"Nothing Has Changed": Why 'Pose' Put Its Spotlight on Violence Against Trans Women of Color

Pose and inset of Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock-H 2019
Courtesy of FX; Getty Images (2)

[This story contains spoilers from the fourth episode of Pose season two, "Never Knew Love Like This Before."]

When Ryan Murphy set out to make Pose — his groundbreaking FX drama centered around New York's ballroom scene of the late '80s and early '90s — the prolific creator knew he wanted to highlight an issue that is arguably more prevalent in Trump's America than it was during the Reagan years or George H.W. Bush's presidency: fatal attacks against trans women of color.

It was only a matter of time.

"From the very beginning, we wanted our show to drive conversations about two epidemics: HIV/AIDS and also violence against trans women — and we've talked about that from its inception," Murphy tells The Hollywood Reporter during a recent afternoon at Pose's production offices at Silvercup Studios North in The Bronx. "We've talked about the danger and the shortened life expectancy [for trans women of color], so we always knew we were going to do it. That was never a question."

But, as Murphy says, telling this story during last year's first season — which focused on the marginalization of LGBTQ people as the HIV/AIDS crisis worsened in the U.S. — would have felt "unearned." He explains, "We wanted to handle it in a way that felt responsible and not just gratuitous. In the first season, viewers probably didn't know the characters enough to be as invested as we wanted them to be for this particular narrative. We knew it would have more impact if the audience had already fallen in love with the characters, especially the one that would end up being a vehicle for this story."

And that's just what happened during Tuesday's episode, "Never Knew Love Like This Before" — which Murphy directed and co-wrote alongside Janet Mock. The installment sees beloved ballroom spitfire Candy Ferocity (played by Angelica Ross, one of the five trans women of color who make up the show's leading cast) go missing before she is later found dead inside the closet of a seedy Manhattan motel where she felt forced to participate in sex work to make ends meet. Her assailant isn't identified. At an ensuing memorial service — thrown by her chosen sisters, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) — Candy's spirit returns for an ethereal sequence in which she comforts her loved ones and makes peace with her parents before ascending into the afterlife lip-syncing to Stephanie Mills.

Mock — who made history last year as the first trans woman of color to direct an episode of TV with Pose's season one standout "Love Is the Message" — tells THR that her community was interested in seeing this part of their lives reflected back onscreen. "The feedback for us was that we had to go there. This is a part of their story — both the devastation and the resilience. It's tough to put that truth on paper, but when you see it come to life onscreen it's also very powerful. It's power and pain," she says. "It was happening then, it's happening now, and this felt necessary for the community and for us at the show."

According to GLAAD, the life expectancy for trans women of color in the U.S. is 35. The Human Rights Campaign reports that at least 11 trans women — all black — have been killed during acts of violence within the first half of 2019. These harrowing statistics — which weren't tracked in 1990, when season two of Pose takes place — come at a time when LGBTQ people face repeated strikes from the Trump administration, including a signed ban for trans people to serve in the military and a 2018 threat to define gender legally as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. Additionally, trans women are often misgendered in police reports, what many consider to be discrimination from law enforcement.

Murphy now wants to hold a mirror up to society. "Nothing has changed, and nothing is changing," says the Emmy winner. "At its best, Pose is advocacy. I think we're at a tipping point in our culture — and it's only getting worse under this current administration — where all you can do is ask people to get angry. What will it take? We know putting it out into the world, [this episode] will be jarring and upsetting to some people and it will launch conversations, but I think necessary conversations."

Below, Murphy and Mock talk with THR about the significance of episode 204, the real-life trans women of color who inspired its script and the notable changes they've noticed in Hollywood since Pose introduced the "model" for inclusive storytelling.

Why was it important for you to highlight this issue in season two of Pose?

MURPHY We wanted it to be so that you really felt it — not just for the character of Candy, but also for the people around her. We waited for a little bit and decided that we should do it in season two. Then there was the question of, "Who and how?" We spent a lot of time talking about that. We carefully plotted it out. If you go back and look at episodes one, two and three [of Pose season two], it's interwoven in there the idea of what's to come. We finally called Angelica Ross, who plays Candy so beautifully, and we said, "We have this idea. Are you on board? It's going to take a lot of work and it's going to be very emotionally difficult." And she said yes because, like us, she felt a responsibility to that truth and that kind of storytelling which the show has always done. Then Janet and I wrote [the script], we spent a lot of time working on it and a lot of time rewriting it. I directed the episode very carefully and with a lot of love and we didn't take it lightly. We know putting it out into the world, [this episode] will be jarring and upsetting to some people and it will launch conversations, but I think necessary conversations.

MOCK Once we got the pickup for season two, Ryan sent the email of the ideas that he had. We wanted a time-jump, we wanted to start the season off with Hart Island, we knew that we wanted Pray Tell (Billy Porter) to go deeper into HIV/AIDS activism, launched through Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard), and we also knew that we needed to decide how to tell this story in episode 204. It took months to figure out which character. And that was so hard because it's like, can't we just introduce some character in episode one and then have her die in episode six? We didn't want to lose any of our mains, but Ryan said, "No, no. It has to be felt." And it has to be felt so that everyone can go through the grieving process because the first time that you see Candy in that closet you are in total disbelief, thinking, "This can't be real. It's some kind of fantasy sequence." It's very unexpected and especially for our show. Our tone has always been more aspirational and affirmative, but I think that it actually is a very affirming episode if you really look at the ways in which the women in this community band together. From getting her body from the morgue, making sure she looks her best, making sure that they scrape up all their pennies to throw her a funeral, to reaching out to her parents who show up, to give everyone that great healing moment that we all wish that we had. And then at the end of it, have her leave out on this glorious note, finally winning a grand-prize trophy for the lip-syncing category that she fought so hard for.

Candy's death isn't explicitly shown onscreen. What were the discussions leading up to how you wanted to present it? Did you ever consider having it be more graphic?

MOCK It was intentional that we did it this way. I directed episode 203, and in that episode, we see this character, Euphoria — who no one has met before, played by [RuPaul's Drag Race alum] Peppermint — who gets beaten up and thrown into jail for defending herself. It's a brutal scene. We're in there with handheld cameras with the two actors going at it, seeing Euphoria getting beaten up and thrown onto the streets. That was for Candy. That was a set-up to show what happens to these women on a daily basis. That way, we don't have to have our audience sit there and experience that brutality when it comes to a character that they know and love. It was a tone decision, too. We thought, "Who are we centering this show for?" If we're centering the show for the women in our community, they're going to be triggered by seeing Candy's death. So how much do we need to show them when they already know that threat of violence looms over them every single day when they walk onto the streets and are just being themselves?

Why was it also important to show the way trans women of color are treated by law enforcement?

MOCK These characters are grappling with so many different systems and we embody them through certain characters who may come on for a couple of episodes — whether that's through the Euphoria story where we show how oftentimes trans women are blamed for the violence that's sent to their bodies. People often say, "If she wasn't trying to do too much" or, "If she didn't take those risks" or, "If she was up front with that man that she was trans" or whatever it may be, then violence wouldn't happen to her. But violence against women happens every single day whether they're cisgender or trans. Society tends to blame victims for the violence that is enacted on their bodies. So, for us, it's more about systems of ideas and institutions and how do we humanize that and ground it through the characters that we have on our show? Law enforcement is another system that hasn't treated our community with respect over time. So, if we portray that truthfully on Pose, then hopefully it will inspire more compassion and enact change.

The timing of this episode is striking. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 11 trans women of color have been killed in the first half of 2019. In episode 204, Angel says that 11 have also died in 1990 when the show takes place. Was that just a coincidence?

MURPHY That was something that we worked on, this idea of what is now was then. But the idea that was important to me is that nothing has changed, and nothing is changing. At its best, Pose is advocacy. What we really want people to do is talk about it and ask the question: Why are the police not investigating? Candy's death will go unsolved forever, which is a very heavy thing but that's exactly what's happening now. I think we're at a tipping point in our culture — and it's only getting worse under this current administration — where all you can do is ask people to get angry. What will it take? The show is asking that question. 

MOCK We didn't have any numbers in 1990 of how many trans women had passed because of the great injustice at the time — no one was accounting for violence against trans women. I think it's only been since the early 2000s that we've been tracking trans deaths. And when you think about police departments, it's only been within the last decade that we've even had sensitivity training for LGBTQ communities, to go in to talk to police departments and tell them that when a trans person or someone gender nonconforming comes through, the way in which they identify should be documented. Most hate crime legislation didn't come through until the '90s and all of these protections weren't in place at that time period. These models of care and resources for education and research didn't exist in 1990. The way that we came up with this statistic is that we used numbers from the Trans Murder Monitoring project, as well as the Anti-Violence Project. Those are two separate organizations that have for years been tracking trans deaths domestically and globally to see the numbers on average. In the United States, it's about 20-30 a year who are killed. We were thinking that the month that this episode takes place, in May, it was somewhere around there — almost a dozen — that Angel would have just heard of through the grapevine because it wasn't shown on television, it wasn't being reported about in newspapers, they were not being accounted for. Sadly, our estimate tracks with the numbers in 2019.

Janet, you've been vocal on social media about the trans lives we've lost in 2019 and in years past. In what ways have those real-life stories impacted the way you approached episode 204?

MOCK There are three stories that I held close as we were talking about this episode, as we were breaking it and writing it. One of the first stories that pushed me to step forward as an adult to tell my story of transitioning as a teenager was the story of Gwen Araujo, who was an 18-year-old trans woman murdered by three men — three men who had sex with her, who knew she was trans. But when someone else heard that and they got bullied and teased for having had sex with her, they then all three killed her. And that was so striking to me because I remember being that age and being sexually active and being an out trans girl. And I thought that maybe we needed some affirmative images, so I then stepped forward and told my own story. I also thought about [Stonewall uprising leader] Marsha P. Johnson and her under-examined murder. And I then thought about the death of Venus Xtravaganza, of course, from Paris Is Burning. Thinking about Venus specifically — wondering what the Xtravaganzas had to do to possibly care for her — really had an impact on the story. Did they have a memorial? Did they contact the family? How was she respected in her death? What was it like to see her body for the first time? I wanted to show how this community is able to band together to care for someone who has left them behind.

How did the feedback you've received from the trans community about the show help you shape the narrative of this episode? 

MOCK The feedback for us was that we had to go there. This is a part of their story — both the devastation and the resilience. It's tough to put that truth on paper, but when you see it come to life onscreen it's also very powerful. It's power and pain. It was happening then, it's happening now, and this felt necessary for the community and for us at the show. Of course, we had to do it right for our world and our show that we're building. The greatest challenge this season is obviously not to disappoint — all while going bigger, deeper and maybe a tinge darker in certain moments. But we also never want to abandon that tone of family, aspiration and togetherness. That's what our show is about, and this world needs more of that.

And so even in this episode where we lose Candy, we still see this sense of healing. For her to be able to reintroduce herself to her parents, to have her parents love and mourn and accept her, just her parents showing up — that means a lot to the community. Candy was kicked out for being trans. These young people are discarded and they are outcast by their families. So, what is the onus on these parents now who are watching with their LGBTQ children? Incidentally, Pose has become a family show that people watch with their kids and so the goal here is to touch people's hearts and hopefully make them more compassionate parents. Maybe they will act differently when their child comes out to them. Maybe there will be a different call to action, to nod versus shaking their head, to open their arms wide versus pushing them out.

MURPHY These deaths — they're something that all of our cast has been through. They go to a memorial a month, if not a week. All of the actors had very strong emotions and very strong opinions and we created a space where everybody could talk about that. In an episode where there's 100 people in a funeral parlor grieving, the issues of their own lives are bound to come up. Everybody in that room had a huge reaction to the parents' scene and cried. Some of them had to even leave the set. We gave them some counseling. It was heavy. It's rare to have a safe space to have those conversations and that's what this episode is. It's a safe space to have those conversations, to ask questions, to demand justice, to move towards equality, advocacy and all of those things. But that's always what Pose has been about. It's a very unusual show in that way.

Since the show has premiered, what kinds of changes have you seen in Hollywood when it comes to the way trans stories are told onscreen?

MURPHY The show got so much attention so early on for casting authentically, and also having the behind-the-scenes representation.

MOCK Empowered representation, too. It's not just a consulting producer. It's the fact that we have two trans women, myself and Our Lady J, in the writers' room. It's that I was able to direct and continue directing. We have an Afro-Latinx co-creator, Steven Canals, who's now directing. We don't see enough of that empowered representation yet. There's a lot of consultants in Hollywood right now. That's been the way for a long time and that can lead to tokenized leadership versus truly listening to us, trusting us, empowering us and telling us, "Go off and do your own thing." The mentorship from Ryan is invaluable. He's always been an outlier. Not to speak for Ryan, but when he got his start in the '90s, he was the only openly gay person in these rooms of mostly straight guys who were telling him that he doesn't know the tone of the scripts that he wrote, that he can't direct, that he can't do this or that. And that has informed the way in which he has truly empowered all of us, even our actors. Episode 204 was just too much for me. I could not have directed it because I would have been a ball of tears and anxiety. But Ryan, while directing, he empowered the actors in the scenes to say what they believe is more real. It speaks to the safe space that we've crafted on this set for these actors for them to feel like this is as much their show as it is ours.

MURPHY When Pose came on the air, a lot of people looked at it as a model and they thought, "Will this work? How is this going to work?" And it has worked. It's not only a hit, it's an economic hit — and worldwide by the way. Every time a Pose happens or a When They See Us happens, there's a little bit more room for you to try. And I remember when I was starting out, I felt such a terror of failing because if I failed, then perhaps that would be it forever. And so now I think there's just more room at the table and the thing that's happened with streaming, the explosion of that and the need for content, is that more and more voices that used to be called "niche" get their shot up at bat and they knock it out of the park. And the suits sit back and say, "Oh, well, let's keep doing that." That's happening more and more. You see people who never thought they would get that opportunity, they get that opportunity and succeed. A prime example is Janet. She's doing exactly that with her huge, revolutionary deal at Netflix. You can see and feel the business changing. The people who used to be marginalized are now centered both behind the scenes and in front of the camera and that's amazing. Just like in my lifetime, I never thought that I'd see gay marriage become legal. Sometimes the change happens and then all of a sudden, you're in the change and you tell yourself, "OK, let's keep pushing." I always feel like it's going to be taken away tomorrow because I grew up that way. There was only ever one of us allowed.

Janet, Pose was a gateway for your historic deal at Netflix. How do you think your experience working on this show will impact the way you tell similar stories of the trans community with your future projects, particularly, with the way you plan to adapt your memoir, Redefining Realness?

MOCK What Pose has taught me is the power of having the audacity to tell authentic stories and telling them through the people who lived it. For me, just as much as Ryan has empowered me as a writer and then a producer and then a director, and now having my own deal and being my own boss, it's now my turn to empower others. To help tell the stories that I plan on tackling in my new deal, it's now my turn to find those emerging voices and those who have a similar world view as me, but also have their own perspective. Of course, I have so many ideas brewing in me and I'm so glad that I have a mentor like Ryan who will help me develop them and make them come to reality and help me realize my own dream of becoming a showrunner. But Pose has been such a strange experience because it's the first time that I've worked on something in this capacity that also happens to be something so revolutionary. And I get to do it with such an incredible cast. Just go anywhere in Hollywood and try to see a show that gets this kind of attention, critical affirmation and is loved by its viewers in such a strong way with the main players that we have. It's a lot of young LGBTQ people, so thinking about that, I'll probably never have an experience quite like this again. That's why it's so easy to work so hard and give so much to this show because it's important. The work is important, and it means a lot to the people that are watching it. Hopefully, I can continue to make even more meaningful work.

What does Candy's death mean for the future of her character on Pose? And how will it affect the way the show continues to look at fatal violence against the trans community?

MURPHY Angelica's a huge talent and I have a history of working with people over and over, so you'll see Angelica in my world again for sure. She's too talented not to. With that said, it's hard to see her go on Pose. It’s the end for Candy. And so many people that we talk to say, "Well, we just started to get to know her." But that's the point. Most of the women who are being killed in 2019 are in their 20s and 30s. As difficult as it may be, that's the crux of this story about Candy's death. These trans women of color are at the beginning of their lives and they're taken when there was still so much left to say. It has to stop. That's our message and will continue to be.

Pose airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 p.m. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.