Last Tuesday afternoon, Thomas Deshields threw on a tee shirt and mid-thigh shorts, left his Jersey City apartment and fled to New York City. The 22-year-old stopped in at a liquor store, splurged for a bottle of whiskey and stuffed it into his bag, then sauntered through West Village gay bars — Monster Bar first, then the Hanger — until finally, the clock neared 10 p.m., and he walked down Christopher Street toward the piers. In front of him was Pier 45, where men who look like him have, throughout history, met to hook up and take shelter, where poor New Yorkers have bought and sold drugs, where trans women have turned tricks for cash, and where rich New Yorkers have paid them for it.
That night, Deshields was strolling there to connect to that history, but not by stopping in at the waterfront. Instead, he turned right through a glass door and plopped himself in a chair alongside a bar full of queer people to watch Pose, FX’s sophomore-season show about the lives of trans and gay people, mostly black and latine, living in the 1990 ballroom scene and surviving while the world doesn’t want them to.
And as the scenes — of fights between lovers, family dinners, and the flair of walking at the balls — flashed across his eyes, Deshields felt he had moved backward in time, as if he had grown much closer to that history that lingers like mist around the West Village streets and piers.
“I loved it. I’m so infatuated with old New York,” Deshields said. “It’s kind of a step in the past.”
The show has not just retold history; it has been making it. The cast flaunts a trans and LGBTQ majority and, behind the scenes, icons like acclaimed writer and director Janet Mock and American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy produce the show with other queer writers and crewmembers. After a record number of views during this month’s season two premiere, the FX Network announced last week that Pose has already been renewed for a third season.
Pose tells the story of Blanca Evangelista, a Dominican trans woman whose HIV diagnosis has pushed her to live more ferociously — and since the first episode, she has been reaching for her dream of becoming a legendary mother to her chosen family. With Blanca at the helm, House Evangelista is a makeshift bunch of queer hopefuls: a black, Puerto Rican sex worker with big-time modeling aspirations; a gay 17-year-old dancer kicked out of his childhood home; his boyfriend, a kid hardened by too much time spent sleeping on benches at the pier; and a straight, reformed drug dealer with a knack for making everyone laugh. There’s also the ball announcer, Pray Tell, who acts as the fiery gay uncle, and Elektra, Blanca’s old house mother, who flips between playing the show’s villain and heroine like they’re different shades of eye-shadow.
Despite its reliance on the dark themes that continue to plague LGBTQ communties today — disease, homelessness, a lack of dignity and worker’s rights — Pose is, at heart, a story about family. And this reflects in the way that Dijoun Thompson hosts the Rockbar party, by bringing in friends, his own gay family and ballroom brothers, to sit among the bar regulars and newcomers. Usually the weekend bouncer, Thompson cackles with people he has just met and dances around the stage in front of them during commercial breaks like it’s a reunion of his own blood relations; Pose is, after all, a show that turns strangers to kinfolk, both on and off the screen.
It is also a show about Thompson’s life. The 42-year-old Florida native has spent half of his life living in New York — the House of LaBeija dancer even makes a background appearance in the famous documentary Paris is Burning — and the bar’s original owners hired him to watch the door because he could recognize which of the neighborhood kids might cause a ruckus inside. On the same street where he now works, he grew up walking, dodging bottles that people threw at him and other LGBTQ people. Today, he spends his time mothering queer kids and working with neighborhood youth organizations formed by people who used to hang out on the pier. For him, Pose is a window into that world of hardships he and his loved ones have endured.
“Each episode hits home to me — being in love, being recognized, losing friends,” Thompson said. “It’s basically a diary of my life.”
Other bars across the U.S. — in Seattle, Atlanta, Brooklyn, D.C., and more — have also started viewing parties for Pose this season, but Thompson’s event continues from last year, when he convinced his bosses and the FX Network to let him air the show.
It was not hard to convince Rockbar’s owners that screening Pose would turn a profit. Jason Romas, a co-owner and pop culture and television junkie, has leapt at nearly every chance to turn on the TVs at the bar. During the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race — back before he knew of any other bars that were hosting viewing parties — Romas realized that LGBTQ people might need a place to watch and wanted to provide that service.
Since, many bars have done the same. If TVs, in the last century, became a centerpiece of the modern, suburban home, they are now taking center stage at city gay bars. It is hard to find one in New York that doesn’t, on Thursday nights during the show’s airtime, have drag queens on microphones entertaining huge crowds and spitting shade at the contestants. But while Drag Race might be a fun look to the future — of fashion, of gender, of the possibilities queer people have for entertaining mass audiences — Pose is a glance back at a tumultuous moment in the past, and the Rockbar crowd that gathered Tuesday night laughed, clapped, snapped their fingers, and cried together as the characters faced fictional representations of the lives many of them are still living.
“Pose is kind of like a perfect one,” Romas said. “It’s about something very serious, but it’s done with such a flair — even in the serious moments, everyone is either cheering or crying in the bar. A lot of the same people keep coming back for the same shows. They weren’t friends before, and now they all arrive together.”
Not everyone cheered. Mariah Lopez, longtime activist for trans people and gay daughter of Sylvia Rivera, stood outside the bar, smoking and chatting with friends. She didn’t watch the episode, and she worries that the show and its actors do not get political enough with the massive platform they have, and that important icons of the ballroom scene have been left out of the show altogether.
The second season of Pose begins as Madonna’s Vogue charts, and it seems that ballroom culture is entering the mainstream. Now, as ballroom culture is once again being promised that it is going mainstream, Lopez thinks many of the people in it will be forgotten if more directors and writers don’t come from her community. “Ryan Murphy is a calculating individual,” Lopez said. “I’m waiting for a black filmmaker to come along.”
Still, Lopez has been impressed by the show’s ability to translate the longest-running black queer art form in world history to mass appeal.
“You find the village. You find the pier,” Lopez said. “It’s a common experience. What the show did is make it so you don’t need to physically get here. It spread black queer culture around the world.”
The episode ended with a quote from Hector Xtravaganza, the grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza who died in 2018. He wrote: “Blood does not family make. Those are relatives. Family are those with whom you share your good, bad, and ugly, and still love one another in the end. Those are the ones you select.” The crowd clapped together and people hugged each other. Some danced, voguing on the bar floor, and many made plans to come back the next week. “I felt a huge connection to our community,” Deshields said.
And then, as midnight neared, people began to filter out of the bar, to stand outside and smoke cigarettes, and to walk the streets toward their homes. Another queer party waited for Deshields at a hotel in the Meatpacking District, and he ambled down cobblestone streets in the dark and quiet. He passed a set of massive apartments on Greenwich Avenue with a garage big enough for a few cars and dreamed of a place of his own. “I want to live there,” he said.
Then he wandered on, drunk on whiskey, with the night behind him.