convict, and Elephant Journal. 

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