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Tausif Sanzum Karim is a graduate student at the University of Maine.
The history of LGBTQ representation in mainstream media is limited to more palatable shows such as “Ellen” or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” from 2003, headlined by mostly white cisgender personalities. Over the years, there has been increased representation such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but that show has a history of being non-inclusive toward the trans community.
Despite their problematic approach, lack of acknowledgement of white privilege and milking of queer stereotypes for success, some of these iconic shows and queer personalities are the pillars for the creation of a show like “Pose,” where trans people of color and queer actors can take center stage and play trans and queer roles in a mainstream show.
The year was 2018, as a queer person of color, I was apprehensive about watching “Pose” because of the whitewashing and white-pleasing narrative which previous portrayals of LGBTQ people have been in the media. However, once I started watching the show, everything changed. For the first time in the history of American television we had a show completely headlined by non-binary, trans, queer people of color. These characters are real, raw and they share stories of people whom the predominantly heterosexual society and cisgender white gay community mostly erase from mainstream LGBTQ narratives.
In the U.S., something that is often overlooked is the violence that is committed toward trans people of color. But this is different for white trans people. The example of Leelah Alcorn comes to mind: a white transgender teenager whose suicide led to national grieving and activists all over the country took responsibility to take actions against trans violence. We choose whose life’s loss we want to grieve. While doing that, we ignore trans people of color who experience various forms of violence on a regular basis. Apparently, some deaths are worth our remembrance and others are ignored.
One of the reasons that violence against trans people is often normalized is because their bodies are considered dispensable and do not need to be protected in a predominantly heterosexual and cisgender world. In “Pose,” some of the most prominent scenes portray different forms of violence committed toward trans people. The show uses its time on mainstream television to portray trans and gender non-conforming people of color at the front and center of the narrative so that the violence committed toward trans people cannot be easily neglected.
Traditionally, what has been seen as queer representation on screen has either been the happy white-pleasing narratives. What “Pose” does is learn from these shows and personalities how not to show trans people and characters, and how to develop narratives which portray trans people as full-bodied human beings.
Take for example the “Pose” scene in which Angel, a trans character, is being molested. When the camera focuses on the extreme discomfort in Angel’s eyes and facial expressions as the photographer blackmails her into touching her genitalia on camera, we as audience feel uncomfortable. In a way, we also feel that we are complicit in this person’s crime. In another scene, another trans character named Elektra is being talked down for getting a gender reaffirming operation by her cisgender white lover. We feel her helplessness and it questions our humanity, which has somehow always ignored these trans characters.
“Pose” succeeds in making us uncomfortable and feel responsible for being a part of the crimes unfolding on the screen because of our unchecked privileges, which have allowed us to ignore transgender people. In discomfort, a positive portrayal of trans characters emerges on screen. It should not be forgotten that the inspiration for the positive and more real portrayal of queer trans, gender non-binary and queer people of color did not come from the dominant white queer narratives. The ballroom culture as portrayed in “Pose” has its roots in Black traditions of communal support in the face of exclusion from both economic and social spheres. These narratives are inspired by real life stories of queer people of color who were shunned by both the heterosexual and the white gay communities.