Why Understanding Passing Is Key to Appreciating FX’s Pose

Two characters from Pose compete in a ball.
A scene from Pose. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX.

This piece is part of The Passing Issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Blanca Rodriguez (MJ Rodriguez)—of FX’s excellent, groundbreaking new series, Pose—has had enough. She’s frustrated that her ideas for ball costumes keep getting stolen by house mother Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), and having recently been diagnosed with HIV, she’s thinking of her legacy. The natural solution? Create a house, of course. “It’s my time, it’s my dream, and I’m going for it,” she tells the iconic House of Abundance family. Elektra—an angrier Grace Jones—doesn’t take the news well. “Look at me,” she says. “Look at you. I can pass. I can strut down Fifth Avenue when the sun is sitting high as my cheekbones and be waited on at Bergdorf’s, same as any white woman, while you hide away in the shadows.”

In that time, place, and community (1987, New York, trans and gender-nonconforming), being told you couldn’t pass was the ultimate insult. As Pose shows, given that so much of society refused to see trans women as women, it’s no surprise that a trans woman would think passing as cis was the only way her femininity could be legitimized. And passing was also about the ability to be able to walk into certain places without being hassled. As Blanca explains, rather ironically, to potential house child Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain), “Realness is what it’s all about. Being able to fit into the straight, white world to embody the American dream.” That is what so many of the characters on Pose want, that world of ultimate privilege, this promised land they think will make their lives better—but passing always costs in one way or another.

For some, the American dream can be as simple and as essential as surviving. “I’m lucky I can mostly pass,” Blanca tells Damon, right before we see a glimpse of her at her job as a manicurist. “I’ve taken the hormones,” she says. “I know how to carry myself.” Angel (Indya Moore) is a prostitute who doesn’t have as much passing privilege as Blanca. On any given night she could be killed, robbed, beaten, raped, infected with HIV, or simply freeze to death. She walks into an elegant store and is told they’re not looking for anyone, despite the fact she’s already seen a help wanted ad. Damon is gay and wants to be a dancer. He’s thrown out by his father for both reasons. (His mother only cares about the gay part.) Unwilling to pass as straight any longer, he heads to New York, where a nice hard bench in a park awaits, as does a chance to finally be himself, if he can survive long enough to make it.

Pray Tell (Billy Porter) passes, for a time, as someone who isn’t watching yet another boyfriend go into the hospital. In the third episode, however, he is the opposite of the outgoing, happy, naughty Pray we thought we knew, revealing a sad, traumatized soul. Still, he puts on a brave face for the man he loves, talking about all they’re going to do when he leaves the hospital. None of it is likely ever going to happen. At the balls, Pray can’t crack. The master of ceremonies’ job is to uplift a community that needs it. Maybe it helps him forget he’s in the middle of a plague, however briefly. One can safely assume he isn’t talking about HIV at his day job, because that’s not something you bring with you to Macy’s, where women shop to forget their worries and where they, like everyone else, fear the virus. He doesn’t want to bring it to Blanca, either. Still, she presses. She doesn’t want HIV to change the way he relates to her, yet she hides it from her children because she worries they won’t want to stay in her house.

Not being able to pass can sometimes be a benefit. Damon is rescued, recruited off the streets by Blanca. His ability to dance, his obvious femininity, his sexual orientation—the things that get him thrown out of his home smooth his entry into this one. Angel’s authenticity impresses one of her clients, Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), a straight, white yuppie working for Donald Trump, and he wants to be her boyfriend. Not only that—he wants to give her a place to live.

There are many ways in which Pose is brilliant, but one is showing a young generation just how big a taboo it was to date a trans person in the late 80s (though such relationships are still stigmatized). Angel makes Stan another passer. However, he’s used to it, trying as he is to fit into his American dream, being rich. Passing allows him to keep the life he has, the one society has convinced him he should want, but also keeps him from the more emotionally fulfilling, authentic one with Angel. His suffering is not as deep as Angel’s, or any trans person’s for that matter, but it’s still there, poisoning his soul.

Today, queer folks strive for authenticity in all areas and passing is not necessarily the ideal it once was. It’s a better world, albeit hardly a perfect one. There is still discrimination. Trans women are still being murdered. AIDS is not yet cured. And just look at our president, Stan’s former boss. But there is progress. It’s 2018, and when a queer person of color is putting on a suit, he, she or they could be walking the “executive realness” category, or just be an actual executive at a business where posing is not a requirement.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.