There is a certain sadness that falls on the LGBTQ community in July. The corporate profitability of queer people grows less fruitful, and the reality sets in—Pride month remains a lucrative opportunity in a time when wokeness is en vogue. But in July, the allyship softens. The rainbow fades to gray. Life returns to the norm. The changing of months represents a quiet permission that the light shined on LGBTQ issues can be dimmed.
That ambivalence is concerning and scary and a blunt truth that is oftentimes swallowed with a grain of salt by LGBTQ people. But on Tuesday night’s powerful episode of FX’s Pose, July feels like it’s fighting back for once. The groundbreaking series about ballroom culture from Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals said goodbye to one of its characters in a way that revolutionizes the way we talk about trans lives in media.
The world of Pose has always been shrouded in a bit of sadness, even during its most jubilant balls. Set at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the late ’80s, the looming threat of what might happen to its main characters—namely Blanca and Pray Tell—has practically been a character itself as the disease ravishes 1987 New York City. But when Season Two returned in early June, the tone shifted. While Season One felt like an introduction to New York’s ballroom culture, Season Two doubled down and focused on the lives of its trans characters and those living with HIV and AIDS three years later in 1990. In its fourth episode, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” Pose tapped into the reality of being trans in 1990. Candy, a trans woman in a rival house, was found murdered in a motel room.
The effects of her death reverberated through the community. It’s a narrative Pose had been building toward for a few episodes. The funeral home chapel in Season Two has become a bit of a meeting place for its main characters—a poignant home base for a community too familiar with saying goodbye to its own. Candy’s spirit appears to each of them. And even though she’s the tragic figure, they don’t try and repaint her as a hero. She was a rival of the main characters, and Pose holds true to that even in this moment.
“As a black trans woman, you don’t often get to hear folks express their love to you when you’re living,” Angelica Ross, who played Candy, told the New York Times. “And so there were moments when I was laying in the casket and makeup had to come and touch me up because I was just crying, I was having this vicarious experience of laying in this casket, and hearing people saying these things.”
Candy was the self-proclaimed bitch of Pose. But in her untimely demise, she represents the authentic family element that drives Pose forward. In 1990, when society as a whole didn’t care about trans lives, the community that often found Candy unbearable rallied behind her in death. Her death represents the turning of a page on Pose and primetime television as a whole. In her character’s passing, there’s a statement: transgender lives are finally worthy of being discussed.
For so long on television, transgender people were typically relegated to walk on roles that appeared in a single episode, maybe two. Others, like South Park, used being transgender as a punchline for a character. Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black shook television critics: not with a flashy storyline, but by simply existing as a leading trans character in a critically acclaimed show. Pose changed that cycle, enlisting a litany of trans characters played by trans actors. In the world of Ryan Murphy, Pose could have become camp and whimsical, but instead, it chose a more nuanced route. With that credence came a responsibility to depict the reality that trans people face.
The Human Rights Campaign tracks the murders of transgender people on a yearly basis. In recent years, the violence has seemed to increase. The majority of those, like Candy, are trans women of color, but it’s a tricky metric to measure because it’s not until the early 2000s that transgender murders were being reliably tracked. Reports and media coverage oftentimes misgenders victims, leaving final tallies with a question mark. That makes Pose all the more relevant. These characters exist on the screen and live in our minds, becoming real enough to elicit our support and compassion and love. Pose, at its core is a step forward for transgender representation, but in its most powerful moments, Pose is also an extension of our own progression. If a viewer can feel compassion for Candy’s nameless motel room slaying, then perhaps that compassion can translate into the unfair reality too many trans women face on a daily basis.
The effect of Candy’s death will surely echo throughout the rest of Pose‘s second season, but the greater hope is that the depiction of her death will resonate more deeply than one night of television. After all, it was a 1968 episode of Star Trek that introduced millions of viewers to their first interracial kiss. Soap featured one of the first depictions of a gay man on primetime TV in 1977. And in 2019, Candy’s brutal murder will hopefully represent more than a narrative device on a good television show.
For thirty days a year, corporate brands voice their support for LGBTQ people. Publications push out stories about brave gay and lesbian and trans people. Straight people rally at parades with signs and rainbow headbands with fists thrust into the air. Pose‘s powerful fourth episode dares to ask if anyone cares once those days are up. After all, much like Pose, the story continues once the show is over. Are you still watching?