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.

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.