On Sunday night, the FX Network premiered POSE, a series set in the 1980s that explores life in New York City’s LGBTQ+ community. POSE dives into “ball” culture ― an LGBTQ+ subculture comprising social networks called “houses.” Houses serve as safe, protective spaces for members who are shunned by society and provide surrogate families for those who have been thrown out of their own.
In the ball world, house members compete against each other by “walking” and “voguing” in different costume and performance categories. Generally, balls are for those in the know and are held in discrete locations. According to Blanca, a character in the show, ball culture is a “celebration of a life that people in the rest of world do not deem worthy of celebrating.”
POSE features the largest ever cast of actors who identify as transgender to appear in a scripted series, who are also overwhelmingly people of color. This level of representation is a major milestone, particularly for U.S. television. It also highlights a contradiction: While media representation for LGBTQ+ people seems to be changing and, in many cases, improving, the off-screen reality is far too grim for far too many.
In its first episode, POSE introduced viewers to Blanca and Angel, and highlighted the varying ways in which LGBTQ+ people of color navigate marginalization and injustice. Angel’s experiences looking for employment and love speak to the challenges many trans women of color face. While Angel’s situation is fictional, the compounding effects of multiple marginalized identities are all too real.
Society frequently makes unwarranted associations between LGBTQ+ identity and criminality.
People of color who identify as LGBTQ+ face incredible disparities in all aspects of their lives, and trans women of color experience the most marginalization of all. For example, trans women of color, when compared to their white counterparts, are more than twice as likely to have left grade school because of mistreatment. They are five times more likely to interact with police, who often assume they are engaged in sex work.
Society frequently makes unwarranted associations between LGBTQ+ identity and criminality. Trans women, especially those of color, are often treated as criminals solely because of their identity, and the worst perpetrators are often the very organizations designed to protect and serve them.
The U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey about the lives of transgender Americans, revealed that over half of all respondents had one or more experiences of mistreatment by law enforcement officials. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the New Orleans Police Department harassed and unfairly targeted LGBTQ+ residents for stops, searches and arrests. In 2014, similar concerns emerged about the Newark Police Department’s harassment of transgender persons and its mistaken association between transgender identity and prostitution. Both departments are currently governed by consent decrees meant to bring comprehensive and long-term reform. It’s too early to know what, if any, improvements have been made.
People who identify as transgender are often assumed to be criminals, but they are frequently the victims of violent crimes themselves. Between 2010 and March 2018, there were a reported 142 known cases of fatal violence against transgender individuals, and FBI statistics show that 48 percent of hate crimes are motivated by race, sexual orientation or gender identity. These reported numbers, however, are likely far lower than reality, since state agencies and the media regularly misgender victims in their reports. Through this practice, the victimization of transgender people is repeated in death and officials are literally erasing trans identities.
Even when they protect themselves, transwomen are criminalized. In 2011, when CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color, walked past a bar in Minnesota with her friends, they were verbally and physically attacked. After being assailed with hate speech and cut in the face with a drinking glass, CeCe walked away. One of the assailants pursued her and she fought back. He died. She was arrested, took a plea deal and was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison.
CeCe is not alone. In Florida, Ms. Campbell faced murder charges; in San Francisco, Davia Spain was arrested; and in Illinois, Eisha Love was held in a men’s jail for four years without being tried. All of them were penalized for protecting themselves from attackers. The criminal justice system failed these women and countless others who have been criminalized simply because of their identity.
Discussions of injustice are often grounded in individual responsibility and cloaked in claims about “bad apples” and “poor” decisions. What enables injustice to continue is not a few bad apples, but the systems – policies, practices and organizational actions and inactions – that ignore the dehumanization of groups of people.
When producers set out to develop TV shows about communities other than their own, they often learn about the experiences and realities of those they seek to imitate on screen. POSE creator Ryan Murphy tapped Janet Mock – an LGBTQ+ icon and the creator of #GirlsLikeUs – to join the show’s writing and production team, showing his commitment to voice, experience and inclusion.
Perhaps government agencies should follow Hollywood’s lead and learn about the lived realities of those in the communities they serve.
Perhaps government agencies should follow Hollywood’s lead and learn about the lived realities of those in the communities they serve. Listening to, rather than talking at, LGBTQ+ community members is a way of valuing their voice. The meaningful engagement of all residents encourages the inclusion of marginalized voices and demonstrates a desire to work in partnership with community members.
Above all else, it is imperative that public institutions, rather than protect violators of justice, hold them accountable with sanctions and terminations. They must make the organizational changes necessary to effectively combat unjust behaviors and policies through intentional interventions like the use of equity toolkits, the normalization of conversations about LGBTQ+ communities and the creation of inclusive policies, among other strategies.
As we continue to see wider representations of various communities on screen ― from “Black Lightning” to “Dear White People” ― we must also require our public institutions to embody a culture where difference is not erased, but celebrated. Art is supposed to imitate life, but in this case, perhaps life should take a page out of art’s book.
Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. She researches decision-making in public organizations and its marginalizing effects on underrepresented populations.