By Josh Lee
“People are going to be really uncomfortable with my black ass in a ball gown, but it’s not anybody’s business but mine.” – Billy Porter, Vogue.
In times as confusing as these, there is one certainty we can all rely on: aggravating Tomi Lahren is a sure sign that you’re doing something right. So I hope when Billy Porter – one of the stars of Ryan Murphy’s life-affirming, trans-centered drama ‘Pose’ – finally took off that dress after wearing it on the Oscars red carpet and subsequently breaking the internet, he was able to take a moment to log on to Twitter dot com and chuckle at Tomi’s unhinged claim that it attacked the very concept of masculinity.
Billy’s custom Christian Siriano, black velvet gown was the gag of the (awards) season. It was refreshing. It was needed. With America and Britain in the grips of a conservative renaissance, Billy gave us the chance to stop, pause and celebrate the doors that queer men have opened, and the spaces we’re now able to authentically occupy. It’s easy to overstate the importance of a thing when hysteria flourishes on social media like germs in a petri dish, and it’s worth remembering that Billy wore his dress in the midst of security personnel, cameras and a largely liberal crowd. But still, it was important.
Queer men have always had an intimate and symbiotic relationship with style. As boys we often experiment secretly with clothes that are made for women, feeling an affinity with femininity and knowing it to be forbidden. At Pride, sunlight dances on our glitter-smeared faces. On the scene the more adventurous men in our community wear outrageous outfits that give fathers palpitations and fashion designers inspiration for their next collection. The sartorial risks that queer men take inspire the fashion industry, and fashion, in turn, inspires us.
Of course, not every queer man fits every part of this description (a few pairs of short shorts, a singlet once or twice and one trip to Sink The Pink as my tragic drag alter ego Kenya Swallow is all I’ve ever mustered), but generally we’re more out-there than our straight counterparts. When queer men take daring, gender-bending fashion into public spaces like Billy did, it sends a beacon out into history that says, “this can happen, this was possible.” And Billy’s gown said specifically, “a queer, black man has expressed his truth on the global stage.” Opportunities to say that are increasing, but they’re still depressingly scant.
The popular narrative is that black masculinity can’t handle homosexuality. That’s the insecure side of black masculinity, the side that harbours deep anxiety thanks to centuries of oppression – Billy himself acknowledged that, “When you’re black and you’re gay, one’s masculinity is in question” in a post-Oscars interview with Vogue. And inevitably, some straight black men agreed with Tomi and saw Billy’s gown as an attack on a fragile sense of masculinity that is far too narrow for anyone to healthily operate in.
Billy said he wanted to “challenge expectations” on the red carpet, and he certainly reminded us that the boundaries of masculine expression don’t begin and trousers and end at shirts. For young black queer men with few role models who are living out, proud and fabulously (and straight black men who are boxed in by a masculinity that is feared, surveilled and strictly policed) Billy’s red carpet moment widened the bandwidth of black masculinity on such a huge platform and gave us all a little more room to breathe, even if just for a moment.
The forerunners to this moment, the black and Latino queer and trans community that Billy portrays on Pose, suffered immense hardships to forge space for Billy and the rest of us to be so publicly flamboyant. Unwittingly nodding to a similar creation worn by Hector Xtravaganza, founder of the legendary ballroom House of Xtravaganza, a serendipitous link to black and Latinx queer history was drawn, allowing people with little knowledge of ballroom scene to understand that Billy – and in many ways all of us – stand on the shoulders of giants. Sadly this recognition came just weeks after Hector passed away.
In an awards season where Timothee Chamalet is twink-du-jour, Terry Cruise is decked out in a harness, and a straight dude from Los Angeles is being honoured for playing bisexual icon Freddie Mercury in a film that barely references said bisexuality, Billy put some welcome distance between us and our straight counterparts, making it clear that while they might take queer roles and wear our shit, the radical and evolving nature of how we express ourselves is still alive. Lord knows what Billy will have to do next when Chris Hemsworth shows up in a halterneck in 2020, but he will undoubtedly be five steps ahead of every other man in the room once again.
Josh Lee is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @fka_j