“You know what my life is like … every movie, TV show, ad in a magazine shows what my life is like," says one of the few cisgender characters to his trans lover on the FX original series Pose, about the New York City ball scene in the late ’80s. "But the only chance I’m gonna get of understanding your world is if you show me.”
Pose is doing exactly this for the mainstream — giving cis (people whose gender identity matches their physical sex), straight, white America a piece of LGBTQ history and representation that has been absent from the televised zeitgeist in favor of heteronormative stories. That's why it's so important to the LGBTQ community.
The show follows the lives of fictional characters within the ball scene, an LGBTQ subculture where different "houses" — mostly black and Latin gay, bi, lesbian and trans people — walk (or compete), usually on club stages or runways, for trophies in categories such as Face, Body, Butch Queen Realness, Femme Queen Realness, Miscellaneous Drag and Vogueing (yes, this is where the dance style originated).
The show’s first incarnation came about when co-creator Steven Canals wrote a spec script for his UCLA screenwriting graduate program a few years back. Canals, an out person of color from Harlem, was directly influenced by the AIDS epidemic and the New York ball scene.
Around the same time, writer-producer-director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Feud, Glee, American Horror Story) optioned the rights for Paris Is Burning, the famed 1991 documentary exploring the ballroom scene. Murphy and Canals connected and joined forces to create Pose, alongside Murphy’s business partner, Brad Falchuk. Aside from the talented cast (MJ Rodriguez, who plays Blanca, and Billy Porter, who plays Pray Tell, are shoo-ins for Emmy nominations next year), vibrant visuals and, of course, drama, Pose (which airs its season finale on Sunday, July 22, and was just renewed for a second season) is breaking down boundaries in bold, new ways. Here's how:
It features the largest number of openly trans actors in lead roles ever in a TV series.
Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Candy (Angelica Ross) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) are all played by trans women of color. Imagine that: Actual trans actresses were cast in trans roles! When accepting his VH-1 Trailblazer Honors award last month, Murphy said, “I believe strongly in the power of television because … if you see yourself and some part of your human experiences reflected back at yourself, you will not feel alone. And people with hatred and bias in their hearts can often be converted if a character or situation they are invested in feels like a friend. … I decided [I wanted to] create representation, showcase gay people and minorities and outsiders and underdogs of all kinds.” While many if not all of his series and movies have accomplished this, Pose takes the cake. The representation doesn’t end in front of the camera, either: Many of the writers are trans women as well, including Janet Mock, Our Lady J (Transparent) and director Silas Howard, who is also a co-executive producer. Murphy also plans to bring to the show up-and-coming trans directors mentored through his Directing Mentorship Program.
It doesn't shy away from sexually complex stories.
Having a writers room with diverse voices really lends itself to stories about marginalized groups that aren’t often seen on TV. In one storyline, trans character Elektra struggles between fulfilling her dream — having her surgical transition from male to female — and keeping her cisgender straight lover satisfied. “I know what I like but I can’t explain why my dick gets hard knowing that yours is there. All I know is that I want it in the room. Now maybe it’s because I like the feeling of knowing that I’m getting away with something that no one else knows about. I just want it there,” says Elektra’s lover (played by Christopher Meloni). After she decides to go through with the surgery, he ends their 10-year relationship (emotionally, physically and financially). This struggle of finding a partner who doesn’t fetishize trans women is a common one, but hearing it out loud in plain language was an innovative TV moment.
LGBTQ kids (and allies) may know terms such as “shade” and “reading” from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but both RuPaul and Michelle Visage were part of the New York ball scene first. Many of their references, from Ru’s music like “Category Is” or “Sissy That Walk,” to the show’s challenges or runway themes, came directly from this world. Pose does a great job showing younger people where the culture came from.
Similarly, with the advent of effective AIDS drugs, many in today’s younger LGBTQ generation unfortunately are not as careful as they probably should be. They may know about the AIDS epidemic but it's seen as ancient history. Set in the late ’80s, Pose reminds the LGBTQ community just how devastating AIDS was: The series begins with Blanca finding out she’s HIV-positive, and Pray Tell’s loss of his boyfriend to the virus (as well as finding out he has it himself). It depicts just how horrific the disease was back then and still is, and how important it is to stay safe.
Speaking of gay sex, one scene in the show seemed to go farther than any other in terms of educating. Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young man kicked out of his home for being gay, is given a sex talk by his House mother, Blanca, who found him on the streets of New York and took him in. Learning about gay intimacy can be challenging — it’s not taught in schools or by parents in most cases. Now, Damon’s met a new guy and Blanca asks him if his father ever gave him “the talk.”
“He was saying all this stuff about women’s anatomy, and the whole time I was thinking, this is not the information I need to get. But I couldn’t ask him the questions I really wanted to know, which was about what men do together and stuff, or I’d be found out,” he replies. Blanca responds by giving him two pamphlets, one called “How to Use a Condom” and another called “Gay Men, AIDS: Reducing Risk.” She says to him, “Well, here’s what no one would tell you but me. Gay life is hard. Now as a gay man, you have options when it comes to sex. You can be a top or a bottom.”
Damon: "Uh, how will I know which one I am?"
Blanca: "Well, there’s no rule book. Sometimes you want to give, sometimes you want to receive. Sometimes you want all the pleasure."
Damon: "What if I’m a bottom and I fall for another bottom?"
Blanca: "What y’all gonna be doing, bumping purses all night? ... When you find the right guy, you’ll figure it out. Just promise me you’ll protect yourself."
I can’t remember the last time I saw this kind of honest exchange about gay sex depicted on television, let alone by a parental figure teaching a child. Destigmatizing these kinds of conversations on TV is sure to help anyone with these kinds of questions feel less alone.
It tackles race issues, even within the LGBTQ community.
While it would be great if the entire LGBTQ community had one another’s backs completely, this is simply not the case and never has been. Despite being marginalized and outcast by society, we often discriminate against one another. Pose brilliantly depicts this when Blanca and Lulu are kicked out of a gay bar for being trans. When they try to order drinks, the bartender says, “I got 10 guys in here asking me if it’s drag night.” To which Blanca replies, “We’re not in drag, we’re women,” and the bartender retorts, “We don’t like women in here. This is a gay bar.”
The manager then comes by and asks to speak to them outside, where they have this exchange:
Blanca: "How could you discriminate against me in my own community?"
Bar manager: "We have a specific clientele: gay, under 35..."
Bar manager: "Frankly, yes. The New York City nightlife is segregated. … I’m sorry, I’m not throwing a costume party."
After he leaves, Lulu says a hard truth to Blanca: “Everybody needs someone to make them feel superior. That line ends with us, though. This shit runs downhill, past the women, the blacks, Latins, gays, until it reaches the bottom and lands on our kind.” Blanca then makes it her mission to get served at the bar, returning over and over again to order her Manhattan, only to be kicked out every time. On her last visit, she sees a cisgender African-American patron at the bar and says to him, “Have you noticed you're the only one here with a year-round tan?” He asks her what’s her point and she says, “They don’t want us here.” His reply? “No, they don’t want you here.” This is moments before the manager calls the police, who arrest Blanca for “disturbing the peace.”
While the prejudice within the LGBTQ community may not be as bad as it was in the ’80s, Lulu’s statement about the “shit running downhill” is true to this day. One doesn’t have to look very far on hook-up apps like Grindr to see profiles that blatantly say things like “No fats, no femmes, no blacks, no Asians.” Some may call it a “type,” but most see it for what it is: racism and discrimination. Many in the LGBTQ community still segregate themselves from others to feel superior, and Pose boldly puts the issue out in the open, addressing this ugly history. We may have evolved a little since the type of incident Blanca and Lulu dealt with, but we still have a long way to go.
It explores cultural and class disparities in a new way, and producers are even trying to close the gap.
It’s probably no coincidence that the only two cisgender, straight, white principal men in the story work for Donald Trump. Trump gained notoriety in the ’80s and his presence in pop culture helped usher in the era of conspicuous consumption, Wolf of Wall Street–style. These two men, played by James Van Der Beek and Evan Peters, often display their white privilege. Van Der Beek’s character is shown sexually harassing the women in his office, while Peters’ character is caught up in what his life “should” be as a heterosexual white male. Peters' repression sees him cheating on his wife with a trans woman of color (Angel), for whom he rents an apartment because he’s that rich.
The flaunting of wealth by white cis men is juxtaposed with the poverty of the people of color who go to balls. Trans women risk their lives to buy cheap hormone injections because they can’t afford the good ones; gay young men kicked out of their homes are living on the streets; and the Houses resort to stealing money or outfits just so they can feel fierce, pretty and accepted at the balls. Many of the trans girls are selling their bodies either for sex or as dancers. “When you’re transsexual, you take the work where you can get it,” Blanca says.
Then, of course, there are drugs. Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) is caught selling them because "what choice do you have when all you have is an eighth-grade education?" The show brilliantly highlights the wage inequality, especially between the white majority and minorities, that still exists today. Nevertheless, Murphy is putting his money where his pen is: In May he tweeted: “I am donating 100 percent of my profits from my new FX show Pose towards trans and LGBTQ charitable organizations. These groups do amazing work and need our support. Every day for the next 14 days I will highlight a group I'm supporting, and encourage you to do the same!”
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Some of the groups include the Peter Cicchino Youth Project, which offers free legal services to homeless youth; Sylvia’s Place, which helps LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth; Callen-Lorde, a leader in LGBTQ health care; and Equality New York, which works across the state to advance equality for LGBTQ New Yorkers and their families.
There have definitely been boundary-breaking shows about the LGBTQ community before — from programs that started the conversation and laid the groundwork, such as Ellen and Will & Grace, to shows that normalized gay characters (we’re just like you!) but showed them to be complex too, like Modern Family and Six Feet Under, to shows with all gay characters like Queer as Folk and Looking. What Pose does differently, however, is depict an accurate and real history of the LGBTQ community, without any white- or straight-washing, spotlighting stories of trans (and gay) people of color, played and written by trans (and gay) people of color. This is why the content is so innovative and refreshing and different from anything on television. Madonna said, “Beauty’s where you find it,” in the hit song that took the dance style from gay balls to the mainstream. In the case of marginalized groups being represented in media, sometimes it’s not that easy to find. Thank you, Pose, for making it a little bit easier.
The season finale of Pose airs on Sunday, July 22, at 9 p.m. on FX.