"The category is: live ... work ... pose!"
Emmy winner Billy Porter's boisterous bravado soars through television screens and burrows itself in viewers' ears in the introduction to each episode of FX's "Pose." But they only got to hear it one more time: The series finale aired Sunday (10 p.m. EDT/PDT) after three groundbreaking seasons.
"Pose" will undoubtedly leave a hole when it comes to transgender representation on TV; it's the only show with a cast made up mostly of trans actors and characters, including stars Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore and Dominique Jackson.
But transgender representation on TV is slowly but significantly improving. Trans actors and characters will appear across networks and streaming services, with more waiting in the increasingly inclusive wings. Even after "Pose," 21 transgender characters remain on TV, according to GLAAD's director of transgender representation Nick Adams, including Josie Totah's comedic turn on Peacock's "Saved by the Bell" reboot and Brian Michael Smith on Fox's "911: Lone Star."
Experts are bullish about the future of transgender representation, thanks to the example set by "Pose."
"It's beyond optimism," says actress Jen Richards, who appeared in Netflix's 2020 transgender history documentary "Disclosure," and most recently on CBS' "Clarice." "I have certainty that (transgender representation is) going to continue to improve."
The legacy of 'Pose'
"Pose" explored the world of New York ballroom culture in the 1980s and 1990s and the power of chosen family. Ballroom involves groups of LGBTQ people gathered in "houses," competing in confident and charismatic modeling and dancing.
Whether characters are pulling off a gorgeous, jaw-dropping look, or pulling together in times of tragedy, the community of queer and transgender men and women of color lift each other up each week. When they fight, they fight like family – meaning no fight lasts forever.
"'Pose" has been the undeniable catalyst for public conversations about the intersections of race, gender and class in the U.S. today," says LaVelle Ridley, a doctoral candidate in English and women's and gender studies at the University of Michigan. "And the hope ... is that these conversations continue until we begin to see substantial justice for marginalized communities."
Society doesn't make it easy for transgender women of color to be vulnerable in the spotlight, but "Pose" turns up the wattage and lets its cast shimmer, thanks to behind-the-scenes representation by producer and writer Our Lady J and executive producer, director and writer Janet Mock.
"By including trans people behind the scenes, in the writers' room, as directors, and throughout the production, Pose brought an authenticity to trans storytelling that was truly groundbreaking," Adams says.
Richards says "Pose" was a shock and a revelation when it premiered three years ago this month, setting a new bar for transgender representation on TV.
"It put (the) lie to every argument that the Hollywood institutions had used to justify their exclusion of trans people from the industry," Richards says.
SA Smythe, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at UCLA, says "Pose" should have been among a sea of shows featuring queer and transgender people of color. That sea is more like a small pond, for now.
"What was so exciting about 'Pose' was the breadth of stories and the representation and the fierce looks," Smythe says. "But the burden of representation was too great for that show."
One show couldn't capture the experiences of an entire community.
"The trans community is not a singular thing," Smythe says. "Part of the beauty of being trans is we know that there are so many ways to live, exist, to love, to breathe in this world. And it would be great if we had more than one show about one specific city for one specific time frame to hang that on."
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The future of trans representation on TV
Improving transgender representation comes down to one key element: education.
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Staff Video, USA TODAY
"Disclosure" is one way for Hollywood executives and uninformed general audiences to educate themselves. The documentary covers the transgender experience in Hollywood, from transgender character Edie Stokes on CBS' "The Jeffersons" in 1977, through "Pose."
"When we know better, we do better," actress Laverne Cox told USA TODAY last year, discussing the documentary.
A key element to this education? Understanding transgender actors can play any role.
"I want to see the characters from 'Pose' not typecast to playing 'just' the trans person in mainstream shows or other kinds of shows for the rest of their careers," Smythe says.
Adams points out this train already sped out of the station.
"The trans actors in 'Pose' and so many other series have shown how talented they are, and we're already seeing them cast in cisgender roles," he says, including Indya Moore in "Queen and Slim" and Patti Harrison in "Together Together." "It's important that trans and nonbinary actors be given the opportunity to play all kinds of parts because it helps to reinforce that trans women are women and trans men are men, and it also sends a message that being transgender or non-binary isn't the only thing that makes them valuable as actors."
Despite "Pose" going off the air, trans characters appear as series regulars on TV shows such as "Lone Star," "Bell," "Good Girls," "Euphoria," "Billions," "Star Trek: Discovery," "The L Word: Generation Q," and "Supergirl," Adams says. More are coming in HBO Max's "Gossip Girl" reboot, Netflix's "Sex Education" and Paramount+'s remake of "The 4400," among others.
But Adams has set his sights on the next frontier.
"I am hopeful that the next big step in trans representation will be for a media company to buy a show created by a transgender showrunner, and perhaps even have an all-trans writers' room, to bring us a show that is fully from a trans point of view," he says. "And personally, I hope it's a comedy – we could definitely use more trans representation in comedy."
Richards dreams of a trans studio executive executing change.
"That would be a seismic shift, to actually have some trans people at the place in the system where they can make decisions and greenlight projects," she says.
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