Decoding 'Pose's Depiction of HIV/AIDS History in Season 2's Premiere Episode

Associate Editor
Credit: FX. Scene from Pose that depicts Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) attending an ACT UP meeting.
Courtesy of FX

Pose's first season didn't shy away from depicting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and specifically from the rarely seen perspective of queer and trans people of color in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first season alone, we saw Pray Tell (Billy Porter) marshall several of the members of the House of Evangelista, led by Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who is living with HIV, to a clinic to get an HIV test. Pray Tell is diagnosed with HIV -- and his lover Costas (Johnny Sibilly) dies from AIDS-related illness in the first season, as well.

In Season 2, the show draws from historic events that most viewers may not be familiar with. The season premiere opens with Pray Tell and Blanca commiserating over the number of AIDS-related deaths they've seen lately while on a ferry ride to Hart Island. Hart Island is in the northernmost section of the Bronx. It acted as a mass grave for people who died from AIDS-related illnesses during the height of the epidemic.

The island was profiled in 2018 in the New York Times. The first bodies of those who died of AIDS were brought to the island in 1985. Even in death, those who had lived with AIDS were quarantined to a separate part of the island, a fact that Pose made a note of in its second season premiere. According to Melinda Hunt, director of the Hart Island Project, staff at Hart Island buried the bodies 14 feet deep in a sequestered section that used to be a sewage treatment plant. Due to stigma, there is very little information on how many people with AIDS were buried on Hart Island, but the number could be in the hundreds. The island was also a burial site for children born with HIV who died very young, many as babies.

In May, the New York City council pledged to revisit Hart Island's "Potter's Field," the public cemetery where those who died are buried. Currently, the city's Department of Corrections runs Potter's Field, and those who have family members buried on the island have to go through that department in order to visit.

After their return from Hart Island, Blanca's own future seems bleak. She is diagnosed with AIDS when her CD4 count goes below 200 cells/mm3. When Blanca's caregiver (Sandra Bernhard) offers her AZT, Blanca says that the medication is only for wealthy white people. That certainly was the perception at the time. In an August 1989 New York Times article called "AZT's Inhuman Cost," The Times quoted AZT's price at $8,000 a year, at the time the most expensive prescription drug in history. The battle over prescription drug prices shows just how little has changed in the world of infectious disease. Some HIV therapies now cost as much as $39,000 per year, according to the New York Times, while comparable regimens in some African countries cost $75 a year. That's not to mention the cost of other drugs like Truvada, used as both treatment and prevention, or the cure for hepatitis C, which can cost up to $96,000 for a full treatment cycle.

Later in the episode, Pray Tell attends an ACT UP meeting with Bernhard's character. The scene at the ACT UP meeting is pretty one-dimensional (in reality, not everyone on the floor agreed at all times), though it does show a diverse room led by a woman. This is already leaps and bounds better than other representations of AIDS activism, which is much more diverse than most media portrayals.

At the beginning of the meeting, the facilitator says that they just had a fundraiser that raised $650,000. That is based on a real fundraiser the group held in December 1989, co-chaired by artists David Hockney and Annie Leibovitz, according to ACT UP's website. Not only did that fundraiser really happen, it happened eight days before the St. Patrick's Cathedral action, making the timeline on Pose pretty accurate, even if it was moved from 1989 to 1990 for TV. Of the thousands who participated in the protest, 111 people were arrested. The demonstration made international headlines, though many including New York City mayor David Dinkins and governor Mario Cuomo decried the protest because one protester crumpled a communion wafer, according to Gay City News.

Whether or not Pose continues to use such real-life events from the '90s AIDS epidemic throughout the rest of the season is yet to be seen. But so far, it's a great representation of how queer and trans people of color lived, celebrated, fought, and mourned in early 1990s New York.