Sunday Services at the Church of Billy Porter
"This is my ministry. I show up in my little gown, and all them little black kids in secret on the internet can go, ‘I’ll be alright.’"
madison moore and Billy Porter. Courtesy of BFA.com/Vladimir Weinstein.
Frederick Douglas. James Baldwin. Tony Kushner. Andre Leon Talley. These are just a few of the names and spirits conjured on stage at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Met on Sunday, where Pose star Billy Porter sat in conversation with artist-scholar madison moore to discuss camp and ballroom’s impact on pop culture and high fashion. Chatting backstage after the talk, moore called Porter “in a lot of ways the black sissy that I have been waiting for.”
Billed as a conversation, the afternoon was more of a Sunday sermon, thanks to the wisdom and passion of Porter: “I’m in a place right now where I’m trying to use everything that I have and the only thing that I have is my art. I’m an artist. This is how I reach out. This is how I give back. This is how I change the world. This is my ministry. I show up in my little gown, and all them little black kids in secret on the internet can go, ‘I’ll be alright.’ And you don’t have to say nothing to their church ‘cause they see it and they know too that you’re going to be alright.”
It was Porter’s return to the museum after making waves a month earlier at the Met Gala, storming the red carpet in a bejeweled catsuit with 10-feet wings, courtesy of The Blonds, complete with a 24-karat gold headpiece and custom gold-leaf Giuseppe Zanotti shoes. How was this go-round, featuring a mix of the Met’s regular patrons and a swath of black and brown LGBTQ+ young people, different from his last time here? “I just show up and try to be as authentic as I can in whatever space I’m in,” Porter told GARAGE. “I’m not really thinking about who’s there or what it’s for because that then becomes the conversation and not the content. For me, it’s the content. For me, it’s about let me show up and just be the most authentic in whatever space I’m in.”
And luckily, the content was plenty—overflowing, but we sopped every last bit of it up. Below, some excerpts from the Church of Billy Porter.
On learning to choose himself: “I made a decision a very long time ago that if I couldn’t be myself, I didn’t care. I chose myself. I chose my sanity over potential fame or celebrity or whatever that was, whatever that is that we in our young naive years set out to be. I just marvel at how specific it is. Like, I never dreamed that it would look like this. All of the messaging that I received from the minute I could comprehend thought was that something was wrong with me, that I needed to be fixed. When that’s the messaging you receive you move through your life with an unconscious of layer of doubt. It’s a layer of doubt that extends beyond regular doubt. I grew up in the church, so the rhetoric of you will never be blessed because of who you are, so do what you think you want to do but God’s not going to bless that thing. I’m just so grateful that I lived long enough to see this. My dream’s have always been huge, but I realize now in this moment that I was not dreaming big enough. I was not dreaming the impossible. There was no context for me to do so. But now there is. So that feels unbelievable.”
On being the representation he didn’t have growing up: “When I did see anything that sort of remotely possibly looked like me it was generally negative. The first part of my career, in my 20s, I spent a lot of time believing. What’s that James Baldwin quote? ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself and half-believed before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.’ It really is that. For 30 years it was a very hard struggle. And it’s a daily practice, the choosing of oneself, the understanding of extracting yourself from particular situations in order to save yourself so that one can walk on this Earth in the fulness of their ministry. I call it ministry. The first thing that people take away from us as gay folks is God. That’s the first thing y’all wanna take away. ‘God hates fags.’ It’s like, ‘No, y’all don’t have that power.’ So the first thing I had to work on was not losing my personal connection to something that was spiritual. Religion is manmade; spirituality is divine. We sit around and watch a lot of energy be put into morality, judging someone else from this moral position, and the only interest is to hate. So you’re justifying your hate with a bible. I got a bible too and that’s not what he said.
On demanding respect: “It really isn’t about whether one understands me or likes me. I’m not interested anymore in the conversation of tolerance. I’m not interested anymore in the conversation of acceptance. I don’t care. I don’t need that. I don’t need somebody else’s approval to validate my existence. What I demand is your respect for my humanity.”
On Susan Sontag writing that camp is depoliticized or apolitical: “Every single time I show up, I’m a political statement, so that’s wrong. She’s wrong, but she’s a white woman so she can’t speak from that perspective because that wasn’t her experience, that’s all. But the truth of the matter is, I’ve known it that’s why I think I’ve always done it, but you could never have told me that the simple act of wearing a gown to the Oscars would have the impact that it’s had. It cracked open a conversation across the board in a way that just surprises me. It’s the good news and the complicated news. The complicated news it that it’s 2019 and we’re still talking shit about a man wearing a dress. Like, who cares? But the good news is, I’m a household name. And it took me twenty fuckin years. Had I known. [ Laughs] But it wouldn’t have worked then. Everything is all about timing, the world wasn’t ready for it then, I get all of that.”
On Pose’s impact: “What creativity is, I feel, is leading people out of the darkness into the light. You can’t lead into the light until you’ve seen the darkness because you can’t tell the difference unless you’ve experienced the darkness. What Pose gets to do is show the world a group of people who have nothing, who choose life anyway. That’s what we’ve always done. We choose life anyway. We don’t have any opportunities. We don’t have any access. It’s not LGBTQ+ AIDS porn. It’s not. It’s a celebration of life. It’s about family, too. It challenges the idea and the societal constructs of what family means. You must call people who are your biological family ‘family’ because you are blood, but that doesn’t mean that they’re equipped to have the position in your life—that important position of support system—if they’re not there to support you. And sometimes, our family’s for whatever reason don’t understand how, don’t want to, don’t care to, don’t believe in it, can’t show up for us and love us unconditionally as LGBTQ+ people in the way that we need them to. So we have to let them go and move on. That’s a new conversation.”
On the mainstreaming of ballroom culture: “I understand what’s great about the appropriation. I understand that there’s good and there’s complicated in all of it. Appropriation is a really interesting thing, especially as we continue to teach people what that means and we continue to teach people the fallout from something like that. It’s not about the thing, it’s about the devastation in the wake of once it’s over. It’s about where the resources go and us talking about that and calling people to the carpet. So when we sit here and have these conversations about appropriation and all this stuff, it’s like, ‘Yes, I hear you, but are we supposed to stay in the shadows?’ Appropriation is one of the things that gets us out of the shadows. So how do we allow this thing to exist while simultaneously creating a space where what comes after it is good for everybody? It’s like gentrification. It’s a hard conversation. Are the neighborhoods supposed to stay in squalor? So what can we do to take this idea of gentrification and then put the right resources into the community that we’re gentrifying. That’s the conversation that I want to have.”
On the Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition: “I live my life as a camp person. That’s what my thing is. And camp was a liability for me. camp was used as a pejorative. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know when it became a bad word. What I love about this exhibit is the reclamation of camp being at the forefront and height of all of it. It’s like, the campier the better.”