'POSE' Shows How Queer People Had to Fight for Even the Most Basic Healthcare and Acceptance
FX’s second season of “POSE” was released during Pride month. It focuses on how transgender and other gender non-conforming individuals of color in the LGBTQ community were impacted by the AIDS crisis and how law enforcement dismisses the community’s safety. Overall, the storyline follows the lives of queer youth in the New York City ballroom scene, an underground fashion runway environment where they show off their often homemade fashion concepts to a panel of judges and an MC, all while posing and voguing. These ball houses and their “mothers” help provide for them and give them guidance.
While “POSE” puts a variety of different perspectives of queer life on display, season two of the show focuses most on the AIDS crisis and the endangered status of transwomen in the 1990s. Episode one opens with the harsh reality many loved ones had to face during the time period. Pray Tell, the main ballroom MC, and Blanca Evangelista, a leading house mother, watch as mass graves are filled with the coffins of those lost to AIDS whose bodies remained unclaimed.
“This won’t be our reality if we help each other,” Blanca reminds him.
By this time in the U.S., the drug AZT was being recommended to AIDS patients as a way to slow its effects. After being recruited by the lesbian nurse treating his HIV, Pray Tell, the House of Evangelista, and others in their community participate in the organization ACT UP’s historic and controversial “die-in” demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
One of the Evangelista house children, Angel, calls out during the service, “Prayer won’t stop the spread of HIV. Only condoms will. Abstinence is the erasure of our sexuality. Stop killing us!”
Later at the ball, when Pray Tell sees that some came to the ball but didn’t attend the protest earlier that day, he dresses them down saying, “You wanna know why they want us dead? Because we’re Black. And we’re Brown. And we’re queer. They don’t give a shit about us, so we better start caring about ourselves. Show up for your lives! Wake up!”
It would be incredibly hard to miss the parallels between Pray Tell’s cries for awareness and the current encouragement for individuals of all kinds to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The sense of fear surrounding an AIDS diagnosis is tangible throughout the season. Out of that fear, Blanca and Pray Tell begin encouraging their community to practice safe sex and utilize condoms to shield themselves against HIV.
The queer community then and now don’t have access to healthcare or sexual education that correlates to their identity. According to a healthcare disparity study conducted in 2017, LGBTQ people are at a significantly higher risk for STDs, cancers, obesity, cardiovascular crises and mental illnesses because of lack of health research done on the community itself, the lack of role models within the community because of AIDS losses sustained in the 90s, and discrimination experienced in the examination room.
“Treat yourself with dignity, because everyone in this room is deserving of love,” Pray Tell announces from the ballroom stage while Blanca and others hand out condoms at the Valentine’s Day Eros ball. “Love should also be safe.”
“POSE” also unabashedly addresses police brutality and law enforcement’s consistent dismissal of the LGBTQ community, especially trans women who are sex workers. House of Wintour transgender mother Elektra, who works as a dominatrix in the city, finds herself needing law enforcement’s help. At the encouragement of her other “sisters,” she realizes that she must take matters into her own hands.
They remind her, “Police don’t protect trans women. We’re the ones supposed to get beat up and die, not them.”
Approximately 10 percent of all transgender individuals work in sex work today, while 40 percent of that group are transgender sex workers of color. Many of these individuals are forced to trade their services for compromising places to sleep and get nourishment, putting them at risk for being physically and sexually assaulted beyond their work.
Soon, another transgender house mother named Candy is found dead in a rent-by-the-hour motel after a session with a client.
Elektra reminds her sisters, “The NYPD doesn’t care about a murdered transsexual. We’ve never been treated with respect or dignity.”
“POSE” tastefully incorporates the loss of parental figures many LGBTQ individuals experience during Candy’s funeral. When her parents arrive at the funeral home, the clash of queer and homophobic culture is brought to the forefront.
When Blanca welcomes Candy’s parents to the funeral home and tells them she’s glad they came to celebrate their daughter’s life, Candy’s mother misgenders her daughter saying, “What kind of damn name is Candy? He was our son.”
Blanca corrects her bluntly, “She was a good person. And Candy was loved. You know, if it was any consolation, everyone showed up for her. She was one of a kind. Why don’t y’all come in back and say goodbye.”
As her parents stand over her coffin, Candy makes a dream-like appearance. She tells her mother, “Ma, how many times you catch me wearing your Revlon Charlie? Or trying on your wigs? Why didn’t you ever scold me, smack my behind, scold me, something? I thought you welcomed it. Like me and you had some sort of pact. You were my gateway to the feminine. But when you rejected me, I tried to tell you.”
Her mother tearfully says, “I didn’t know. I just thought maybe you was creative. At worst, gay. But becoming a woman, how was I supposed to respond? Wasn’t no guidebook instructing me on how to raise a child like you.” Candy says, “This is me, Ma. This is who I truly am.”
Turning to her father, she tells her dad, “I know you didn’t fully understand who I was or what I went through. I felt I was seen by you. And having my daddy see me, it gave me all the courage I needed to become who I am…I love you, Daddy.”
Since 2016, over 1,000 transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals have been murdered around the world. Many of these individuals are cast out by their families and are forced to find their own way in the world without any sense of guidance.
There are many more queer-centric topics addressed in season two, but the essence is to remind LGBTQ people, especially those of color in the community, that their struggles are seen and will be remembered.
Watching “POSE” is a powerful reminder of queer history for LGBTQ people and straight people alike, and I highly recommend that everyone watch it to remember how far we have come as a community and the responsibility we have to educate our queer youth.
Yes, there are incredibly heartwarming moments alongside hilarious and viciously shady quotables scattered throughout the show, but “POSE’s” season two intention could be summed up in episode four’s end card quote.
“Gays have rights, lesbians have rights, men have rights, women have rights, even animals have rights. How many of us have to die before the community recognizes that we are not expendable?” – Octavia St. Laurent, trans model and AIDS educator-activist, 1964-2009.
Photo by Michael Parmelee/FX