A few days ago, it was announced that Ryan Murphy, the mind behind queer favorites like Glee and American Horror Story, is developing a show slated for 2018 called Pose that will explore 80s LGBTQ ball culture. According to Deadline, the series “examines the juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in New York City: the emergence of the luxury Trump-era universe, the downtown social and literary scene and the ball culture world.”
I hate it preemptively.
It’s not that I don’t believe this is a culture worth exploring or that the show could have no entertainment value. Murphy is a talented storyteller who had little difficulty drawing me into the worlds he weaved in Glee and American Crime Story. I have no doubt Pose will bring an equally new and refreshing approach to the television experience. But I was immediately reminded of all the ways white gay men use ideas of queerness universalized around their own experiences to tell our stories that are ultimately harmful to other queer people like myself.
There is a thin line between entertainment, appropriation, and historical revisionism when it comes to who gets to tell queer stories and why. Two years ago, when Roland Emmerich released Stonewall, a fictionalized account of the riots most recognize as the start of the modern gay rights movement, the film’s obvious whitewashing and erasure of major trans Black and Latinx figures did not go unnoticed.
Stonewall was only a small part of a legacy of cisgender white gay men taking up space in the LGBTQ community with no regard for anyone else, a legacy to which Murphy himself has willingly contributed.
As many have already pointed out, Murphy’s shows have had a consistent problem with anti-Black portrayals of Black women specifically, perhaps most noticeably on American Horror Story and Scream Queens. As Kerensa Cadenas writes for Complex, “(Murphy) knows what he’s doing—there’s always a wink, a hair flip, a smirk to acknowledge the tongue-in-cheek nature of his jokes—but that doesn’t lessen the vileness of these moments on his shows. In fact, it makes it feel even worse because as the audience, we’re supposed to just accept them.
But the problem with Pose is bigger than one person or a few problematic portrayals. Ball culture was created and driven by Black and Brown queer folks to provide protection from the violence that necessitates that far too many Black and Brown LGBTQ people to seek homes outside of their own. Within the scene, queer youth, many of them homeless, create new family structures and support systems that they might not find anywhere else. It is just as much a safe haven from the racism of white queer people as it is from the straight people in their families and communities in which they grew up.
LGBTQ stories are much bigger than what white gay men live, and much bigger than many can even envision. But because of white gay men’s experience with marginalization on behalf of their queerness, it is far too often assumed that they can speak to the marginalization of other queer people as well. This ignores how whiteness and maleness intersect to encourage white gay male violence against those even more marginalized within the LGBTQ community.
White gay men telling stories like Pose without ever rectifying this issue is part of this same pattern of violence that leads to anti-Blackness and transantagonism in queer spaces everywhere.
When white gay men tell queer histories, the brick that starts a revolution magically exchanges from my sister’s hands to theirs.
HIV is no longer a problem, or it’s one that can be fixed with a “magic” little blue pill that magically does not make its way into the most vulnerable communities because of magical perpetual systematic roadblocks to health-care access for the Black poor.
Marriage is the war they call the rest of us queer folks to wage alongside them, even though it benefits them nearly exclusively. Its victory leaves in its wake only a struggle against a mysterious loneliness with causes that look very white to me, but what do I know. The struggle is not the continual casualties of Black trans women; that is just a footnote.
A Black queer Bayna El-Amin serves 9 years for being “a brute” and defending himself against them, despite his own queerness. A Black queer Michael Johnson serves 30 for being a “mandingo” and sleeping with them, because of the queer ways they’ve taught us to stigmatize his disease.
Hate crime laws take on their names even as Black queer kids face the brunt of this violence, because “white, angelic-looking, seemingly innocent” becomes a more “easily embraceable symbol.”
Black kids get charged with anti-white hate crimes now. Even the most progressive-seeming pieces of the law have a way of always coming back to haunt those its government was designed to enslave.
In my personal life, this is why white gay men have been able to become the primary enactors of violence toward me. By virtue of my queerness, I am forced into community with them, and their stories become mine even when I have never been given a chance to set the terms of how they should deal with my Blackness or non-maleness.
I cannot speak for Murphy’s intentions, and I hope what he creates is less of a white gay mess than what I expect. But the last time I went to a ball, I looked up to see all the white gays who paid extra for the VIP section looking down on the Black and Brown queer folks competing below and felt something safe and necessary was missing from that experience that had been there before. When white gay men look down from above at our stories, something is always missing. And when they re-tell those stories, you can bet that something will usually be missing then, too.
This isn’t a call for white gay men to stop telling queer stories. They wouldn’t listen to me if I asked them to do that, anyway. This is just to say that the rest of us queer folks don’t have to believe their stories are all of ours, or that ours should always be conflated with theirs. It’s to hoping that queer people of color continue creating our own stories, like we always have, despite what might seem like a moment where they are unnecessarily being created for us. And it’s to hoping that there always remain a few balls we don’t let the white gays/gaze know about for the sake of retaining the little remaining safety we have left.