FX Narratives help us understand family and humanity
My daughters are always trying to get my wife and me to watch one TV program or the other they believe is groundbreaking insofar as television is concerned. They introduced us to This is Us, the award winning NBC series; Queen Sugar, the OWN Network gem; the dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, and most recently, Pose, the FX spectacular series on cobbled together transgender families and LGBTQ Ballroom dance competition called Voguing.
I resisted watching Pose as long as I could. Why? After all, my daughters rarely lead me wrong with their suggestions. But like many cisgender straight men, I could not imagine myself enjoying a weekly series on the trials and tribulations of transgender women and gay men who, for the first time on television, are portrayed by a largely gay and transgender cast. Boy, was I wrong. The series is not just about gay men and transgender women. It is about family, survival, love, and death. It is about how oppressed communities form unique subcultures as a refuge from pain and rejection of the dominant society, but also to celebrate what it means to be boldly, beautifully and arrogantly unique—ones’ self.
Pose is clever in its approach. At times a bit preachy, but mostly it draws you in by allowing you to get to know and like (if not love) the main characters: Pray Tell, the gay DJ at the Vogue ballroom; Blanca, a transgender woman who takes in discarded gay and transgender kids who have been kicked out of their homes by their parents and raises them as her own; Angel, a Halle Berry look alike transgender woman (and I do mean look alike) who aspires to be, and belongs, on covers of leading magazines; Elektra, a 6-foot-one Vogue queen who serves as mother of mothers over the House of Abundance; three other young gay men with distinct but equally heartwarming (and heartbreaking) narratives, and others.
I began watching the series at the start of season 2 this year. The episode begins at an island near New York City where they bury unclaimed bodies in cheap pine boxes in a huge open pit. Pray Tell and Blanca are there in search of the remains of one of Pray Tell’s past male lovers who died of the dreadful disease of AIDS. I immediately identified with this scene for it was only a few years ago when I discovered my estranged brother, Jeffrey, had died and his remains were bound for the county cemetery for unclaimed bodies. His body laid unclaimed in a Kansas City hospital morgue for over a month. Fortunately, I was able to receive his ashes and honor him in a private ceremony officiated by my eldest daughter, Ndelea, followed by the scattering of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean—homeward bound for Africa.
The first episode of the second season of Pose was not just a story about a man who died alone. It was a story about a gay man who died alone because his family rejected him because of who he was and society casted him out like a leper because he had the dreaded and highly contagious autoimmune disease many did not understand at the time (and others thought was God’s curse upon gays for being gay). My brother’s situation of being unclaimed for over a month and this edition of Pose remind us of how lonely life becomes for so many Americans. Without family, true friends and loved ones, one has nothing.
Pose draws you in, close to the characters. You fall in love with the youngsters (Blanca’s kids) as if they are your own. You cheer for them and want them to win. You get mad as hell at a society that does not recognize or confirm their beauty and diversity. It redefines what it means to be a man or woman and forces you to come to grips with the differences between and fluidity of sexuality, gender, and plain ole freedom—the freedom to love whom one damn chooses.
And, for me, it is revelatory as a 6’1” black man who has always had to deal with racial discrimination, and earlier class oppression, too, to understand that both gay and transgender communities of color go through life being discriminated against at a level that other oppressed communities do not experience. LGBTQ people of color are more likely to be victims of sexual violence and violence in general, discriminated against on the job and in housing, rejected by family, and more likely to receive inferior physical and mental health attention at a level deeper and more perverse than we can imagine.
The big existential questions are: What does it mean to be man or woman? Are sexual identities determined by genitalia or gender preferences? What does it mean to be a mother, father, or family? Above all, what does it mean to be human?
We all struggle with most of these questions. Are the fathers who slap around their gay sons or mothers who want nothing to do with children who are navigating their gender (by stealing red pumps) good parents? Blanca took in abandoned kids on the streets to protect them from the dangers of the streets and help them reach for the sky and fulfil their dreams. Is she a bad mother because she is a transgender woman? As the story unfolds, you see that every depiction of who Blanca is, from her past to her present, illustrates that she is not only a chosen mother, but an exceptional mother to all of us who need nurturing.
Pose has elevated my consciousness and transported me to a world I knew little about, but will continue to learn about after the series ends. It has allowed me to be a fly on the wall in the house of Evangelista. The category is LOVE!