How Billy Porter Overcame Childhood Abuse to Become a TV Trailblazer: 'My Voice Saved Me'

"My life is now service, and my service is my authentic Black queerness," he tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

Billy Porter
Photo: Shavonne Wong

Billy Porter has survived a lot. But, also, the man has lived.

"At 52 years old, I am getting to the deepest parts of my truth," Porter tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's issue. "I'm having a rebirth — on my own terms."

Raised in Pittsburgh by a mother with a disability and within a conservative Pentecostal community, Porter was always the Billy Porter we know today: a trailblazer. He's now, of course, an Emmy winner for the F/X drama Pose, a Tony winner for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots and an iconoclast on red carpets. But the world wasn't always ready for him.

Just as Porter has always said what he wanted to say — most recently in his new memoir, Unprotected — other folks have always said a lot about him. Growing up, he was too girly. At Carnegie Mellon, where he studied theater on a scholarship, he was told his voice "was too high for the American stage." Then on Broadway, "They said don't sing 'so R&B.' I was too Black, too ethnic, too gay, too much," he says. He still gets that on Twitter: Billy Porter is too much! He doesn't take the bait.

"I am not adjudicating my life on social media," he says. "Nobody can do what I can do. That is not ego. That is just fact. Y'all can say what you want, because you're breathing the fire of hate into an ocean of love."

For more from Billy Porter, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here.

Unprotected: A Memoir Billy Porter
Abrams Press

Porter says his voice "has always saved me." He found his in church. But as quickly as he realized the power of his tenor, he was quieted, told his style of performing was a "shame before God." In school, on the streets and soon at home, Porter became a target.

"My Black queerness made everyone uncomfortable," he says. He was beaten in first grade and woke up in the hospital. He remembers his unflappable mother, now 76, telling him, "They crucified Jesus, baby. You'll be fine."

When he was 7, his mom remarried. (He never really knew his father, for whom he is named.) Following one late-night "birds and bees" conversation, his stepfather began sexually abusing him. Porter says it occurred at least twice a week for five years.

"As a child, I became a grown man. In my mind, I lived that experience as if it was an affair. Because it was loving, it was nurturing, it was confusing. 'Cause it was touch. It was what I needed; it was the illusion of care, of a big, strong man caring for me. Still, to this day, I'm not okay."

billy porter with his mother Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter Ford The photo with his mother was taken around 1971-1972 near Pittsburgh, PA.
courtesy Billy Porter

Porter began therapy at 25 and resumed it during the pandemic. "My sex life in relation to intimacy, it's not — it's not good at all," he says. Married to longtime boyfriend Adam Smith, 40, since 2017, he still struggles with his past. "It's really, really hard in a marriage, you know, when you're trying to figure out how to be intimate with somebody. But we're growing together and healing together. It's a lot of hard work. Let me say, it's worth it."

Musical theater pointed him in the right direction. "I don't think I'd be alive if I hadn't discovered it," he says. "If I hadn't seen those things, like The Wiz and Dreamgirls, then I never would've been able to dream outside of my circumstance."

Mentored by teachers at a performance arts high school, he got a part in the Broadway chorus of Miss Saigon during his senior year of college. What followed over the next two decades exemplifies the bumpy road of acting — and the extra degree of difficulty for a Black performer.

"I was dreaming big, but based on s--- I had already seen," Porter remembers. "I was working hard to be a sassy Black gay man on a Shonda Rhimes procedural drama."

Then in 2018 came Pose and the breakout TV role that made him an Emmy winner with purpose. "My life is now service, and my service is my authentic Black queerness," he says.

Working with Hollywood mega-creator Ryan Murphy on Pose, which ended its three-season run in June, inspired him to build a Murphy-esque empire, creating content for the LGBTQ community. There's a shoe collaboration with Jimmy Choo that is out now. A new pop song drops this month, with an album to be released next year. He recently costarred with Camila Cabello in Cinderella, and he's directing his first movie and continuing his activism for HIV awareness. (He came out as positive in May, revealing he's been living with HIV since 2007.)

"I'm looking for legacy that lasts beyond my ego, beyond my faith, beyond my money," he says. "Who am I changing? How does my art affect the world and make it a better place?"

If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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