‘Pose’ Is a Show About HIV That Is Not About HIV
Category is: Live! The characters in FX’s groundbreaking show Pose are living. They are an ensemble of queer and trans people of color making a life for themselves in New York City in the ’80s. While the stories are set firmly in the house and ball scene, it becomes clear in the first episode that a thematic undercurrent of the show is HIV. This series does something that very few others have done: It’s a show about HIV that portrays the virus as incidental to our experience.
Pose isn’t telling stories about HIV, but it’s telling stories in which HIV is ubiquitous. HIV wasn’t just in our sex lives and our bedrooms. It was there every time we saw an unfamiliar spot on our body. It was present in the exchanges we had with guys we met. It was part of our artistic expression. It was in the tone of our voice. It was there when we exhaled. It was our lives.
It’s rare to see a TV show that depicts the lives of queer and trans people of color. It’s even more rare for their stories to be tales of resilience and survival. These characters are not victims, eliciting our pity. They are strong, complicated and nuanced characters struggling to build a life for themselves. They are working to create a community and a family at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed the criminalization of homosexuality and Congress had declared war on gays, immigrants and people of color. It’s familiar terrain.
The first episode of Pose depicts the lead character, Blanca, in the universal experience of getting HIV test results. For many, waiting for the results can feel like a lifetime, even if it’s just 20 minutes. But back in the ’80s and ’90s it was two weeks.
I remember how absolutely gut-wrenching the wait was. In addition to that, our interactions with health care workers were often hostile and usually involved the ridiculous and insulting ritual of listing all our sex partners. When I received my diagnosis in 1996, right before the advent of the game-changing protease inhibitor, the nurse delivered the news while desperately trying to be reassuring. But her mask slipped, possibly out of exhaustion, and I saw her hopeful façade give way to utter hopelessness.
One of the most impressive elements of Pose is how the young characters, like Damon the aspiring dancer, have the overwhelming and inescapable need to express themselves in a world that ignores and devalues them. They are going to blaze their own trail, choose their own battles and unashamedly be who they are in a fiercely hostile world. They are the epitome of resilience in the face of a devastating epidemic.
The series depicts queer and trans people of color confronting structural elements that allowed the epidemic to explode. They confront this hostile world not because they are activists but because they are simply trying to live. Then, as now, there is nothing more radical than queer and trans people of color determining their own lives.
There are times when the show almost veers into PSA territory with what seems like clunky dialogue. But then I remembered, that is how people used to talk. Safe-sex slogans became part of people’s every day conversations. HIV informed our language. It was there even when those three letters were never uttered. It was our community’s shadow. Its presence stretched and bended but was constant and often brutal.
The times have changed, but the story hasn’t changed much. Queer and trans people of color still struggle to be seen and valued. Donald Trump is a lingering malevolent presence. The story of queer and trans people of color is still one of HIV.
Black gay men in the United States have a one-in-two lifetime risk of acquiring HIV, while for Latino gay men it’s one-in-four. Trans women of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV, and their experiences are still undercounted. This is due to 35 years of systemic problems of homophobia, racism, transphobia and poverty. The system then and now devalues, dehumanizes and criminalizes queer and trans people of color.
The epidemic has changed so much since the time of Pose that I dare to hope Blanca lives long enough to enjoy the benefits of effective treatment. I envision her as a champion of undetectability and PrEP because queer and trans people of color still don’t have adequate information or access to health care. And even though racism, homophobia and xenophobia are now more explicit and more firmly institutionalized in our country, she would continue to fight for her community.
The characters of Pose represent all the queer and trans people of color who built a life and a family in the midst of an epidemic. This is our history. We are able to thrive because of the community they created. We endure because of their sacrifice. We resist because of their resilience. They are giving us life.