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Why Transwomen Have Earned Their Seat at the Table

This is not the first time I have written about PoseFx, the most significant television series to make its way into the pop culture psyche in recent history. I doubt this will be the last time an episode compels me to head straight for my keyboard, either. Aside from its glorious costuming, perfect balance of melodrama and nuanced performances, AND Billy Porter, PoseFx does not make the mistake of simply presenting New York City ballroom culture and the trans community as the exotic other. PoseFx (and likely, its producer, Janet Mock) is clear on its mission: YOU. WILL. SEE. US. AS. HUMAN.

On a recent episode, Life’s A Beach, I found myself near tears again. (It’s happened to me more times than I care to mention while watching this show.) While on a weekend get away an hour out of the city, Elektra, Angel, Lulu and Blanca end their day at the beach with dinner and cocktails at a high class restaurant. It is one of those joints that prides itself on its white linen table cloths and matching white people. Both making it clear that four transwomen from The Bronx don’t belong there. When one of its regular clientele comes over to explicitly state what the table cloths and pale patrons have tried to subtly suggest, Elektra reads this monied, arrogant white woman for filth. A take down so full in its totality and depth that she has to pause in the middle and take a sip of wine in order to properly “read that bitch.”

While there were so many incredible sound bites in that read, the one that stuck with me was: “We fought for our place at this table.” Elektra’s point being that simply because this woman had been born with a uterus and the accouterments of a privileged white lady didn’t mean she was entitled to claim the descriptor of “woman” anymore than the four women who were minding their damn business when they were confronted with yet another person who demanded they prove their worth. Their right to exist.

When the white lady follows Elektra’s command and scurries back to her table, the scene continues and we are presented with the most damning evidence that Elektra is exactly right: She has earned the title of woman more than any of the cis women in that restaurant, the Bronx, the city, the world. Blanca shares with her friends that she has been offered a chance to go on an evening stroll along the beach with a handsome life guard who had, several scenes before, saved her from drowning. Elektra immediately warns her not to accept the date, asking, “You told him no, right?” Her friends’ excitement for her chance at love immediately turns into fear.

“You can’t trust him at night by yourself.”

It is unspoken because there’s no need to say it. He, a cis man who has not been told that Blanca is a transwoman, should not be given the benefit of the doubt. While Lulu, Elektra and Angel had been goading Blanca since season one to take her love life more seriously and teased her throughout the day about the connection she felt with the life guard after he’d saved her, the moment she said she would be spending more than five minutes alone with him at night, each of these women wanted her to pump the brakes on the courtship.

She could end up dead. He would most likely hurt her. IF she chose to disclose that she was not “a real woman,” instead of just bidding her adieu and leaving her on the beach, he could very likely strangle her for making him become attracted to her and her “unnatural femininity.” If Blanca did go through with the date, she could enjoy a romantic, moonlit walk on a pristine Long Island beach or she could end up brutally murdered and disposed of in the rolling tides, her body left to wash up on shore a few hours later.

Elektra and the women surrounding her at that table were constantly cognizant of male violence. It was the first thing they considered when an innocent proposition to take a walk was offered. “You can’t just have coffee with him tomorrow afternoon before we leave?,” Lulu asked Blanca with a forced chuckle and smile.

If there is no other signifier of womanhood, it is the acute awareness that you can be the victim of male rage for reasons unclear to you and in moments when you have little to no resources to protect yourself. If you ask women how often they consider the possibility of being the victim of a man who felt entitled to take out his rage on their body, many of us would have a handful of moments at the very least, a couple of tangible experiences that still haunt us at the most. There might be a small minority of us who claim no past memory of the sharp fear that takes hold of your body when you realize you are on an isolated beach with a man you just met who has been a perfect gentleman, but something about the way he just looked at you, the sound in his voice when he called you sexy makes you wonder if you were too naive, too trusting after only a few hours of pleasant conversation with this stranger.

The women of PoseFx are not only women. They are transwomen. They are black and brown transwomen. Every moment of their lives is curated to make it easy for male violence to find a place to rest comfortably. No questions asked. No accountability expected. Only a few episodes before, Candy, their house daughter and ballroom competitor, was beaten to death in a filthy motel room after a sexual encounter turned violent. Earlier in this season, a secondary character relayed a story of servicing a john in his car and having him turn violent, knocking her teeth out. When the police showed up, she was brought to jail and abused. He drove off and went home to his family.

The most telling moment in Life’s a Beach is when Blanca says she is tired of allowing her choices to be led by fear and will go for the walk with the handsome life guard. Elektra admonishes her to protect herself and pulls out a knife from her purse. “Take this with you.” Lulu and Angel follow suit, pulling out a taser and a set of brass knuckles. It is played as a funny moment. A light hearted way to show us “real men and women” just how often these transwomen have come close to death. Just how much of their brain power is used to ensure the next time it happens, they will escape it alive like the last.

When Elektra pulled out the knife, I recalled the times I’ve walked home from my subway station after midnight, gripping my key tightly in between my thumb and forefinger so I could use it to poke an attacker in the eye if I had to. The appearance of more serious weaponry from Lulu and Angel only confirmed the reality that these women knew a world even more terrifying than I ever would. The amount of effort that goes into avoiding male violence is bothersome, but for the most part, it remains in the periphery of my life. If I were Elektra, would I have such a luxury?

“They don’t kill us because they hate us,” she explains to Blanca. “They kill us because of what it means to love us.”

If you want to know how the world teaches you to expect to be the outlet for male rage, ask any woman. If you want to know what it feels like to expect that you will be the outlet for a rage that surfaces when a man must confront what his attraction to you reveals about him, ask a black transwoman. Ask her to take you through the fear of knowing that at any given moment you can become the victim of violent rage because a man who has perceived his attraction to you as pathology now must kill it by killing you.

I suggest you start your research soon because another another black transwoman will lose her life to male rage by the time you are done reading this sentence.

Pose: The Best Family Drama on TV

I suppose I should start with the truth: I come from a fractured family. Though still in communication with every member of my immediate family, months can go by when I have not talked to any of them. My mother, my sister and definitely not my brothers.

I noticed my family’s distance as early as elementary school. I grew up well aware that while other kids in my class would probably spend at least one weekend over the summer at a family reunion or cook out in a humid park somewhere, I really could not recall any memories of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together under a matriarch’s roof - the whole extended family reenacting its own version of the final scene in Soul Food. Neither my mother nor father seemed to have deep connections with family members beyond their own parents. In some ways, that disconnect has continued among their own children.

Perhaps this is why I can’t find words accurate enough to describe my connection to Pose, FX’s groundbreaking series about 1980s Ball culture in New York City. I was enthralled from the first episode when Blanca stalks through Washington Square Park looking for someone to co-opt as her own. As her family. She finds a young Damon sleeping on a bench because his own fractured family threw him away with an ease that baffles me. Their conversation is casual yet poignant. Blanca tells Damon she has seen how well he dances when he practices during the day. She tells him she, a woman who has just been given a reason to live after being informed she would soon die, is starting her own house and she wants it to be more than just a collection of trans women competing for their next Ball trophy. “I want it to be a real family where we all look out for each other.”

Her house becomes just that. She not only commits herself to taking care of Damon emotionally and financially, she extends her care to Pray Tell, father figure to pretty much every character on the show, and a number of impulsive young adults who have no one else to offer them a warm bed and even warmer heart when the world clearly states: “Your life means nothing to me.”
Pose is a tribute to chosen family. And it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about the beauty in such a simple premise.

My family would never throw me away the way Damon’s family did. I can’t imagine my mother kicking me, a teenaged child, out of her house for any reason. And if she did lose her mind enough to do it, my own mind can’t process my father not coming to my suddenly ill mother’s home to collect me and my belongings. I can’t think of any reason why my siblings would tell their children I am dead when I am living and breathing a train ride away.

Though I can’t relate to the specific fracture in Damon’s and Blanca’s biological families, I can understand the longing to create a family of their own choosing. A family that understands them and accepts them in a way their bio families can’t. It goes without saying that none of the characters on Pose want to have to choose their family. In their quiet moments, they are candid about how much the rejection of their families still cut them to the core. They long for the connection they have with their chosen family to be mirrored with the bio family members who have tossed them aside. Blanca, particularly, deals with an incredible amount of emotional abuse from her siblings just to attend the funeral of her mother, whose only tool for dealing with a son who knew he was really a daughter was to banish her child from her life.

For those of us who have come to rely more on our chosen family than our bio one, Pose is the ultimate testament to family being much broader, much bigger than just the people with whom you share DNA and a house. In one season, The Evangelistas comforted one of their own as she repeatedly got her heart broken by a white man so white he could have been on a box of oatmeal, showed up to an HIV ward to stare their future in the face because their chosen father needed them to, demanded a prominent dance institute give their frightened son and brother another chance to audition for an opportunity that would save his life, and held each other accountable for looking out for a vulnerable family member when they had valid reasons not to bother.

I can’t remember the last time the big or small screen has offered such a heart breaking, exquisite portrayal of family. Yes, each episode Billy Porter delivers superb extraness, holding nothing back as he allows us a peek into a world we never knew existed. And the costumes and Ball scenes are themselves worthy of their own show. However, if Pose is to be praised for nothing else, I say we should be up on our feet, clapping like deranged seals because it graciously provides us the prototype for and a comprehensive definition of family.

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