On Watching “Pose” As a Transgender Woman

My fiancee and I finished watching “Pose" on FX a few weeks ago. We had seen rave reviews and knew that Ms. Mock was deeply involved in the writing and production. As the only show on television to have five transgender actresses in lead roles, I was at once excited for the program and scared to start watching it because it seemed too progressive to last. As a queer trans woman, I was reluctant to become invested in a show aimed at my community because I was afraid of the loss I would feel should it be canceled. Instead, I did my best to promote the show to everyone I knew and on my social media sites. By the time the fourth episode aired, I knew I could no longer sit on the sideline cheering it on. We purchased a season pass from iTunes and began watching.

“Pose” is everything I hoped it would be and more. To see elements of my community on the screen with women like me playing women like me was euphoric. For the first time in my life I felt the validation through representation that cis, white, straight people take for granted. I was hooked. There is so much in “Pose” for gender and sexual minorities to relate to. The struggle of self-actualisation, the pain of losing biological family, the joy of creating a chosen family, and the tragedy of the AIDS crisis.

Watching the women and men of “Pose” face the challenges of being transgender or gay in the late eighties stirred fragmented and dissociated memories locked away in me. Although I was a college girl in the ninties, I lived in the Midwest where information from the greater community was slow to reach us and often outdated when it did. On top of that, my personal connection to my community was fringe and watered down by the white, religious community I lived in. I connected adjacently through friends and a boyfriend who held a deeper, more lived-in, connection to it than the trembling not-quite girl that I was could hold. The transphobia, rejection, and struggle I faced as a young, queer trans woman on my South Dakota college campus had parallels to what Blanca, Angel, Damon, and Pray Tell faced in the New York of 1988.

Pray Tell and the boys getting tested for HIV, brought back memories of my friend Greg, a bisexual man dating a young woman I was friends with. Greg’s last partner was HIV positive and the shot of all four men sitting in the hallway waiting for results called up my memories of sitting in the girl’s lounge late one night when the anxiety of waiting on test results came pouring out of him. I spent hours listening to his fears for the future and regrets for not being more careful. I offered him the comfort I could. I was haunted by the realisation that we knew about the virus, its destructiveness in our community, and the precautions we should be taking, but we didn’t act on that knowledge because, until that moment, we believed ourselves invulnerable to the plague that was wiping out gay men and trans women on the coasts. He lived with that anxiety for three weeks, until his results came back negative. Then, because we were frightened children, we went back to ignoring the risks. We weren’t equipped to live in fear.

Years later I would be faced with that fear again. When my ex-boyfriend, who had disappeared from my life, called me. In his truncated conversation he said, “I’ve got an STD. I had it when we were together. You should probably get tested.” It was watching Damon react to the confession that his boyfriend had not been tested and could have infected him with the virus that drew these memories back to the surface. Like Damon, I was confused and angry and lost. I can still taste the terror of what my ex-boyfriend wasn’t saying and, like Pray Tell, how the fear of knowing the results made me not want to get tested. Eventually, with the supoort of my friends, I did and I was lucky. I didn’t contract whatever he had, but I still feel a mix of anger that he had not told me when we were together and gratitude that he eventually did what was right. Watching “Pose,” I think about the danger we exposed ourselves to by accepting silence as standard.

The show has, also, given me, in Blanca and Angel, a safe fictional home where I can tentatively feel emotions that, on their own, would drown me in dysphoria and trauma. I see myself reflected in these women. In their experiences dealing with family and body image and finding love both from others and for oneself. I related, on a visceral level, with Blanca’s experience seeing her family at her mother’s funeral. When I attended my Grandfather’s funeral, I was shunned by my family. They would not talk to me or even stand near me while at the gravesite, but they did talk about me in stage-whispers they meant for me to overhear. They wanted to make it clear how unwanted and unloved I was. Like Blanca, I was invited by a family member trying to do the right thing to attend a meal after the service. Unlike Blanca, I did not have the self-possession to go. In retrospect, I regret the choice not to assert my right to be family, but I did not, yet, have the supportive chosen family Blanca had to help me feel pride in who I was.

I, also, see myself not in their experiences but in their reactions to their experiences. There is universality in their struggles. The mix of fear and freedom found in coming out and learning who you are in the context of a wider community. Learning the place society holds you in, the breadth of the longing for more, and the pain of fighting for it. In this, “Pose” does what all good fiction does: it serves as a mirror that shows me who I am and who I could be.

“Pose” has opened memories my dissociation had cut me off from. It has reconnected me to moments in my life that are common to our community and shown me an experience different from mine while being emotionally familiar. Through their struggles, dysphoria, and triumphs I find their world and mine are linked in the emotional and self-made journeys we took.

If you haven’t seen “Pose,” I recommend you use your preferred streaming service to watch it. It is a marvel.

Pose” is available on streaming and for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Writer. Queer Theologian -- Published in "When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience" -- Pronouns: She/Her/Hers -- @queeringcaitlin

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