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More than a Dress: How Billy Porter Shakes the Binary by Mara Kissinger

More than a Dress: How Billy Porter Shakes the Binary by Mara Kissinger

(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

When I watched the Broadway musical Kinky Boots in San Francisco when I was 14 or so, I could have never imagined how obsessed I would become with the originator of the role of Lola, Billy Porter.  But my obsession started around 5 years later when I saw the first episode of the FX drama series Pose. For those of you who don’t know Pose is a show produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Janet Mock.  It follows a group of young people in New York participating in the balls of the 1980s populated by queer people of color rejected by society and haunted by the AIDs epidemic.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

Billy Porter plays Pray Tell, the announcer at the balls and a fiercely caring and proud individual.  Though I fell in love with the character first, the actor has captured my love more. One of the things that has inspired me the most about Porter is his fashion and his willingness to wear the one fashion statement that many men particularly in the USA where I am from, are terrified to rock.  In his own words Billy Porter is often “a man in a dress.” For some reason this is a grave taboo, yet Porter loves nothing more than to step onto a red carpet wearing something flowy and gorgeous.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

Now, to be perfectly clear, Porter is not doing drag in these moments.  Though it may seem like a silly little distinction, this is actually quite important.  Porter is not throwing shade at any drag queens, but rather pointing out that one doesn’t have to be doing an elaborate performance of femininity to wear a dress.  Dresses can be worn by anyone of any gender or presentation and you shouldn’t be shamed for it. Through being incredibly visible at red carpet events wearing jaw-droppingly gorgeous outfits, Porter is rewriting a strict narrative especially in Hollywood.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

Male actors are notorious for wearing the plainest of all red carpet get ups.  Most of the time it is black tux or bust. Every now and again for the Met Gala they’ll bust out a color or some embroidery.  None can really say they would show up in a gold bodysuit with ten foot wings. Billy Porter was the only one who stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

Androgynous/femme-leaning men in the spotlight have definitely existed.  I would make Prince roll in his grave if I didn’t give him a shout out. But with just the smallest window of acceptance opening, Porter has pushed his way through in his finest ready to be visibly proud, gay, and in a dress.  Something that is hard fought for him. Porter has openly and bravely discussed the sexual abuse that he endured as a child, further exemplifying the bravery in his fashion choices he has shared the graphic details so that it might be avoided in the future.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

Billy Porter exemplifies the ways that fashion can be more than just clothing that we put on our bodies.  Wearing clothing that is judged unsuitable for you can put you in grave danger. We must be proud of all of those who are feminine, female identifying or not and we must treat them with dignity and respect. It is time to recognize the power in being femme and the danger that femme people are often in.

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(Photo Credit: Billy Porter)

The outfits that Porter wears on the red carpet cause endless harassment and humiliation on the street, exemplified by the artist and activist Alok Vaid Menon who talks about it so much more eloquently than I ever could.


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(Photo Credit: Alok Vaid Menon)

Alok is a transfeminine gender-nonconforming person who talks often about the difficulties of being so visibly feminine when you were assigned male at birth and are still assigned that by strangers.  In their own words, “this is how i have survived: by sensitizing myself to everyone & everything. when i walk outside i have to decipher the invisible tongues of thousands. is this stare curious or lethal? is this invitation genuine or genocidal? in split seconds i traverse universes.”  Their fashion is more than just what they wear it is also the thing that brings the most violence despite simply being garments on a body. It is time to recognize the power in being femme and the danger that femme people are often in.

This issue is more than just related to a few raised eyebrows at an award show it is related to a culture that harrasses and murders trans-femme people.  When Billy Porter defies our gendered rules he is also making a political statement and it is unfortunately one that is essential to make. Femme people of all genders and races are important and worthy.  Period.










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