Billy Porter details a life of tenacity and vulnerability in Unprotected

Unprotected conjures a single thought — why would Billy Porter ever return to Pittsburgh? The memoir for the multi-hyphenate talent, who has dazzled on Broadway, screen, and the red carpet, details such horrible abuse in his hometown that the question feels more than warranted. And still, Porter comes back to do shows, lead Pride events, and even film his debut movie here.

Perhaps this is due to Porter powering through his circumstances, as a Black man, as a gay man, as the son of a devoted but chronically ill mother, as a vibrant personality in a drab industrial town. In Pittsburgh, he survives being violently bullied by classmates (much of it described in vivid, heartbreaking detail) and sexually abused by his stepfather. It’s also in Pittsburgh that he attends the Creative and Performing Arts magnet school and studies drama at Carnegie Mellon University.

From there, he begins his theater career and, with each chapter, experiences his share of setbacks and triumphs, including winning $100,000 on Star Search (the 1980s predecessor to America’s Got Talent). In 2013, he wins a Tony for the Broadway show Kinky Boots, and then a Grammy for the show’s cast album the following year. 

What seems like an unstoppable ascent hits even more obstacles with an HIV diagnosis around 2007, and the entertainment industry’s racism and homophobia. Porter more than calls out the latter with a number of justified tirades, many of which would raise the eyebrows of any musical theater fan. “Here I was, a Tony and Grammy Award winner, and I couldn’t book the stupidest of television shows,” Porter writes at one point.

Then comes Ryan Murphy and Pose. Then comes the red carpet appearances that allow Porter to display his daring lifelong love of fashion, dating back to his childhood habit of sneaking into his aunt’s room to try on her clothes and high-heeled shoes. 

The book feels cinematic, as linear, traditional memoir bumps into more subjective bits that provide glimpses into the current-day struggles clearly brought on by the trauma Porter details. This ambitious approach elevates the work and gives it an artistic flair deserving of Porter, as well as balancing his tough, seemingly unflappable exterior with moments of true vulnerability. 

Porter also seeks a kind of justice for his mother, Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter-Ford, a woman doomed by careless doctors to a life of pain and stigma (her degenerative neurological condition is attributed to her botched birth). Their relationship unfolds in Porter’s own words and touching exchanges, including what appears to be a transcribed interview between mother and son. 

Unprotected satisfies as a natural extension of the author, a rare feat in a genre often devoid of creativity and honest reflection. With each chapter, it seems clear that Porter was destined to succeed regardless and in spite of Pittsburgh. We should feel honored that he still comes back. 


August #CPBookClub selection:

How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen? by Lori Jakiela

There are few writers in the region more versatile than Lori Jakiela, a professor and director of English and Creative/Professional Writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. She’s published memoirs, essay collections, and volumes of poetry. In her new collection of poetry, How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?, Jakiela tells Pittsburgh City Paper the book “indulges my obsessions — Hemingway, mortality, family, Justin Bieber’s ‘Forgive’ tattoo, my complicated relationship with former supermodel Cindy Crawford, and so on.”

Be sure to grab a copy of How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen? at shop.riverstonebookstore.com and join the conversation during the August Pittsburgh City Paper Book Club.