"Unprotected" by Billy Porter; Abrams Press (288 pages, $28)
The Billy Porter you see today on big and small screens exemplifies the power of what can be accomplished by being unabashedly yourself. That wasn't always easy for him, though.
Before he became a Tony, Grammy and Emmy-winning actor — not to mention a movie star and fledgling director — he was just a kid from Pittsburgh coming to terms with his race, sexuality and talent in a city that sometimes seemed like it was trying to impede his creative progress. The entertainment industry wasn't particularly hospitable to Porter's career ascent either.
At 52, Porter decided it was time for the world to know his full story, or at least the version he wanted to tell in his debut memoir "Unprotected." It's an unfiltered look at many of Porter's highest and lowest moments, some of which seem designed to make readers as uncomfortable as he was. Others show what can be achieved via hard work and a steadfast dedication to authenticity.
Much of Porter's story has been out there for years, but never presented in such a raw and concentrated manner as a memoir. You might have heard Porter discuss being molested by his stepfather or read about his 2007 HIV diagnosis that he revealed to The Hollywood Reporter in May. But you've definitely never experienced 278 pages of how those life-changing events added to emotional trauma that he's still working through to this day.
As Porter makes clear right from the first page, "This is not a coming-out story." Rather, "Unprotected" is an exploration of how a kid who was constantly made to believe something was wrong with him just kept grinding until the world was ready to accept him and his gifts. It's not just Broadway and Hollywood that eventually came around to Porter as he was; his own family also had a lot of learning to do in that respect.
Porter's biological father wasn't a big factor in his life. His mother was and is a God-fearing woman who along with her church community tried for a long time to convince her son that homosexuality is a sin. That notion was hammered home for Porter by bullies who would regularly call him names and leave him battered and bloodied. Looking back at his childhood in Pittsburgh, Porter considers it "the time when my nature was my liability."
Readers should be aware that it's quite early in the the book when Porter describes in graphic detail how his stepfather, Bernie Ford, groomed him before abusing him "at the very least, two times a week for five years." While sometimes difficult to see laid out so plainly, it's an important part of Porter's story that has deeply weighed on him ever since.
There's quite a lot of Pittsburgh in this book, from his church days to descriptions of the city's public-transportation deficiencies to, most crucially, how a few pillars in the local arts scene who Porter often refers to as his "angels" recognized his powerful voice early and helped provide him with the opportunities and confidence to "cultivate my own agency and be my own advocate."
He went from participating in Reizenstein Musical Theater as a middle-schooler to being accepted on the spot for a CAPA program that he did while attending Taylor Allderdice High School to beginning his Broadway journey with the Pittsburgh CLO Mini Stars. His path eventually took him through Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama and grueling audition processes in Pittsburgh and beyond that taught him you "can't have nothin' if you don't work for it."
It's impossible to read "Unprotected" in anything but Porter's extremely distinctive voice. He ends many positive anecdotes with a giddy "well ... WERK!" and wrote of auditions: "The one that slays, stays." While certain chunks of the book come off as either literary or even journalistic depending on the tone and intention, some are so colloquial that you might mistake the act of reading "Unprotected" for an episode of "Pose."
Interjected throughout the otherwise linear narrative are snippets of Porter's life over the last few years, including how he and his husband have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and his extremely candid thoughts on racism, homophobia and the Donald Trump administration. You can probably guess where Porter lands on most issues political or otherwise, but you'll know without a shadow of a doubt after you finish "Unprotected."
His journey continued after leaving Pittsburgh to New York City and Broadway, where he quickly became a fixture in the Big Apple's bustling theater community. This self-described "22-year-old sass-a-frass whose only goal was world domination" was met with quite a bit of resistance to realizing his dreams, mostly from Broadway power-brokers who always expressed admiration for his voice but never seemed to think he was right for the biggest roles.
After a decade of near-obscurity and an HIV diagnosis that made Porter feel like "the embodiment of that statistic the entire world predicted I'd be," his fortunes finally turned around when he was cast as Lola in Broadway's "Kinky Boots," for which he won a Tony and Grammy. "Pose" came along soon after and cemented for Porter a feeling of being "firmly planted in my authenticity and on my own terms."
This is the kind of memoir that has no desire to sway how you feel about its author. If you weren't a big Porter fan before "Unprotected," this memoir won't change your mind. However, those who enjoy his work and want to learn more about his story will come away with a deeper understanding of how, as Porter puts it, "my life is a testimony to the power that art has to heal trauma."
In short, Porter did what he does best with "Unprotected": Slay.