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The Book Report

January 2024 - "Unprotected"
By Joan Cucinotta
Posted: 2024-01-31T14:34:49Z

COMMENTARY ON UNPROTECTED BY BILLY PORTER 


Billy Porter has been one of Pittsburgh’s most visible celebrities–an actor, singer, director, composer, and playwright, as his book blurb says. His memoir Billy Porter Unprotected goes behind the public face to reveal the raw story of his abusive upbringing and difficult early career before he became the first openly gay man to be nominated for the Primetime Emmy Awards. 


Porter shows us how he was raised by Pentecostals, an evangelical faith that aims to prove its members’ salvation through personal and public declarations of faith. But Porter experienced abuse in this faith from an early age. “By the time I was five,” he writes on the opening page, “it was all too clear that something was wrong with me.” That something was his awareness of feeling and being delighted in his femininity, yet his church choir experience only brought bullying and shaming. Worse was the sexual abuse by his stepfather under the guise of “learning how to be a man.” At age 12 Porter finally demanded that his stepfather stop the abuse; it was then that Porter realized he had been “unprotected” and now needed to take his own steps to nurture and protect himself. This new sense of himself coincided with throwing himself into his performing art. He began leading a life of relentless travel, innumerable auditions, glittering performances, and the pursuit of anything that let him become the best entertainer he could imagine being.  


He shows us telling signs of his intense ambition to succeed. In middle school, while his classmates selected the popular choices of Spanish or French language to study, Porter switched to the unpopular Russian track because he could accurately foresee that Russian would be his ticket into a better, more academically competitive high school. And because that high school was in a different neighborhood, he saw that he’d also get a free bus pass that would allow him to pick up all the dance and song extracurricular activities available at CAPA, Pittsburgh’s downtown high school for the arts. These ambitions led him to cultivate his artistic talents further in college, yet he kept being pigeonholed as the outsider, a black, gay, flamboyant entertainer. Porter calls this marginal status the “Millennium Coon Show.” Clearly he wanted and felt he was capable of much more. 


Porter’s account of his life testifies to his bravado–“I believe in walking through all the doors that are open and kicking the other ones down”, he said during an interview. In that way, his story resembles the emotional and financial challenges of almost any artist, entertainer, writer, or painter but which for him were only intensified by being Black and gay. But one admirable one dimension of the book is its expression of gratitude to those “angels,” as he calls them, who got him through much of the hard times, offering housing, payment of doctor bills, emotional support, and sometimes just a home to rest in. 


Some aspects of Porter’s compelling memoir seem still withheld from his public account. His mother, for instance, constantly rebuked his gay sexuality, echoing the claims of “abomination” and yet Porter considered his mother as the “luminous soul at the center of my genesis story.” We can only wonder why. It’s an anomaly in what is for the most part a compelling memoir of suffering and triumph. 



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Our next reading is Strangers in Their Own Land. Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. We are meeting on Friday, February 16th at 10:30am at the Squirrel Hill Library






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