‘Pose’ Highlights the Beauty of Being Queer, Gifted, and Black
The Emmy-winning drama reminded us that gay White men aren’t the center of the LGBTQ universe
“Live. Werk. Pose.”
From the day it debuted on our television screens in 2018, announcing itself with those three words, Pose simultaneously told LGBTQ+ history and made it. The FX drama celebrated the same 1980s New York City underground ball and drag culture that the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning explored nearly three decades earlier to ecstatic reviews.
Paris Is Burning is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that gave LGBTQ+ people of color the unprecedented screen time that made the mainstreaming of RuPaul and his Drag Race possible. Similarly, Pose — which recently completed its three-season run — was a series of firsts. (As if directly acknowledging the link, Paris director Jennie Livingston helmed a second-season episode.) It was the first queer-themed TV project created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, The Politician, Hollywood, The Boys in the Band) not to revolve mostly around gay White men.
It was the first drama series to feature an openly gay Black actor in an Emmy-winning leading role. Take a bow, Billy Porter.
It was the first American series to make stars out of not one, but three trans women actors. Take a bow, Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson.
Young queer people of color — who spent years watching gay White men get all the media attention — finally saw people who looked and loved like them dominating an A-list production in all their kaleidoscopic cis and transgender glory. Pose’s Black and Brown LGBTQ+ characters weren’t playing second fiddle in supporting roles or merely supplying comic relief. They were taking the lead — all the leads.
Pose offered heavy doses of Black, Brown, and queer realness for all its glamour and costumery. “Take Me to Church,” the fourth episode of the third season, gave meaty roles to three legendary Black TV actresses: Amen’s Anna Maria Horsford, 227 and Sister Sister’s Jackée Harry, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Janet Hubert. It also gave a spot on the soundtrack to Sananda Maitreya, the musical genius previously known as Terence Trent D’Arby. In addition, the episode pinpointed ways religion can both save and damn us, especially when we’re Black and gay. It contains one of the best lines of the entire series, courtesy of Pray Tell: “Even in their own churches, Black folks worship a White man.” Preach.
Pose had a documentary quality that we hadn’t previously seen in LGBTQ+-focused TV dramas. It was as much education as entertainment. Janet Mock wrote and directed several episodes, which underscored the series’ authenticity while contributing to it. In both a casting twist and coup, trans women played trans women. When these actresses dressed up for glamorous ball scenes, they weren’t playing dress-up. After the catwalk contests were over onscreen, they seemed to return to everyday lives, full of challenges and drama.
That went double for Porter — and not just because the 51-year-old performer is as charismatic and passionate as his Pose character, ball emcee Pray Tell. In May, just a few weeks into the third and final season, Porter revealed to the Hollywood Reporter that he’s been HIV-positive since 2007. It was a stunning admission that made me reassess his performances as the HIV-positive Pray Tell, giving his alter ego a new meta-level of gravitas. The HIV parallel in Porter’s and Pray Tell’s stories made them resonate so much more, even if it was fairly obvious well before the finale that Pray Tell’s future might not be as bright as Porter’s.
But, oh, how he lived — and loved.
In sickness and in health, when facing bigotry and their demons, the characters we grew to love on Pose reveled in the potential of life to be breathtakingly beautiful. It wasn’t just about the gorgeous outfits they wore while striking fabulous poses at the balls. There was beauty in the bonds of their chosen families, in the squabbles, in the fleeting humdrum of everyday life, and especially in their ride-or-die devotion to each other. Some of Pose’s most effective moments unfolded at the family dinner table, during both highly charged fight scenes like Pray Tell’s unsuccessful intervention and their shared camaraderie over a meal. All for one.
Pose was a mirror, a reflection of what can happen when you refuse to let an unjust system beat you down and keep you down. It was an extended glimpse of what used to be and what still could be. But, most of all, it was a gift, a gorgeous reminder that Black and Brown are beautiful, especially when you’re queer.