Family is a bizarrely subjective thing.
For some, it is equal parts rigid and uncompromising, holistically defined through a tidy ordering of blood and ancestry, of tradition and clichés. To others, it is something more expansive, more elastic. Ryan Murphy’s Pose, the new FX series set against the garish 80s backdrop of New York City’s drag ballroom scene, has an acute understanding of this dichotomy: “family” takes a looser and otherwise transcendent meaning, alternately defined in the language of queerness and rejection. It is in this vibrant and marginal space that we meet a somewhat familiar articulation of kinship. A family is not always inherited; a family can be chosen.
Pose turns on the axis of the queer chosen family. Its universe is fundamentally populated by queer and trans people of colour, most of whom have been unceremoniously discarded by their families and forced into the clandestine realms of the survival economy. (Between 25 and 40 per cent of homeless Canadians are reportedly LGBT-identified; many turn to drug dealing or sex work to sustain themselves amid homelessness.) In its borderless omnipresence, Pose maps a path of this displacement. There is Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a timid and uncertain teenager victimized by his parents’ virulent homophobia; there is Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), a shifty orphan governed by visceral street knowledge; there is Angel (Indya Moore), a ballroom goddess trapped in the sticky webs of streetlight prostitution; and there is Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), a smooth-talker who sleeps on a park bench near the pier.
These wayward kids, united in exile and in economy, make a home out of each other. In the deeply queer tradition of ballroom culture, they are swept into a network of substitutive “houses”—alternate families for those rejected by their biological ones. To be queer and to be coloured is to be terribly alone and perpetually afraid; that shared fear, for these kids, becomes more conquerable. Morbidly inspired by a recent HIV diagnosis and the desire to leave a legacy, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) decides to be the family matriarch. It is through her guidance that the kids are able to eat, or go to school, or stay alive. The precious bonds they build will surely outlive them.
For many homeless LGBTQ youth, the families they choose are the first times they encounter truly healthy and affirming familial relationships. Some researchers have discovered a significant link between family rejection and risk of suicide attempts among trans people. Others have found that sexual minorities are more at risk for poor mental and physical health than heterosexual people. And so the security of the chosen family, which lives outside the conventions of heteronormative taxonomy, can be an antidote to this epidemic of stigma and desertion. It feeds the love and belonging queer people are so often denied by parents, by government policy, and by the world at large.
The deeply ontological appeal of Pose comes from the reality that it almost exists in a vacuum. There is little precedence—except, perhaps, Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, or the less renowned Kiki, from 2016—for a series that explores bodies in transition and the nuances of gay life with such care and such urgency. Not only does it have more trans regulars than any scripted show in TV history, but many of its consultants and writers (Janet Mock, Hector Xtravaganza, Skylar King, Sol Williams) hail from the very same identity profiles and cultural moments the series so delicately explores. And while the show’s dialogue sometimes bends toward didactic lecture, its sheer existence on cable television feels like an act of revolution.
The friends-as-family paradigm has existed independent of the queer spectrum for decades. Sex and the City debuted in 1998 as a story about a sex columnist sustained by a community of women; Seinfeld arrived in 1989 starring four close friends joined by their romantic shortcomings; Friends, a 1994 ten-season epic, is among the longest running sitcoms in the history of television. But what sets these shows and these families apart from Pose is the need for their survival, both onscreen and off. Without these makeshift families, many queer people are plunged back into a cycle of poverty and homelessness; Carrie Bradshaw, in her autofictions, can simply step into a pair of Manolos and enjoy the view from her Soho apartment.
Last Sunday’s episode of Pose marked a complex and definitive dissolution of its families. Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) is behind on paying her rent because she used all her money on her reassignment surgery; her house dissolves when they realize they’ll soon have nowhere to go. Blanca gets in a fight with Lil Papi when she discovers he’s been selling drugs at the pier; she throws him out of the house. Angel’s rich boyfriend, Stan (Evan Peters), who, ironically, works at Trump Tower, breaks up with her when he realizes his privilege makes him incompatible with her oppression.
Watching this last episode, I found it incredibly hard not to think of America’s present assault on immigrant families. Last month, like some grotesque iteration of a dystopian family drama, the Trump administration ordered thousands of children to be separated from their parents on the Texas side of the Mexican border. Like twisted film stills, images circulated of children sleeping in cages, or a deserted Walmart, wrapped in Mylar blankets. And with the Department of Justice’s recent restructuring, it will be even harder for LGBT refugees fleeing persecution to win asylum.
In what world does the most powerful government sanction such an assault on family? On LGBT people? In what world can we have so little compassion, so little empathy? The distance between the political environs of the real world and the fictional universes of television are quickly closing. If you want to know what’s happening in America, turn on any horror film, or reality series, or watch Pose. Everything is social commentary.
Follow Connor Garel on Twitter.
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