"This is why I’m here," the actor says of making history with his role on the Ryan Murphy series Pose

By Dana Rose Falcone
July 16, 2019 04:34 PM

Pose‘s Billy Porter is making history at the 2019 Emmy Awards.

Porter, 49, received an Emmy nomination in the outstanding lead actor in a drama series category for his starring role as ball emcee Pray Tell and he is the first openly gay black man to receive the honor.

“My breath is taken away,” Porter told PEOPLE on Tuesday of his first Emmy nod. “I’m so thrilled. It’s an amazing feeling.”

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Now in its second season, Ryan Murphy’s Pose — which also received a nod for outstanding drama series — tells the story of the predominately LGBTQ ballroom community in New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, focusing on their fights for equality, against HIV/AIDS and for the night’s fiercest looks.

“I feel really blessed to have lived long enough to see this day, to see the world transform in this way, where our story gets to be told on this level with this kind of juice behind it, Ryan Murphy behind it,” Porter says. “It’s really life-altering.”

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock
Billy Porter as Pray Tell on Pose.
Macall Polay/FX

Despite working for three decades in show business, Porter feels his first Emmy acknowledgment came at the perfect moment. “Everything happens when it’s supposed to happen,” the Pittsburgh native says. “We’re always right where we’re supposed to be, and I would never have been ready before now.”

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The Tony and Grammy winner says his “gayness” used to handicap him in his industry.

“I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” recalls Porter, who’s celebrating his Emmy nomination on vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “My outness was always considered a liability for me and that has turned around. In my life in the business, having that flamboyant ability, very often that’s where you’re pigeonholed, that’s where you’re sort of put in a box. I’m glad to be out of that box. I’m glad that Pray Tell gets to be a really three-dimensional human being.”

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Pray Tell learned about his HIV positive diagnosis in season 1, and Porter has seen people fight the disease since he came to N.Y.C. in the ‘80s. But the Broadway star believes there’s a reason why he lived through the epidemic.

“I came out in 1985, ’86, around that time, and went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives. This is why I’m here,” Porter says. “I lived for a reason. I lived to be able to tell the story on the other side, to be able to remind people that were human beings. We’re real people and it’s not about acceptance and it’s not about tolerance, it’s about demanding respect for our humanity. Stop putting our humanity up for legislation and treat us like we’re human beings. That’s all that I care about. And that’s what this show gets to do. It’s really remarkable.”

Pose airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX .

The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will air Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

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