Mr. America: Billy Porter Is the First Gay Man to Cover Essence

Black Lives Matter

Illustration for article titled Mr. America: Billy Porter Is the First Gay Man to Cover Essence

Screenshot: JD Barnes for Essence

It’s unfortunate that in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary, Essence has also been implicated in a rising controversy as past and current Black female staffers have anonymously launched a campaign to #TakeBackEssence. But as we also commemorate 50 years of Pride and the closing of Pride Month, we can simultaneously celebrate another milestone made by the legacy imprint.

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Dressed in a custom, African-American flag-inspired gown by stylist and designer Jason Rembert, entertainer, activist and fashion icon Billy Porter graces the magazine’s July-August issue, flanked by the quote: “Activism is in my DNA.”

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Like Essence itself, Porter is 50, and rightly called a national treasure in the cover story, penned by award-winning journalist and podcaster Tre’vell Anderson, who brought this major first in the magazine’s history to our attention. In the story, Porter speaks passionately of the current moment, saying:

White people are so afraid that we want vengeance that they can’t acknowledge the truth. But we don’t want vengeance. We want our rights. We want equality. We want to be treated like human beings. We want to know that we can walk out of our houses and not be under threat of death every single day simply because of the color of our skin.

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Of course, a variation on the same sentiments holds equally true for our LGBTQ+ brethren, and as one who sits at the intersection of those identities, Porter is the perfect person to remind us of that fact. Also true is that the intersection of a racial uprising with the 50th celebration of Pride presents a prime opportunity to remind ourselves that any movement for Black lives must include all of them.

“‘It took years of me vomiting up the filth that I was told about myself, and halfway believed, before I could walk around on this earth like I deserve to be here,’” Porter tells Anderson in a truly compelling and emotional conversation. “But the filth was not only coming from White people. The filth was coming from my own.

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“I’m so moved by the olive branch that this is saying to the world and to our community collectively,” he later adds, in reference to the cover, “that LGBTQ+ Black people are Black people first and we need to be supported and honored too. Stop killing us like everybody else is.”

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The significance of this pivotal moment in both America and Essence’s history certainly wasn’t lost on Rembert—also the founder and designer of label Aliette NY—who shared the story behind Porter’s gorgeous and evocative gown in an Instagram post:

When I got called for this cover by [Essence Chief Content and Creative Officer] Moana Luu I was mixed with emotions. It was three days after the death of George Floyd and still heavily in the thick of this pandemic. I started requesting clothing and got great confirmations. Saturday before the shoot came and that morning I called Moana. I explained to her that I don’t feel comfortable giving credits to brands that are not publicly supporting black people. She agreed. I then said it will be cool to have a black designer make a custom dress depicting the African American flag. With the shoot in two days, I reached out to two of my favorite black designers, who werent able to make the dress on such short notice. I reached back out to Moana with the news. She said “Jason, can I ask you a question?” I said yes of course..she said “why not you?” For my entire career as a designer I never forced my designs or custom on any of my clients or projects..not because I didn’t feel like it wasn’t good enough..but because I understand my privilege of access..and my first instinct is to always give another designer the option first..especially someone who has less opportunity. I am grateful for the support and belief from Moana for this one! THANK YOU!!

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Of course, the opportunity to see Porter yet rock another gown is always a treat, and the Emmy, Tony and Grammy winner and gender-defying dresser discussed how eschewing traditional masculinity paved the way for a major breakthrough, personally and professionally.

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“[B]y taking myself out of the masculinity game, that literally turned my life around, and all of those layers were building blocks to the authentic human being you see in front of you who gives zero f–ks,” Porter proclaimed. “When I actually leaned into my truth, this is what ultimately happened. Did it take two-plus decades? Yes, but it’s happening and this is my ministry.”

We applaud both Porter’s tenacity and Essence’s inclusion, even as the media company continues to refute allegations of mistreatment and misconduct. In fact, as this post was being composed, the company doubled-down on its disavowal of the accusations, issuing an abbreviated version of its public statement on social media. Like many who have grown up on the pioneering brand, the controversy has both been troubling and potentially revelatory as we collectively hope to create better environments in which Black talents can thrive.

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As Porter aptly noted, “it’s those of us in positions of power in our community who can change the conversation.”

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