Pose's second season begins with a flashpoint. It's 1990, and New York's ball scene is reveling in the fact that Madonna's "Vogue" is a hit and mourning the fact that HIV/AIDS deaths in their community are a near-daily occurrence. Madge's song and video shined a spotlight on ball culture's dance moves, and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who is herself HIV-positive, sees the song as a way for her children—the adopted gay and transgender kids in her house—to find success in modeling or teaching dance. "This song is our ticket to acceptance," she says. If past is prologue, this won't come to pass. Historically, the young queer people of color who created voguing got little credit for the phenomenon. Ball culture didn't go mainstream, and many of the people in the scene died long before something like Pose could ever see the light of day. The truth is crueler than fiction.
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If it's true that history is written by the victors, it is acutely so when it comes to the history of LGBTQ+ people as portrayed in pop culture. Until recently, the highest profile voguing ever got was Madonna's song, and its David Fincher-directed black-and-white video. Those who looked closely back in 1990 might've seen its origins in Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning, but the story of ball culture did not go mainstream as "Vogue" shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100. The world knew about Luis Camacho Xtravaganza and Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, of ballroom's House Xtravaganza, because of the video, the Blonde Ambition tour, the Truth or Dare documentary. But until shows like Pose and Viceland's My House, the rich stories of ball culture, outside of Livingston's doc, remained largely obscured.
Steven Canals, Pose's creator, is aware of the weight his show carries. "If you watch the show, there are moments where we are very clearly talking to our audience and giving them a history lesson," Canals told the audience at a recent panel during the Tribeca Film Festival dedicated to LGBTQ+ programming. "We know there are folks coming in who are seeing the spectacle and the color; they're seeing the beautiful performances from our cast, and we want them to go past that. The show is more than just entertainment. It's also education."
In other words, Pose, whose second season premieres tonight on FX, is out to fill in the blanks of queer history that haven't made it onto screens of any size before. And his show isn't alone in this. Netflix's Tales of the City—an extension of Armistead Maupin's San Francisco Chronicle column-turned-book-series-turned-1990s-TV-miniseries—seeks to do the same. Whereas the original book series and show were a reflection of life in the Bay Area post-Harvey Milk, the new Tales looks at life as it is there now, where gentrification and tech money are threatening the communities that made San Francisco what it is. It also, pointedly, details the Compton's Cafeteria riot, when transgender women and queer men fought back against police brutality in 1966—12 years before the assassination of Milk and three years before the same thing would happen at Stonewall in New York City.
'I think the change in representation is largely being led by people that are members of those communities themselves. So networks and production companies that do a better job of hiring people of color and queer folks as showrunners and directors are producing more interesting content.'
Kristie Soares, professor University of Colorado Boulder
Similarly, director Chris Moukarbel 's documentary Wig, which premiered at Tribeca and will air on HBO on June 18, looks at the rise and fall of Lady Bunny's Wigstock, which brought drag to families in New York's Tompkins Square Park. Contrasting the drag scene in the rapidly changing Manhattan of the 1980s with the one currently thriving in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, it gives a perspective on the underground beginnings of modern drag that middle America doesn't often get on something like RuPaul's Drag Race.
This month, of course, marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the riot against police mistreatment of LGBTQ+ that started the gay liberation movement and led to the events now known as Pride. It is perhaps one of the best-known moments in queer history, and yet the story of what happened in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 is still finding its way to screens. It's heartening that when Roland Emmerich's white-washed movie Stonewall came out in 2015, queer audiences largely boycotted it, but Hollywood has yet to make a movie about Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera—the queer people of color who are credited with being at the forefront of Stonewall. (Though The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a gut-wrenching but uplifting documentary about the quiet revolutionary whose death remains a mystery, is currently on Netflix, and you should definitely watch it.)
More stories about the unsung heroes of queer history could be on the way. As Kristie Soares, professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, notes, more queer people of color are getting the opportunity to create shows and films. Progress is slow, but as more people—such as trans activist Janet Mock, who is now writing, directing, and producing on her second season of Pose; and Lena Waithe, the creator of The Chi who showed up at this year's Met Ball in a jacket that said "Black Drag Queens Invented Camp"—write their own shows, more and better stories will get told. "I think the change in representation is largely being led by people that are members of those communities themselves," Soares says. "So networks and production companies that do a better job of hiring people of color and queer folks as showrunners and directors are producing more interesting content."
More interesting—and more valuable to LGBTQ+ people themselves. Young queer people of previous generations didn't have much access to their own cultural history, and many still don't today. Shows like Pose or Tales of the City can help change that, making it possible for them to carry that history forward while also being a part of it.
Asked about the topic, Michael Bronski, who studies culture, activism, and queer history at Harvard, quotes a 1965 essay from James Baldwin: "History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations." In other words, in order to know where you're going, you need to know where you've been.
"Who actually controls history, and the telling of history?" Bronski says. "It's time for queer people to take a more active role in that."
Pose's Pray Tell is doing just that. In the show's second season premiere, he not only joins ACT UP, he educates. Taking the podium during a ball, as he often does while emceeing on Pose, he gives a new lesson. He speaks of the moment in 1970 when, according to legend, Paris Dupree (from whom Paris Is Burning got its name) put down a Vogue magazine and began mimicking the models on its pages to the beat on a dancefloor, starting a revolution. As Madonna's song plays, and Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza himself demonstrates the moves, Pray Tell has a message: "Know your history, children," he says. "Now, let's all vogue like Paris!"
Pose returns to FX tonight. Madonna's new single, "Medellín," peaked at No. 18 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart.
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