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Pose: Thoughts on gender, race, and identity

A performer from AsiaSF poses on the stage of the 2015 San Francisco Trans March. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Last week, I finished watching the premiere season of Pose, the new FX series that explores the lives of queer and trans people of color participating in the New York City ballroom scene in the 1980s. I’ll try to keep this post free of major spoilers, as it’s more introspection than a review, but I can’t promise I won’t reveal any important details to those who haven’t watched the show.

I knew that Pose featured trans writers and cast members, and had heard great things about it from the community. But I was resistant to watching it at first, as I worried the (fictionalized yet very real) trans-antagonism, which was even worse in that era, would be too triggering. I also wasn’t sure how well I could relate to a scene primarily populated by trans women and femmes.

I’m very glad I gave the series a chance, as I enjoyed it immensely, despite (or more likely because of) it stirring up a lot of emotions. Though I’m a queer black trans person, I had little else in common with the main characters, and knew nothing about ballroom culture before watching. But I can relate to being perceived as an outsider, and trying to be authentic while surviving in a world that is hostile to anyone who isn’t cisgender, white, and straight.

Back in 1987–88, the year in which the first season of Pose is set, I was a high school senior in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Billy Porter, the Tony Award-winning actor and singer who portrays emcee and fashion designer Pray Tell in the series, had graduated the year before; we also attended the same middle school. I doubt he’d remember me even from my old name and photo, as we had no classes together and few interactions. But I remember watching him in school performances, and I played piano for one of his professional auditions.

This was long before my gender transition, and though I’d known since early puberty that I was attracted to girls as well as boys, I would not come out as bisexual until senior year of college. (Since transitioning, I now identify as queer rather than bi.) This was also long before I got woke; I was raised with respectability politics by a mixed black-white couple, and living in a primarily white Jewish community.

Speaking of which, that same year I was pianist for a student performance of The Wiz at our local Jewish Community Center. The cast was entirely white; I was the only black person who had anything to do with the production. Many of the cast members were not Jewish either, having temporarily joined the JCC just so they could be in the show. I was half Jewish (father’s side), but not active in the Jewish community, or any other community really; finding my tribe has been an ongoing struggle.

Despite the “color-blind” attitude I had at that time, even I felt that it was pretty fucked up to have an all-white production of an all-black musical. But my friends and classmates were in the show, and I was paid for my work, so I didn’t complain… much. I just winced when the music director—who admitted she only had experience directing choirs, not musicals —told the singers to “Enunciate”, stressing the consonants of each syllable in “Ease On Down the Road” with the whitest inflection possible.

“Home” scene from Pose (note: the YouTube description contains spoilers)

I thought about The Wiz when watching the scene in Pose where Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) perform the song “Home” for patients in the AIDS ward of a hospital. I sang that song myself about five years ago, not long before I began my gender transition, at an adult performance class and open mic in San Francisco. I felt it was one of my best performances, though it was not recorded and only a dozen or so people saw it.

Choosing that particular song was somewhat unusual for me, as for many years I had preferred to sing songs written for men. I didn’t connect this preference with my shifting gender identity at the time, but I did notice it. I also noticed that in the eight years I sang and played bass and keyboards in band workshops at the Blue Bear School of Music, I always preferred being in the company of men—preferably bi and gay men. It wasn’t until I joined the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco in 2013 and sang in a section surrounded by women that I finally realized I was not a woman myself.

Transitioning to the baritone voice that came with testosterone therapy has been difficult, as I expected it would be. I could not continue with my preferred repertoire of songs in the high tenor range. Finding new jazz songs in particular has also brought up conflicting feelings about identity, as the times I felt I was singing most like a woman — and a black woman in particular—were when I was singing jazz.

Raised in a secular household, I didn’t have the experience many black women (and men) do of singing in church. But I feel a definite positive energy when I hear black folks sing spirituals and gospel-influenced music, even if as an atheist I can’t relate to the lyrics. Much jazz and blues music has a spiritual undertone to it, though I prefer to perform songs that don’t have overt religious references.

Of course, in the jazz genre it’s expected that each singer will choose whatever key is most comfortable for them, and change gendered lyrics as appropriate. But at some level I still associate singing jazz with being a woman, which is unacceptable to me now. I got over this feeling enough to put on what I felt was a great performance of “Come Fly With Me” at a chorus fundraiser this spring, but it wasn’t my first choice of songs. I’d wanted to do a pair of numbers from my favorite musical, Sweeney Todd, as the title character, but they were deemed inappropriate for the “speakeasy” cabaret theme.

I’d felt another twinge of identity confusion when not long after beginning my transition, my spouse suggested that we watch the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which features footage of and interviews with backup singers, primarily black women. Though I don’t regret going through a hormonal transition, I do miss my strong alto voice, and sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out had I seriously pursued a career in music as I’d once wanted to do.

Ironically, watching the ballroom scenes in Pose made me think about how out of place I’d feel in that space. Though as a concert photographer and musician I’ve been in lots of loud, crowded venues, I’m really an introvert. Nowadays especially, I much prefer spending time alone or with one or two close friends in a relatively quiet environment. I like to perform in a space where the audience is seated and respectfully watching the show, not milling around talking and drinking. I acknowledge some elitism and privilege in my worldview (I was raised by classical musicians), but it’s also a matter of avoiding sensory overload.

It’s not just the enthusiastic noise of the ballroom though, but also the culture of physical beauty I have trouble relating to. I experimented with makeup for a year or two in high school and college, but ditched it after that, and always preferred wearing jeans and T-shirts rather than dresses and skirts. I’m also somewhat glad that encroaching baldness has effectively ended my lifelong struggle with hair.

However, I understand that for many trans women, careful attention to make-up, hair, and clothing can be a matter of survival, even if they’d prefer a more casual appearance. The ballroom walkers portrayed in Pose are not drag queens who can ditch their femme clothes at the end of the night and resume living as men. They are women, who are constantly judged by their appearances, and face ridicule and violence if they don’t pass as cisgender.

When I put on a jacket and tie for a concert performance I feel like I’m playing dress-up, not reflecting my true (a)gender identity. Agender is not equivalent to androgynous; agender people can and do enjoy wearing all kinds of clothes. But for myself, I just don’t particularly like getting dressed up, even for special occasions. I find that dressy clothes, whether designed for men or women, tend to cost more, require extra care, and restrict freedom of movement.

I can appreciate beautiful clothing, hair, and accessories on others. Just don’t trust my taste when it comes to fashion, because fashion — inside or outside of queer spaces — is something I will likely never understand.

Another aspect of Pose I could not relate to directly was losing close friends and lovers to AIDS. I have known a number of HIV+ people and some who have died of the disease, but unlike many middle-aged and older queer folks it has not impacted my life dramatically, for which I am grateful.

I remember when I was still in high school in the 80s, I read a letter sent out to all U.S. households about HIV. I was not yet sexually active, but when I did start having sex I made sure to use condoms. I would have done so to prevent pregnancy regardless, but the threat of contracting a deadly STD made it more imperative.

When I came out as bisexual in college, a Catholic friend tried to give me an emblem of the Virgin Mary to “cure” me of my sins. He sincerely believed, as many Christians did at the time (and many likely still do), that AIDS was a punishment from God for homosexuality. Trying to reason with him using science and evidence didn’t work. I now avoid spending time with such people to the best of my ability.

When I adopted a polyamorous lifestyle some years later, I made sure to get tested regularly. Each episode of Pose is preceded by a public service announcement, featuring queer people urging those in our community to get tested and practice safer sex. We have better awareness of and treatments for AIDS and other STDs now than we did in the 80s, but it’s important not to become complacent.

Living as an openly queer and trans person of color in 2018 might be a lot safer than living that life in 1988. But US-American society still has a very long way to go before we truly welcome, not merely accept, gender and racial diversity. Donald Trump, whose empire features in Pose, certainly did not invent racism or sexism, as our nation has been rooted in cishet white male supremacy from its founding. But the Trump administration has made open expressions of bigotry more socially acceptable. Our lives are threatened not just by oppressive language used against us, but by the deliberate erosion of our rights to enjoy the same privileges as other citizens.

Given today’s political climate, it is encouraging to see such a great reception to a television show featuring trans women of color, with trans women including Janet Mock and Our Lady J on the writing staff. But we should never forget that with visibility comes violence. Even in liberal cities like San Francisco, we must remain ever vigilant to trans-antagonism.

I have a lot of privileges compared with many other queer and trans people. But my skin color and trans status still make me vulnerable. While I struggle to live authentically in an oppressive society, I hope that my writing and photography helps in some small way to shine a positive light, as Pose has done for our community.