It didn't take long for Pose, the Sunday night FX series created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, to achieve critical acclaim and become a cultural hit among black and Latinx LGBT communities (although overall ratings have been modest). Set in 1987 New York City, the show is rich with music, shoulder pads, and '80s nostalgia. But to truly understand the show's significance, you need only see a pivotal scene from the pilot episode.
In it, Blanca Rodriguez (played by Mj Rodriguez) sits and asks for her medical results. She is stoic and reserved as the doctor says, "Blanca the test confirms that you have HIV." After a long silence, Blanca thanks the woman and tries to dash for the exit. The doctor manages to slow her down. She offers pamphlets, talks about AZT (Retrovir, zidovudine) treatment, and offers what she probably thinks are consoling words.
"This doesn't have to be a death sentence," the doctor says.
Blanca glares back, not a tear in sight, and says, "Isn't it though."
What is remarkable about this scene is not just the acting, which is powerful and subdued, but also that the protagonist is working with something you don't see much on TV: She is a character living with HIV. Pose, for all the accolades about its set and clothes, pulled a media coup by having an HIV-positive transgender Latinx character on the screen when representation of LGBTQ people is burgeoning at best. And for people living with HIV, it's almost nonexistent. In episode 4, it is revealed that Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter, is HIV positive, as well.
Each year GLAAD releases a Where Are We on TV Report, which documents LGBTQ inclusion on television, and the numbers tell an interesting story about LGBTQ visibility. Of the 901 characters on broadcast television in 2017, 58 regular characters were LGBTQ, which amounts to 6.4% of all characters on TV. This is the highest number GLAAD has found since it began writing the report. When you include cable and streaming outlets, which the report does, a total of 329 regular and reoccurring characters are LGBTQ. This is certainly progress. However, the report also reveals how rarely TV characters live with HIV.
According to GLAAD's report, only two characters across all three media platforms were identified as HIV positive. Pose will certainly push the numbers up on the 2018 report. Nevertheless, people living with HIV are not well represented on TV or most other media platforms, for that matter. And if you narrow the focus to HIV visibility of those most impacted by the disease (read black and brown people), the numbers get scary.
In recent years, revivals on stage (e.g., Angels in America on Broadway) and television (e.g., HBO's film adaptation of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart) of works about HIV/AIDS have focused solely on the experiences of white gay men during the early part of the epidemic. Pose is so remarkable for many black and Latinx LGBTQ viewers because it is one of the first big-budget portrayals for the small screen of what it was like for people of color. Not since Patrik-Ian Polk's 2005 breakout show for LOGOtv Noah's Arc, has any show focused on the lives of LGBTQ black and Latinx communities and made HIV testing, treatment, and prevention a centered reality for the lives of the characters. Where we are depicted at all, it is often as a one-off character isolated from the larger black and Latinx LGBTQ community.
Thankfully, along with Pose, a number of mainstream and indie projects are offering much needed visibility and character development to characters with HIV. And some artists are pushing the conversation forward in their work.
Nathan Hale Williams should be known as the writer and co-director of the "little short that could." His short film 90 Days, which he created two years ago, has slowly garnered an audience and opened up a much-needed dialogue on HIV in the black community.
In the film Jessica, played by Teyonah Parris, and Taylor, played by Nic Few, have been dating for 90 days. The audience meets the two characters on their 90th day of dating, when Jessica reveals she is HIV positive to her boyfriend. When you watch the film, you are immediately struck by the unique way in which Jessica navigates the disclosure.
"She is not ashamed of her status. She is empowered. She is not in a position of weakness or defiance," the 42-year-old writer/director said.
Williams made a person living with HIV a main protagonist in the film and gave her agency. People noticed. The film has been featured at several film festivals, including Cannes, and it has won several awards, including Best Short film at the Gary International Film Festival and the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.
Williams was decisive in his character choices and explained why it was important to him to tackle this story.
"In the '80s and '90s," Williams said, "we had so many storylines that involved HIV. It was during the crisis, and then, it became a chronic disease that became manageable. The entertainment industry got HIV fatigue. Or they stopped thinking that the issue was important. There has been an absence of those storylines."
For Williams, this lack visibility has had devastating consequences for black and brown communities.
"Other communities have done very well in curbing infection rates," Williams said. "We [blacks] are still being ravaged by the disease. Black gay men are still [among] the highest risk groups. Black women also have the highest infection rates [among women]. For us, it's life or death."
The irony is that film and television are very successful at unpacking difficult subjects for viewers. "Film and TV do so much more to affect change than public service announcements," Williams said.
For poet, filmmaker, and playwright Donja R. Love, 32, whose Off-Broadway play Sugar in Our Wounds was just extended at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the intersection of art and HIV hit home when the writer was diagnosed with the disease in 2008. His work was and is forever intertwined with his real life odyssey of being positive.
"[M]y and everyone's journey is different," Love said. One thing I will say, for my journey, I started to become really open and transparent once I stepped into my truth. I had to get rid of the shame with being positive, block out the stigma, which is an everyday journey."
Love co-founded the Each-Other Project with Brandon Nick. The website is a curated platform with web series, panel discussions, interviews, and conversations on everything from sex, HIV, and dating to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). As an artist and a consumer of art, Love has pondered his journey and how it relates to the larger narrative of HIV.
"One thing that frustrates me to no end when I hear of stories of queerness and HIV as it relates to theater and entertainment, it's always through a white lens," Love lamented. " It's as if people of color aren't affected. There are some amazing artists who are positive who tell very necessary nuanced stories. It's super needed right now to show the fullness of people of color."