If you’re unfamiliar with the scripted juggernaut that is FX’s new series Pose, you are doing yourself a grave disservice by not indulging in one of cable television’s most pivotal series ever. Underneath its elements of uniqueness, such as its gritty New York location, the restless recklessness of the ’80s and the bubbling one of society’s most drawn-from coterie (yes, the LGBTQ community), lies the inspiring stories of people just like you and me. The uniqueness, however, gives the show character, flare and more reasons than one can count why mainstream America needs to pay attention.
Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Billy Porter and other geniuses had a meeting of the minds and gave us a body of work that holds a big mirror up to our nation. Pose draws attention to how society has wrongfully outcast the LGBTQ community, but at the same time shows the resilience and creativity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. The show teaches us how, for LGBTQ folks, existing is resisting — living in your truth, making most of the life you’re living and even choosing your families can be a form of protest.
Being queer in the ’80s was taxing, physically and emotionally, for all those who’ve lived it. From the AIDS crisis to an onslaught of violent and fatal hate crimes, being open and proud of who you are meant being pinned to stigmas and stereotypes, and it also made you a target. Though we’re decades out from the ’80s, and times have arguably evolved in our favor, we’re still far from the kind of progress the world truly needs. Luckily, Pose so effortlessly shows us how much progress we have made and how much progress we must make all at the same time.
Enter Ryan Jamaal Swain, who plays Damon on the show. The parallels between Ryan and Damon are noticeable: charming, talented and a firm sense of self. We had a chance to speak to the man behind the role about what makes Pose so precious.
“The root of (ballroom culture) is unconsciously the center of American culture…”
There are so many different ways to showcase the marginalization of queer people. To go with something as foundational as the ballroom — a world where one can be virtually anything one wants to be, a world that is unfamiliar to even some queer people — was an especially remarkable direction for Pose.
“At the core of who Damon is, he’s this young man with a dream,” Ryan responded when asked what drew him to the role of Damon Evangelista. “He has this insatiable thirst and hunger to discover his purpose. That lines up with my own morals and values.”
Swain hails from the Deep South, Birmingham, Alabama, to be specific. Like many others who reside in areas where their potential may be too vast for a finite pool of resources, he was a poised young man on a prominent mission. He decided to move to New York City with very little money in his pocket but knew what he was chasing would soon pay off.
“It’s funny how art mirrors reality. Damon is this ballroom transplant who finds his voice and his freedom through the ballroom, as well as his aspirations of becoming a performer and a dancer. When I look at my life, (the ballroom) is very unfamiliar territory for me, but the root is unconsciously the center of American culture. So the moment that I tuned in to Damon’s story was the moment that I found myself in that story.”
According to Swain, he hadn’t truly encountered ballroom until college, amid research and projects centered around civil rights, Stonewall and queer subcultures. Though Pose gives us a trained Damon, up and coming in the House of Evangelista (give him his tens, please), Swain is still getting his sea legs in all of the excitement. “I consider myself ‘ballroom adjacent’ — always enamored by the culture and the space, but never was directly involved in it until now.”
“We’re all trying to find our voice and trying to find our freedom.”
Viewers cling to Pose because, on a massive network like FX, it unapologetically touches on topics like transphobia, homophobia, HIV/AIDS and more. For the argument of LGBTQ representation, many see their own stories, if not fragments of their personal stories, mirrored in scene after groundbreaking scene. It’s important for this audience especially to know that the intent goes far beyond ratings and effective marketing practices. Pose wants to be part of this movement, hence why black queer talent doesn’t only exist in front of the camera, but everywhere behind it, too. Alongside esteemed show creators Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk stand writers, producers and consultants like Janet Mock, Michael Roberson and Twiggy Pucci Garçon.
When asked what he would say to audiences who feel like Pose understands the beautiful and even poignant sides of being a queer person of color, Swain said “I would say that this work comes from a place of ‘yes, and…’ and ‘yes, I want to understand’ versus ‘I don’t understand.’ With our political climate, especially, there are a lot of things telling us not to find strength in our differences. Through (Pose) I hope they realize that there’s something for everyone in every one of these characters. That is the beauty and essence of what makes (it) shine. We’re all trying to find our voice and trying to find our freedom.”
He also wanted everyone to know that showing Damon’s story from its very beginning was important. It’s real. The glitz, glam and gravitas displayed in ballrooms are all by individuals who have lived, to various degrees, through hardships. They’ve been harmed, excluded and shunned by loved ones and by the world at large. Whether you’re walking femme queen, butch queen, sex siren or business realness, the candor of performance in all categories does not say “I want to be this,” it says, “I am this.”
Above all things, the ballroom is about setting your legacy in stone. It’s about taking that second chance not only to leave your mark but leave a permanent one. When asked what kind of message or legacy he wanted to leave behind with a platform like Pose, Swain had this to say:
“Be so in love with who you are. Be so open to finding out and unearthing who you are. Always be in pursuit of cultivating a legacy of your own after your physical being is no longer.”
Swain and all involved in Pose are setting quite the legacy for themselves.