Pose Isn’t Just Giving an AIDS History Lesson

Angel (Indya Moore) at Pose's re-creation of the St. Patrick's Cathedral die-in.
Angel (Indya Moore) at Pose’s re-creation of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral die-in. Photo: Macall Polay/FX

Pose is entertaining as hell, but it also wants to educate the children. At its most exciting, the Ryan Murphy–produced FX series fuses extravagant depictions of queer POC beauty, culture, and real-life history with an inherent art-as-activism ethos, showcasing its LGBTQ+ characters alongside the systemic prejudices they face. It’s a call to arms to evolve from these biases — many of which still exist today — with sides of soap, camp, and elegance.

In season two, which jumps from 1988 to 1990, Pose digs far beyond period escapism and history lessons. The show turns its unflinching focus on not just how HIV/AIDS plagued the ballroom community but how its members fought back against it. It’s a story told with modern-day activism and engagement in mind, according to the show’s creators, particularly in the ongoing fight for a cure.

“There are a lot of parallels to today’s political landscape from our show’s period,” says writer and producer Our Lady J. “People certainly feel powerless about the government; there is overt racism, homophobia, and transphobia coming from the highest office, and we need to remember that we have power in our voice.”

Pose, which was just renewed for a third season, emphasizes that potential strength by introducing the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. Last week’s season premiere, “Acting Up,” opens with Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) paying their respects to a deceased friend on Hart Island. The little-known, one-mile-long strip of land in the Long Island Sound served as a mass burial site at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis for those victims who couldn’t afford proper funeral services or whose bodies went unclaimed. The grimness, sadness, and anger stewing within that opening scene sets the stage for these HIV-positive characters to get involved with the influential organization.

“The disease at that point had reached a fever pitch,” co-creator and executive producer Steven Canals says of the narrative pivot. Annual deaths, for one, nearly tripled between 1988 and 1990 from about 5,000 to over 14,000. “The community was being eviscerated by HIV, and the government just wasn’t stepping in to provide any resources.”

Introduced to ACT UP by Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard), Pray Tell and Blanca are later shown participating in the historic die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the visit of Cardinal John O’Connor, who opposed condom use at the height of the crisis. At the season premiere in New York earlier this month, a scene showing police carting a defiant, proud Pray out of St. Patrick’s elicited cheers from the Paris Theatre audience. Although the die-in actually took place in December 1989, its inclusion on Pose with a tweak of the timeline resonates both within the story the show is telling and in the modern world where it airs.

“It was really important for us to highlight that where we are at present with HIV — we have PrEP and we have the cocktail, and HIV is no longer a death sentence — there was a long road to getting to that place,” Canals says. “This was the hard-fought battle that ACT UP and the community were at the center of, and that battle was fought alone. There were no allies at the time. It really was just the community out there on the front lines by themselves.”

Spotlighting the trans women and queer POC like Blanca, Pray Tell, and the rest of the House of Evangelista on those front lines with ACT UP was of particular importance, says Lady J, herself a trans woman and prominent poz HIV/AIDS activist.

“For so long, communities of color and trans women especially have been neglected in the history of HIV/AIDS activism,” she says. “Since our show is focused on the ballroom community — queer people of color, trans women of color — it just seemed like the perfect fit. It seemed like we owed it to history. We wanted to uncover once and for all the truth of our history and of our community’s history.”

HIV/AIDS treatment was available at the time — but only to a limited few. History has shown that the drug AZT had a laundry list of toxic side effects, but it was still sought after as a breakthrough drug in the years Pose is set. As is often the case, its accessibility ran disproportionately along lines of class, race, and gender. With a $10,000 annual price tag, AZT simply isn’t a financial reality for Pose’s protagonists. The only way Blanca can get her hands on some is through Judy, who gets the pricey medication from deceased, wealthy, often white men who could afford it in life; in death, they donated what they had left to the less fortunate and infected. This was often the only means to an end for women like Blanca.

While HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was 30 years ago, similar disparities in accessibility to treatment and prevention still exist. PrEP, specifically, is perhaps the greatest development toward a cure: One daily pill protects HIV-negative individuals from contracting the virus and therefore has the potential to stop it from spreading altogether. It’s even part of President Trump’s plan to contain HIV by 2030. (To that end, Lady J says, “There’s nothing that he’s done to support his claim that he cares about finding the cure and ending it, but I am open to seeing what that statement does as far as policies and distribution of funds. I think he just wants to take the credit in the case that a cure comes along.”)

Truvada, the only FDA-approved version of PrEP, costs over $1,600 per month under the patent of pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, making it a near-impossibility for the lower-income communities that need it most. Considering the drug costs just $6 per month to produce, Gilead made nearly $3 billion from Truvada sales last year. Activists at PrEP4All have called on the company in recent months to release its medical patents so that affordable generic treatments can be introduced to the market as has been the case in other countries; the issue was taken to a House committee with the support of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last month. (During that hearing, Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day emphasized that $6 billion of his profits have gone toward HIV/AIDS research since 2000.)

Earlier this year, Gilead began making 11 years’ worth of Truvada donations to 200,000 high-risk, uninsured Americans, particularly in the rural South and among trans women and gay and bisexual men of color. That’s in addition to access programs and copay-assistance initiatives. But the fact remains that the company’s efforts are reaching only one-fifth of the 1.1 million high-risk Americans today. In a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, 35 percent of gay and bi men were on PrEP in 2017, but 40 percent of the overall pool was white. Racial minorities and trans women continue to be at a higher risk of contracting HIV.

So what can be done? Lady J sees such accessibility issues as a continuation of what we saw in 1990, now re-created on Pose. But after taking a pause, she says there are still some gray areas. “I see that Gilead does a lot of good within the community. I just had a conversation with my doctor recently about measures Gilead is taking toward finding the cure for HIV,” she says, noting the company’s continued research efforts. “And I think it’s important to remember that, yes, we live in a capitalist society, it takes money to develop life-saving medication. But also, when something can save so many lives — and I’m speaking on behalf of myself and not the show or any other company — I think it is important to look at what we can do to relieve that.”

Lady J cites Volvo’s invention of the three-point seat belt as an example of a company releasing its patents for the greater good: “The manufacturer of the seat belts knew they could save lives if they released the patent, and they did. I think it is important for any sort of life-saving method to not be owned by one company.”

For Canals, the hurdles faced by those most at risk today stem not just from the actions of the pharmaceutical company in question but from a gap in health care in general. It’s a gap that, through Blanca’s use of donated-in-death AZT and Judy’s efforts in medical activism, among other story lines, he wants the historical lens of Pose to bring into focus.

“We’re not a country that has comprehensive health care, so I think we really do need to be looking at where there are gaps,” Canals says. “The first place that I go to is just who has access to the resources? I think of all the young LGBT people who have reached out to us who are living in the Midwest who do not have an LGBT resource center in their town. I’m thinking about all the people who, again, maybe they just don’t have health care and they can’t afford to go to the doctor because they can’t pay for these meds out of pocket. How are we supporting these young people?”

He continues, “Our show is a reminder, whether we’re talking about HIV/AIDS and access to medical resources or we’re talking about what it means to be a trans woman of color. Hopefully, we’re reminding people that you’re critically important to this discourse in this day and age.”

Pose Isn’t Just Giving an AIDS History Lesson