Ryan Murphy’s new series, “Pose,” has been called “groundbreaking” since its season pickup for casting 50 transgender actors, a record number. Perhaps equally as unprecedented: the storylines those actors see their characters through.
“This is not a coming-out story,” says Billy Porter, who portrays “grandfather” Pray Tell. “It’s my community’s story that has never been told.”
The series takes viewers to 1980s New York City, where the LGBTQ community thrives in the world of ball culture. Away from society’s expectations, members live up to the self they feel most true and divide into houses, or “gay gangs,” led by mothers who teach, discipline and care for their chosen children.
The glimmer and the shimmer of “Pose” come into play in the form of weekly balls, or competitions of elaborate homemade costumes, dance moves and poses held between houses across the city.
“They’ve come together to create a safe space for themselves to find light in the darkness,” says Porter.
His character serves as the ball’s official category announcer. He holds an unadmitted bias toward the newly formed House of Evangelista, comprising mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore) and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), among others.
“Pose” follows several intertwining storylines between its main characters: Angel finds love with a Trump Tower businessman (Evan Peters); Blanca desires to expand LGBTQ rights beyond the ball bubble; Damon dreams of dance stardom; and Pray looks to spread the importance of AIDS testing.
But a story of the struggle for self-acceptance this is not. Murphy’s characters aren’t trying to suppress their true selves. They’re not hiding.
“We’re so used to in this culture of watching somebody come out and how hard it is and how oppressive it is and all of those things,” Porter says, establishing what sets “Pose” apart from LGBTQ series before it. “It [is] a refreshing look because we’re not asking for permission, we’re demanding our way.”
He adds: “We get to see that this culture is resilient. This culture is thriving. The people have succeeded, and continue to succeed in the face of absolute and abject rejection and dismissal.”
Porter, who has called New York City home since the ’80s, lived adjacent to the ball culture world he now portrays on screen. “It’s my story; it’s my life story,” he says. While the Tony-winning actor didn’t live within a house, he notes he often participated in the balls as a member of the crowd.
“We’d come through the ballroom to compete for awards, trophies, walking in categories, that are sort of aspirational in the sense that society doesn’t accept us, so we create a sort of dream version of what we could be,” he explains.
“Pose” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on FX. Catch up now at FXnetworks.com/shows/pose.