It’s very easy to forget the importance of representation when you live in a city like New York where you see queer people of color living or working towards living their best lives. In the world of television, there has been a dramatic upswing in queer representation, which I am totally here for, but there has yet to be anyone on tv where I can say, “Hey, they’re just like me,” or, “Oh shit, that happened to someone I know.” With great shows like Noah’s Arc and Looking we had a predominantly cisgender male cast of homosexuals giving us positive perspectives on queerness in a post-AIDS outbreak/post-Bush presidency America and yet they were somehow lacking. Not that those shows were bad because they weren’t and I’m honestly still not over the cancellation of Looking but this is the marked nature of queer presenting shows on television, a noted derision of the community it presents. With the June 3rd premiere of Ryan Murphy and 21st Century Fox’s ‘Pose’ on FX we were given what most thought would be another of these soft-shoe shows. Oh, what a surprise.
From the first episode, we are thrown into the midst of the realities of many queer and questioning people, specifically people of color. We cringe at the violence of Damon’s (played by Ryan Jamaal Swain) father as he beats him for being seen leaving dance class. When I saw that Damon’s father was holding a magazine in his hand I found myself reminded of how one act of carelessness or curiosity could spill a secret the consequences of which you weren’t entirely sure you could deal with. I could feel the sting of his mother’s slap after his father threw him out on the streets, the eyes of the onlookers speculating or reveling at his shame were the eyes of my church family when I didn’t couple up like the other teenagers. Or when MJ Rodriguez’s Blanca receives her HIV positive diagnosis in stoic silence because it was just proof of something she already knew I felt her strength as she stood and thanked the test counselor at GMHC (the only HIV/AIDS organization in the world at the time) for doing the hard job of telling people they’re going to die every day. I thought back to all the times I went on the defensive like Dominique Jackson’s Elektra Abundance tearing into Blanca when Blanca says she’s leaving the House of Abundance to start her own house. Pose is at its heart a love letter to the House and Ballroom community of New York City and a celebration of the strengths held within a community whose lives are made more difficult because of the truths we hold dear.
Shirley Bassey, a Welsh singer from, well, Wales, has enjoyed a career that has spanned decades. Mostly known for the Goldfinger theme from Goldfinger (1964) and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ which was sampled by Kanye West for his ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone.’ In 1979 Shirley Bassey released the twelve-inch version of her song ‘This is My Life,’ a song speaking on the strength it takes to own one’s life despite all the hardship and disappointment. The twelve-inch is a disco version of her ‘68 classic that puts an upbeat spin on the serious subject insinuating a vivacity for life. It is this same vivaciousness that can be seen on screen as the characters in Pose face their hardships and disappointments with a hopefulness and a possessiveness of who they are.
The writers of Pose, who are members of New York’s House and Ballroom and transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) community, tell the stories of their friends, my friends, and my friends’ friends with grace and a tenderness steeped in respect. Pose, whose cast is the first predominantly TGNC cast of any television series in history, takes its viewers on heartening journeys the realities of which are magnified by the phenomenal performances of the cast. Yet despite all the adversity, these people go through there is an underlying bedrock of hopefulness as they live as honestly and unapologetically as they can. After being thrown out Damon and Blanca cross paths in Washington Square Park and immediately a bond is formed that is believable and all too real for many. Blanca becomes the Mother of the House of Evangelista and Damon becomes her first child.
The House and Ballroom community in New York City is a community of disenfranchised people, most of whom are queer and of color, who form families with a mother and/or father and children. These families are known as “Houses” and each house performs in competitions called “Balls,” for trophies and notoriety within the community. The parent of a House provides shelter for their children as they work towards independence in a city and world that does not care for them. Blanca, the Mother of the House of Evangelista is, from what I’ve gathered from my peers, a blueprint of what a House Mother is. She has rules for her house and her children are expected to follow, these rules are very much the same rules most mothers have for their children: go to school, work, don’t get into trouble and that all members are to be available compete in Balls.
On June 30th GMHC hosted their 28th annual Latex Ball celebrating the community the agency services and the history of the Ballroom community. An event to be beheld out of words and off of a screen this year’s Latex Ball hummed with the excitement of a congregation awaiting a preacher’s powerful message from the gods. The DJ filled the hall of Terminal 5 with beats that bumped deep down in one’s bones that had most of the gathering masses moving in-time as anticipatory glances were thrown and greetings were made. A tribute to the familiar faces of Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning and other familiar faces of the community who weren’t noted in the documentary were held before the competitions started and the children showed out for their houses and themselves. Most years at least one celebrity comes to the ball and this year was no different...Ryan Murphy and the cast of Pose came through and graced the runway when Ryan Murphy was inducted into the Diamond League with Junior Labeija and Hector Extravaganza. With the Legendary Children honored the ball commenced in full and it was a whirlwind of love, shade, and fierceness until well pass this little chickadee’s bedtime. Just as the Balls are a celebration of life and dreams, so too is Pose, and just like the two ‘This is My Life’ becomes anthemic in their pursuit of total ownership of life.
Although the first season is slated for eight episodes they have proven themselves to be stirring on multiple levels. Coming at a time in this nation’s history when so much is going wrong daily Pose is doing something right; it has given a marginalized community a voice and face, lit a fire under the soles of the community it represents as we strive to let the world know that we exist and matter, and has become a moment of therapy for a community hurting from harmful stigmas and abuse. Creating a discourse amongst the queer community it has given us a mirror to reflect that the petty differences we feel we have do not matter at our cores because we are all in this together despite how lonely being queer can be. If you have not heard Shirley Bassey’s “This is My Life” I suggest you give it a listen, and if you have not been watching Pose I implore you to do yourself a justice and get into this tour-de-force of provocative television. Pose airs every Sunday on FX at 9 pm eastern and anytime online and on the FXNOW app. For social bugs, there are Pose viewing parties at bars around the city and each episode is live-tweeted by Stevie of HIM podcast.
If Pose falls the way of Noah’s Arc and Looking then it will have left a mark greater than the two. A historic moment in television is happening around us and Pose rises above the filth of fake news to give us the truth, beauty, freedom, and love one episode at a time. Watch the show and you’ll see why Pose and twelve inches of Shirley Bassey go hand-in-hand.