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In an Era of Ugliness, Billy Porter’s Beauty Shines Through


Porter's candor was a counterpoint to the lies and ignorance spewed by people like Matt Gaetz and Caitlyn Jenner.

I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Tony Fauci on Wednesday for an upcoming column, and I began the conversation by thanking him for all his work on the pandemic and told him that it was the first day back to the gym for me without a mask. "How did it feel?" he asked. "I was humiliated," I replied. "People forgot how ugly I was."

Bad, self-deprecating jokes aside, there is so much ugliness in the news lately, and so many people whose behavior, not appearance, has been atrociously ugly. The news obsesses about the likes of the unlikable Marjorie Taylor Greene, Derek Chauvin, Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy, Caitlyn Jenner, Tucker Carlson, and so many other people who are downright nasty in addition to being spineless.

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration warned about the dramatic increase in unruly or dangerous behavior aboard passenger airplanes. We can only imagine what's about to come with the barrage of cell-phone videos with irate store customers complaining about the last remnants of pandemic regulations.

We saw many Republicans simply turn their head away from the truth and ignore the ugliness of January 6 by whitewashing it and angrily voting against a bipartisan committee to investigate the insurrection. With all of the anger, rage, selfishness, and lies, it's almost shocking when compassion, dignity, valor, and truth appear in the news.

Once in a while a bright light shines through, and for us it was Billy Porter, who stood head and shoulders above all the corrosiveness with his courage and humility in coming forward to talk about living with HIV. I can't remember a time when I was so impressed with the strength and fortitude of a celebrity, and that's saying something in this day and age of Hollywood misfires and digital manipulation.

The pandemic revealed some celebrities to be tone-deaf and privileged, and phony to a fault. As someone who studies the news, pop culture, and trends, I've noticed a bit of deterioration in the way we look at celebrities and politicians as heroes and influencers. Sometimes it's not so much a surprise but a validation of how the fortunate respond to crisis when the unfortunate must learn to cope.

I think a lot of us realized that there is a huge gap between the haves and have-nots during the last year, and that sentiment is likely to stick. In a true show of obtuseness and phoniness last March, during the heady days of the pandemic, celebrities released videos of themselves singing John Lennon's "Imagine," crooning about a world with "no possessions." The irony of these performers' performances was not lost. The backlash on social media was fierce. The phoniness palpable.

Even though everyone already knew he was a jerk, Sen. Ted Cruz and his family's jaunt to Cancun during the Houston flooding, and his diabolical explanation of why he was caught on his excursion, was telling. It was a moment that had everyone agreeing, "That's how the rich and famous deal with trauma."

All of this is not to say we have removed ourselves completely from being a celebrity-obsessed culture. For the most part, we still are. Why should we really care that Adam Sandler walked out of an IHOP because he was told he had to wait? Well, a lot of us do care, but few and far between are stories of celebrities showing their innermost humanity.

The pandemic also opened up a big craze and a market for digital filters that alter appearances and touch up looks for digital conversations on Zoom and FaceTime, or for snapshots on Instagram or Snapchat. It raises the question, Who are we really looking at?

It's metaphorical, really, for the phoniness and selfishness that pervade so much of our society in an era of people who won't get vaccinated, refuse to wear masks, believe that Biden didn't win the election, or think that they're above following any rules in the name of common good. It's me first, you last, and to hell with everyone else. It's all about me looking good, literally and metaphorically.

That mentality didn't hold up for all the health care professionals and frontline workers who legitimately put us first and themselves last in trying their best to get us through a pandemic that tragically killed so many and affected all of us in some way. They weren't celebrities, and maybe that's why many of us got to thinking about what entails a noteworthy person. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Golden Globes are going away, and the Emmys and the Oscars had such dismal ratings. Why aren't we lavishing awards on people who save lives?

Billy Porter hasn't saved any lives, at least not yet, but his revelation is bound to have an enormous effect on the millions who carry the secret weight of being HIV-positive. Porter's won a Grammy, a Tony, and an Emmy, and he's an Oscar away from an EGOT. But Porter may have won his biggest award, and most consequential, on Wednesday when he boldly stepped forward in a memorable role that will last a lifetime. His coming forward as HIV-positive will be a seminal moment in LGBTQ+ history.

I had the opportunity to speak with Porter during the pandemic, and we talked about our shared heritage of being from Pittsburgh. The Steel City has a history of heroes honored in statues sprinkled through the area, from Roberto Clemente to Franco Harris and Mario Lemieux. The city should consider adding a statue of Billy Porter. A true measure of the momentous nature of his achievements and his courage.

If you are HIV-positive, you felt a moment of pride on Wednesday. Or secretly thought, I wish I could do that. Many who have the virus certainly feel that they can't come forward, like Porter, because of the stigmatization still associated with HIV. Exposing themselves, for many, is fraught with thoughts of losing their jobs or their friends or imagining the panic-stricken look from people still ignorant about the disease. I should think that if you live in Pittsburgh, for instance, or any other part of the country where there are no visible HIV-positive people, you still feel the need to harbor that secret. Porter's honesty hopefully helps you feel that you are not alone.

Porter's character on the hit show Pose, Pray Tell, for which Porter won his Best Actor Emmy, was also a profile in undaunted courage, particularly during a time when HIV was almost a death sentence. Pray Tell and the other characters on the show who were positive weren't portrayed in a "poor me" way. They all exuded love, happiness, and hope. That's what made the show such an inspiration, and that's why the show put a whole new face on what was an absolutely horrible time in LGBTQ+ history. The show recognized that history and acknowledged it in a beautiful way.

Porter coming forward on Wednesday provided so much hope. In an era of ugliness, Porter's moment of truth was pure beauty to behold.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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