Neon lights banish the darkness outside. Rhinestones and glitter sparkle under stage lights. Powerful pop beats radiate from mounted speakers. An emcee steps up to the mic and excites the crowd with one sentence, “The category is…”.
This is New York, 1987. This is drag ball culture. This is the world that breakout FX series POSE explores and immortalizes in its first season, which concluded this past Sunday.
The brainchild of television powerhouses Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck (of American Horror Story fame), and Steven Canals, POSE made history when it premiered in early June. Not only is the cast made up of the largest cohort of transgender actors ever, but Janet Mock made history as the first trans woman of color to direct an episode of American television. For me, as a member of the LGBTQ community, POSE was a breath of fresh air, a television show that inspired and moved me in ways that a television show never had before.
The show centers on a group of young, queer New York transplants in the late 80s. During this time, ball culture had reached its peak, and discarded young LGBTQ folks found safety in ‘houses’. Houses were small, tight knit groups of street kids who were taken care of by House mothers–often trans women who provided food, shelter, and family to young queer kids living on the street. Mothers would nurture and guide their children’s entrance into the exuberance and glamor of drag balls. These balls were a place where those rejected from mainstream society (largely trans people of color) could find a community.
POSE opens with a young women, Blanca, finding out she is HIV positive, which pushes her to come out of the shadow of her own mother, the legendary Electra Abundance, by establishing her own house. She starts out by taking in Damon, a young dancer who has been thrown out on the street, and Angel, a trans sex worker who starts an affair with a married man. The arc of Blanca’s house, the House of Evangelista, and its rise to prominence through the acquisition of trophies at the drag balls is the subplot that links the episodes together. From this foundation the showrunners tell the stories of the complex and beautiful cast of the show.
The issues explored over the course of the eight episode season are not unique to POSE. The show’s magic, though, lies in the fact that queer lives are given complexity and nuance that we do not see on most television. Unlike many mainstream television shows that include queer characters as cis, white campy stereotypes (see: Kurt Hummel on Glee) or as people to be killed off or discarded (see: lgbtfansdeservebetter.com), POSE’s characters have hopes and dreams beyond their sexual or gender identities. That being said, their identities are never pushed to the side or papered over for the comfort of the show’s audience. AIDS, family tragedy, poverty, and transitioning are topics that are often tackled in LGBTQ storylines, but POSE masterfully navigates these topics in new ways that are at once gritty and touching. .
The breakout star of the season, Billy Porter, captures everything that makes POSE so profoundly touching. His character, Pray Tell, is the drag ball emcee. He is colorful and vibrant, representing the most beautiful aspects of ball culture. He acts as a confidant and firm supporter to Blanca as she starts her own house, and is equally nurturing to her children. His pain and weariness is on full display, though, in one of the best episodes of the season “Love is the Meaning.” His outburst over the anguish of continuing to lose people he loves to AIDS and being HIV positive himself leave viewers in tears. When he wonders aloud if there will be anything left of his community, if they will simply cease to exist and be forgotten, his performance doesn’t feel hyperbolic or affected. It is heartbreakingly real. Nevertheless, he continues to get up on that stage every night, he continues to be a father to kids who have been rejected by their families, and, most importantly, he continues to live loudly and proudly.
In a time where the LGBTQ community faces an all-out assault, POSE’s importance cannot be overstated.
POSE could fall into the trap of becoming consumed with the darkness of the world in which it is set. The horror of the 80’s is not unfamiliar to any queer person. The LGBTQ community was being ravished by a disease that was systematically ignored by the state. Ronald Reagan remained silent as young, beautiful lives were snuffed out and for those who were not killed, the state-endorsed bigotry of the era made their experiences arduous. The show is not about that pain and hardship, though there is plenty of it. POSE is a show about ambitious, unrelenting queer folk who defiantly live their truth in a world that would rather see them dead. And in telling these stories in such a way, the show is making a strong statement about the current moment.
For the LGBTQ community, the personal has always been inextricably political. What makes the show feel so important and so relevant is that it puts on stark display the radicality of being queer and joyful. In one particularly poignant episode, “Mother’s Day”, Blanca must experience the trauma of losing someone in her family. Her anguish is amplified because her family has rejected her for being transgender. The episode is sure to evoke painful memories for any queer person in a similar situation, but as is common on the show, the episode confronts the trauma and pain head on and in doing so, highlights the power of joy. When Blanca’s ‘children’ rally around her and express the unconditional love she has been denied by her family, the viewer is touched in a profound way. Being exuberant and loving becomes an act of defiance in this instance. The characters in the show are living in a world that hates them, ignores them, and is content to let them die, but despite that, they love and they dream and they come together to form a community founded on individuality and joy.
Donald Trump fits into the show in an interesting way. While it would be 30 years before he would make his bid for the Presidency, he, and the brash hyper-masculine excess he represents, looms over the events of the show. Stan, a young closeted suburban father, works for The Donald’s real estate empire, and ball scenes are often juxtaposed against the material glut of the 80s environment in which Trump flourished. Donald Trump is no Reagan, but when watching POSE, viewers cannot help but draw parallels.
For those of us who came into ourselves in a post-Obergefell world, the Trump Administration’s contempt for queer lives feels like a shock to our systems. As the community charts a path forward in the Age of Trump, perhaps we should be looking to our ancestors, those revolutionary, dreaming queens depicted in POSE. Perhaps instead of just being radical in our protest, we should be radical in our love as well. For if there is one thing to take away the first season of this groundbreaking show, it is that – as the aptly titled sixth episode of the series proclaims – ‘Love is the Meaning’.