Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

Daring ‘Pose’ Centers Black Queer Teens—but Are Their Lives Just Trauma?

Kieran Scarlett

Despair need not be the whole of how Black queer adolescence is depicted on screen.

In the second episode of the new FX series Pose, teenagers Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are on their first date, a simple walk under a pier in New York. There is the usual sweet, clumsy folly of young love—negotiation about each other’s apprehension and the endearingly awkward discussion of each one’s respective level of experience.

Sweetness aside, a pall hangs over the scene. It is New York City. It is 1987. These two teenagers are Black. The very real and new threat of HIV and AIDS lingers in the background. Disapproving onlookers may interrupt this burgeoning love with hatred. Then and now, Black queer teenagers’ lack of societal power leaves the door frighteningly open for any number of tragic endings. We as an audience have become accustomed to a certain level of dread because trauma and pain so routinely go hand in hand with the intersection of Blackness and queerness in media.

When we do see queer adolescence represented on screen, it usually comes in a white package. Two cases in point: this year’s surprise hit (and the first mainstream studio release to focus on gay teenage romance) Love, Simon or the recently released Netflix original film Alex Strangelove. In both of these films, as in most portrayals of white queer teenagers, the characters can attain acceptance and joy, divorced from any real threat of violence or ostracism.

In contrast, portrayals of Black queer adolescence not only tend to hinge on trauma, but this trauma is largely at the hands of their families and other Black people. This trend is steeped in the very insidious and racist notion that people of color are inherently more anti-queer than white people. This trend often reduces queer Black characters to mere receptacles for pain and abuse in harrowing scenes meant to elicit shock or tears. It also conveniently ignores the racist ostracization Black queer teenagers face from white queer people.

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As with Pariah, Moonlight, and now FX’s Pose, the suggestion seems to be that there is little room in the fictional narrative landscape for queer Black teenage characters who aren’t experiencing trauma. In both Pariah and Moonlight, we see adolescent Black characters violently rejected by their parents for their queerness. This dynamic is played with aching realism, to both films’ credit.

Pose introduces Damon, an aspiring dancer who’s being beaten and rejected by his parents in Pennsylvania. Both his mother and father are unable to accept Damon’s big-city dreams or his homosexuality, which his father denounces as he whips his adolescent son with a belt in a sickening scene.

The series was created by Ryan Murphy (Glee and American Horror Story) and co-written and produced by writer-director Janet Mock, a longtime transgender advocate. It feels revolutionary, both in conception and execution. Its centering of young queer and trans people of color in late 1980s New York ball culture (famously depicted in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning) is refreshing. For once, they are the focal point and cishet white characters are incidental. Even in the context of creator Ryan Murphy’s oeuvre (Glee being a prime example), Pose is a departure for its unique and singular focus on the inner lives of Black and brown queer people—and a cast and crew largely made up of trans people of color.

Even though the freshman series is in its opening weeks, how barren the landscape of fictional on-screen queer narratives would look in its absence. Like the films Pariah and Moonlight, Pose throws into sharp relief how rare and necessary depictions of queer Black adolescence are, both in their own right and in comparison to what we typically see in depictions of queer life. Pose also touches how queer and transpeople of color are often ostracized by white cisgender gay men—specifically via protagonist Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), whose gender identity and race make her unwelcome at a gay bar frequented by mostly cis white men.

These three landmark texts aren’t the only example of the larger trend in Hollywood wherein on-screen representations of Black queerness seemingly must be paired with trauma. The legacy is long and far reaching. Both 2004’s Brother to Brother and 2007’s Life Support are notable for their centering of young Black queer characters, and both narratives are predictably steeped in stories of poverty, illness, and struggle.

I’m not so naïve or idealistic as to ignore the fact that the world we live in is often, if not mostly, inhospitable to LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ folks of color. I’m not calling for some fantasy world where we rewrite history in favor of glossy escapism.

Pose—its existence and its often accurately dark portrayal of life for queer Black teenagers—is not the problem. Nor is Moonlight or Pariah, or any other seminal queer Black media, for that matter. Quite the contrary. They are vital. They are necessary and artful depictions of an underserved demographic that deserves to see themselves on-screen.

Far be it from me to argue that we shouldn’t have Pose because it leans into the very real trauma that Black trans and queer youth often face in a world that refuses to understand them; that’s as reductive as saying that we shouldn’t have any more narratives about enslavement in the wake of 12 Years a Slave. As unpleasant as these portions of our history are, they happened. They’re real. And the people contained within those stories are also worthy of humanized fictional rendering.

But despair need not be the whole of how Black queerness is depicted on screen. We also need not ignore the complicated fact that while white cisgender gay men are discriminated against, they often inflict racial and transphobic discrimination on queer and trans people of color.

Still, more than 20 years after the movie Philadelphia challenged representations of AIDS and critics challenged its desexualized protagonist, the shift to more lived-in, more human gay male characters is still limited to white male characters. Even Love, Simon—at least somewhat radical in its frank depiction of teenage queerness in the framework of a mainstream studio film—fails to explore the emotional life of Simon’s (Nick Robinson) eventual Black paramour, Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale). This reveal of Bram as “the one” comes at the tail end of a film that offers a razor-sharp focus on a white, cisgender male protagonist. He communicates anonymously online with a secret admirer, and the film explores the chance of Simon finding love with several male suitors.

When Bram is “outed” as the person with whom Simon has been corresponding, it’s almost incidental. Bram, the Black love interest, feels peripheral—merely the conclusion of the white hero’s journey. The character’s presence signals easy racial inclusion but leaves many unanswered questions, namely about the racial politics at play. Love, Simon takes place in the South (Atlanta, specifically), which isn’t uniquely racist or homophobic compared to the rest of America. There are, however, specific logistics and dynamics in navigating both race and sexuality in incredibly racially segregated places. What are the implications of an interracial queer teenage relationship in such spaces? It wouldn’t have taken a lot of time to touch on these questions.

As it is, we do get the inclusion of a queer Black teenage character whose life is apparently trauma-free. But that’s probably only because we don’t see much of his life at all.

Love, Simon’s romantic climax features Simon and Bram kissing atop a Ferris wheel as their friends, classmates, and various onlookers applaud them. It is a beautiful (if somewhat facile) nod to possibility, this white queer teenager and this Black queer teenager expressing love for all the world to see. Media need not only show the marginalized represented in scenarios where we are are downtrodden. It should also show us spaces and scenarios in which we can exist and be centered without trauma and abuse. It’s time for queer Black teenagers, rejected by both their Black cishet counterparts and their white queer counterparts, to truly have their moment.

Though Simon and Bram’s future is left to the viewer’s imagination, one can imagine that they have one. They are high school seniors in an affluent Atlanta neighborhood. They will move on to college, either together or not, where they will have even further opportunities to explore their queer identity and become themselves.

In Pose, Damon’s future is less certain. But, at the end of the pilot episode of Pose, Damon auditions for an elite New York dance company. His skill and beauty are preternatural and unrivaled. This is one of the few scenes in the series that offers narrative possibility. Despite his marginalization, Damon (with the help of his house mother, Blanca) takes charge of his destiny, carving out a space for himself in unfamiliar and typically hostile territory. He’s literally having his moment, dancing his way into a future not entirely dictated by abuse or shame. And we should follow his lead.

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