Back in 2014, Steven Canals wrote a pilot script of what would eventually become FX’s Emmy-nominated drama Pose. As a screenwriting grad student at UCLA, Canals was instructed to write for himself—and as a queer Afro-Latinx, that meant a show centered on characters that looked and moved through the world like him.
Drawing on the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning, Canals set his story in New York City’s ballroom scene in the 1980s, an underground culture where largely black and brown queer and trans women competed for trophies and recognition, but, most importantly, found sanctuary from a world keen on erasing their existence. What seemed like a step in where TV should go was met with no after no—150 no’s to be exact.
“As a very type A, neurotic creative, when I hear no, my brain processes it as ‘work harder,'” Canals says. “I just didn’t ever feel like what I was hearing from these executives was right. In my gut, I was like, this story deserves to be told. There is an audience for it.”
Canals’s persistence eventually got his script in front of Ryan Murphy. The mega producer, his creative partner Brad Falchuk, and Canals (who serves as an executive producer on Pose) have together hands-down transformed the what and who of TV storytelling. There has never been a network show to live so boldly in the intersections of society’s most marginalized communities.
Over the course of two seasons, Pose has given voice to the underrepresented with storylines highlighting violence against black trans women; the HIV/AIDS epidemic; racism, transphobia, and discrimination outside and within the LGBTQ community; and more.
“It has been deeply healing to work on this show,” Canals says. “I grew up in the Bronx in the ’80s, when black and Latin people were not being centered in film and television. The little bit of representations that we did have certainly wasn’t positive. And if you then are LGBTQ, on top of being a person of color, you definitely weren’t seeing yourself represented. To have the privilege to create this show and to write, produce, and direct it, it’s just beyond words.”
As season two comes to a close with a green-lit season three somewhere on the horizon, Canals did manage to find a few words to explain why he was so tenacious to get Pose on the air, how he wanted the show to help shape the narrative around black trans women, and the “wildly problematic” issues embedded in Hollywood’s push for more inclusive storytelling.
There can be 100 people in a room . . .
For practically anyone in the entertainment business, especially nascent creators like Canals, rejection is part and parcel of the job. No one would’ve blamed Canals for bending his project to the whims of someone else’s gaze to make it more palatable for a mainstream audience, or shelving it altogether—but he would’ve blamed himself.
“I grew up in a mixed family, both black and Puerto Rican. Persistence is just in the DNA,” Canals says. “I come from a family and from a people that didn’t have the choice but to continue to move forward in the face of discrimination and violence, et cetera. My forebears, they sacrificed so much. They walked thousands of miles, sometimes with no shoes, so that I wouldn’t have to do that. So for me, I didn’t ever feel like I had the right to say, ‘I’m going to quit.'”
“I’m hardheaded,” Canals quips, “and as my grandmother would say, ‘You’re also a Virgo.'”
But race and ethnicity are only part of Canals’s drive. Existing at the intersection of both Afro-Latin and queer made him doubly aware of the gap that needed to be filled on TV.
“My greatest wish when I was embarking on this journey of bringing Pose to television was I didn’t want any young people to feel the way that I felt when I was coming up, which is that I have no value—that my story doesn’t matter, because I know that that’s not the truth,” Canals says. “There are too many people out in the world who are living with the identities that we center on our show. Too many young black and brown people who are also LGBTQ, who are still struggling with various forms of discrimination and prejudice.”
Dealing with the death of black trans women
One struggle that’s been alarmingly rampant is the violence toward black trans women. Much of season two tackled the perils black trans women endure, most devastatingly with the heartbreaking death of one of the show’s main characters Candy (Angelica Ross). To make ends meet, Candy resorted to dancing in a club. But in the most dire of financial straits, she, like many trans women, resorted to sex work, which ultimately led to her motel murder in episode four.
“More often than not, a trans death happens at the start of an episode of television and that death is a catalyst for another character, more often than not, a cisgendered male detective, to go off and solve the case,” Canals says. “What we were wanting to do was show it from the other perspective.”
In one of the more surreal moments of Pose, Candy appears to her family and friends at her own wake one by one to say the goodbyes she was robbed of. For a show that’s become a virtuoso on the heartstrings, this episode was particularly devastating not just as an ode to all the things left unsaid when someone dies, but as a reminder of the growing number of black trans women being murdered today who will never get that opportunity.
“One of the things that we had discussed in our writers’ room was trans women, specifically black trans women, are taken from us, and there is no closure. There isn’t an opportunity to say goodbye. Then the community is left with the aftermath of the death and having to mourn and pick up the pieces,” Canals says. “What we wanted to do was honor those lives. Critics could obviously argue that we’re preaching to the choir. But I know the reality is that we have a pretty mixed audience and that there are going to be folks who are coming in to watch this show, and this is really the first time that they’re going to have to really wrestle with and engage in what it means for a trans life to be lost in such a tragic way.”
Any concerns about preaching to the choir, i.e. what some LGBTQ people might feel as handholding through the issues Pose addresses, ceased to exist for Canals in season one after an episode depicting the main character Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a trans Latina, being kicked out of a bar full of cisgender white gay men.
“When that episode aired, there were a number of cisgendered gay men of all colors who reached out to me to say, ‘That didn’t actually happen then, did it? And that’s not still happening now?’ Of course it is. That’s exactly the reason why we wrote the episode,” Canals says. “LGBTQ people are often treated as a monolith and we seem to forget that there are periods between each one of those letters. But to take that one step further, we also seem to forget when we’re talking about issues of salience to the LGBT community, that issues also have to be deconstructed intersectionally.”
What is your intention?
Part of that deconstruction for Canals is about intention. As advancements are made in having more inclusive storytelling across film and TV, what concerns Canals is color-blind casting or hiring for diversity’s sake.
“One of the things that I’ve been hearing quite a bit is that storytellers are being encouraged to cast color-blind, or to take a character that is white and make that character black. Or take a character that’s male and make them female. That is wildly problematic,” Canals says. “To me, that’s in line with saying, ‘I don’t see color.’ I want you to see my identities, and I need you to acknowledge them.”
“In the current second golden age of TV where we’re seeing this proliferation of more black and brown content,” Canals continues, “my fear is that we’ll just become a trend when the reality is this is our reality. We aren’t just a trend. We’re here, we’ve always been here, we aren’t going anywhere.”
Canals is also challenging the idea of casting through the lens of a post-racial/homophobic/transphobic society. While he acknowledges the merits of characters existing on screen who check one and/or all of those boxes, he doesn’t feel it does anyone any good for those characters not to confront, or be confronted about, their identities as a means to say that they’re not a big deal.
“There’s this myth that’s often perpetuated that it is helpful for historically marginalized communities not to acknowledge their lived realities. The truth is, no, you need to acknowledge who we are as a people,” Canals says. “When I’m watching film or television, I don’t want to see a queer or trans person of color on screen who’s not having to wrestle with that identity and not dealing with the realities of what it means to navigate the world holding those identities. Right now, I’m not seeing enough of that.”
Except, of course, for Pose.
“It’s not just about how our lives and our stories and our bodies are being utilized, but it’s also how are we brought in to aid in telling those stories,” Canals says. “Who are the people who have a seat at the table and are aiding in telling that story? [With Pose], you have queer and trans people in the writers’ room, and producing and serving as consultants and choreographers. So we all are here. Ryan Murphy fought to create a table that we all would have seats at, which is just such a rarity.”