The latest collaboration between the BBC and the American television company FX is the breakthrough television series Pose. Set in 1980s New York, the series explores the complex social relations that existed between members of the LGBTQ community during the AIDs crisis. Having already broken records for the largest transgender cast in television history, this new series tells a history of queer struggle in an era of fear and sexual prejudice.
The level of discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQ community during this period led many to build new families or “houses” where they could freely express themselves. These families were often looked after by a “mother”: a transgender woman who worked to support and encourage her “children” to challenge the prejudices surrounding them and break down the stigmas attached to members of the LGBTQ community. The most exciting part of this new series is the fashion battles, or “balls” between rival houses. Each ball has a category; a theme or aesthetic which each house must represent through fashion. It is perhaps the greatest symbol of drag culture in the 80s, and the show does not lack in iconic fashion trends from the decade, including disco pants, shoulder pads, and perms.
Another theme which underpins this show is the pursuit of dreams, and the achievement of the impossible. Damian is a young gay black man shamed by family who begins the show sleeping on a park bench in Central Park. His dream is to become a professional dancer, but his life of rejection has ingrained in him an overriding sense of hopelessness. However, once he meets Bianca, a transgender woman hoping to build a “house” of her own, he is filled with the confidence needed to audition for the National School of Ballet in New York. In an inspiring and emotional scene, Damian’s raw passion for dance earns him a scholarship to the school, and the sacrifices he has made all seem worth it.
The serious undertone of this show is of course the AIDS crisis. Members of the LGBTQ community were victimised for carrying this disease. But the show Pose presents another side to this narrative, one in which the devastating effects of this epidemic are exposed from within the queer community. One of the principal characters Bianca is suffering from AIDs throughout the show, but continues on her crusade to fight for transgender rights and de-stigmatise those like her trying to live a normal life. Perhaps one of the greatest surprises of the show is that prejudices existed even within the queer community itself. A large number of gay men rejected transgender women on the basis that they were just ‘men in wigs’. There is an episode in particular where Bianca attempts to have a drink in a gay bar, but is violently thrown out by bouncers for insulting the men by her mere presence there.
This secularisation is yet another example of how ignorance can breed hate in our society. It is the same mentality that excluded lesbians from the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s and 70s, and the same mentality that victimises immigrants today. These legacies are why a show like Pose is so important. We need to educate ourselves on a shared history of ignorance and exclusion. That is why the “houses” that do exist are so crucial to understanding the pressures of being gay or transgender during this time. They are in many cases stronger than a family unit, as they are built on shared experiences. We could use some of these communities today, when fear of ‘the other’ continues to grip nations across the world. I for one am really excited to see what is next for Pose. It may be a show about the fantasy of Drag Culture, but it is also carries with it a message of authenticity and pride in ourselves.