On Saturday, Billy Porter delivered a stirring call to action for all members and allies of the LGBTQ community.
At the 28th GLAAD Media Awards in New York, the Kinky Boots star received the Vito Russo Award, an honor bestowed upon an out member of the media who has worked to promote acceptance. Presenting him with the honor was his longtime friend Rosie O’Donnell, who accepted the award herself in 2003.
PEOPLE has exclusive video footage of Porter’s acceptance speech, during which he shared a moving story, recalling the time in 1996 that he visited The Rosie O’Donnell Show while still in the closet.
“I was signed to a major label and had been schooled by the executives to keep my mouth shut, except for singing, so that my true nature might not be detected in the urban music business, which at the time was riddled with institutional, aggressive, poisonous and inhumane homophobia,” Porter, 47, reminisced.
“Just as I was about to go onstage for my interview with Rosie, my record executive handler flippantly tossed out this direction: ‘Don’t speak! I mean, don’t try to talk too much.’ He actually said those words to me: ‘Don’t speak.’ The on-camera interview was a disaster,” he added. “Rosie’s crack-of-dawn effervescence was met with rigid one-word answers, a tongue was tied, my spirit was broken. Rosie saw ambush in my eyes. On a commercial break, she leaned in: ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Nothing,’ I said. But she pressed: ‘My office. After the show. No bulls—.'”
It was after their segment that O’Donnell delivered some motivating real talk.
“She wrapped me in her arms. She gave me some tough love. And she empowered me: ‘You are enough. F— them,'” Porter said. “She also gave me a Volkswagen Bug to drive when I moved to L.A., and I drove it for 16 years, just FYI!”
Porter — who last month released his new covers album Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rogers — delivered a similar sentiment when he took the stage at the GLAAD event.
“You are all enough. We are all enough. F— them. Because now is the time to speak up because the attack from this administration on the arts and on the LGBTQ and other marginalized people is real, and it is meant, once again, to silence up,” he said. “However, since the beginning of time, artists are the folks who engage critical thinking and encourage those who think they are powerless to question the status quo; speak truth to power; change hearts and minds. The days of ‘shut up and sing’ are over. We must stay vigilantly visible. We must stay engaged. We must tell our stories. And GLAAD encourages us to do just that.”
Porter has vocally opposed President Donald Trump since the election. What’s more, he and his longtime partner Adam Smith — the 35-year-old co-owner of the high-end eyewear company Native Ken — rushed their wedding, marrying barely two weeks into their engagement in January, so they could say “I do” under the Obama admnistration.
“This administration has declared war on its own people. And as a black man, this ain’t nothin’ new, as a gay man, this ain’t nothin’ new — but where they slipped up this time is in that in that declaration of war, it’s not only against black and brown people and queer people anymore: It’s against all of us. And as a result, the good news is, white folk and straight folk and all those fierce women folk are mad now, and now something might get done!” Porter said, the 2,000-strong crowd erupting in cheers.
“So it’s time to get your war clothes on! Because from slavery to emancipation to the 13th Amendment to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement; from Stonewall to AIDS to marriage equality — we gotta remember the shoulders who we stand on,” he said. “The ones who fought and died for those freedoms that we hold so dear. Let’s use these historical strides we’ve made as a nation to empower us as warriors on this battlefield of equality.”
As the audience gave a standing ovation, Porter concluded his emotional speech: “It’s time to protect our inalienable rights and get your war clothes. Until we can figure out how to love each other unconditionally, no one wins. No one. Freedom, equality, justice have always come at a cost, and evidently they always will … Stay strong. Stay vigilant. Stay visible. Stay hopeful. Stay focused. Be brave. Be fierce. Resist. Resist. Resist. Resist. Resist.”
At the event, GLAAD raised more than $2.2 million to raise money for the organization’s various initiatives that aim for LGBTQ acceptance.