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New FX Show “POSE” Touches on the HIV Epidemic

(Image is subject to copyright. Source: Getty Images, FX)

This past weekend saw the series premiere of “POSE,” on FX, the newest show from Ryan Murphy, highlighting the Ballroom scene during the late 1980s. The show is the first of its kind, with a primarily black and queer cast—specifically several transgender actors and writers and producers.

The show’s debut was amazing, showing several narratives within the community that have never been seen on television. Based on what has been shown early on, the HIV epidemic will also play a vital role in various storylines showing how the virus intersected and destroyed many of our subcultures.

Within the first ten minutes of the show there was a scene dealing with the diagnosis of HIV. The story takes place in 1987, which was during the height of the epidemic. Although HIV is now treatable and manageable for those who have access to medication and care, it is still a problem more than 30 years later. However, those of us living with the virus currently know the shoulders on which we stand that allowed us to be alive today.

The scene that I was referring to included a transgender woman named Blanca and was short and to the point. She pressured the nurse to just give her the news; and the nurse told her that she had HIV. The next scene goes to her talking with her friend—played by Billy Porter—who basically tells her that she doesn’t have to let the virus rule her. That just because it is deemed a “death sentence” doesn’t mean that her life is over. The topic of HIV was brought up several times in the episode in various ways.

There was another powerful scene when Blanca, the newest house mother, was telling one of her children about going to “the pier” and having sex. She not only stated that people in her house aren’t going to be sex workers, but the importance of always using protection with any anyone they are having sex with. She never tells them of her new status, but is taking it upon herself to make sure that her kids don’t make the same “mistake” that she made.

The following weeks will continue to discuss the HIV epidemic in greater detail. We’re sure to see some powerful scenes with Billy Porter, discussing how he is losing people weekly—including a hospital scene where he’s visiting a dying friend.

Working in this field for several years, I have found that it is something that we discuss very often—that is, the loss of so many black and brown queer lives to the virus. I often think that there is a fear in showcasing our community during those years because so much of it was based in the HIV epidemic; an epidemic that has never left our community despite the numerous advancements in technology and medicine. There is truly no way to write or showcase black queer history during those times without the inclusion of HIV—because it truly played a role.

It will be interesting to see how HIV plays a role in the show. To watch how the stigma and discrimination happened during those times in correlation to what we see happening every day today. So far, we have already seen several characters be affected by it, one from infection and one from watching many of their loved ones lose their lives to the virus. Storytelling like this is rare, especially when showcasing a community that has always existed in the margins of the pages. Telling the story of ballroom culture and the intersection of HIV will be important—as we are able to correlate some of what continues to happen today with what happened back then.

I’m excited about “POSE” and what it means to see black queer people showcased in totality: the good and the bad; the joy and the pain. We have been fighting against the epidemic for long enough to know that the narrative of HIV has often erased our stories. This is a chance to showcase our side of the epidemic, inclusive of all the other narratives we have never had a chance to tell.