Steven Canals on How Growing Up as a Queer Afro-Latino in 1980s Bronx Prepared Him to Write ‘Pose’

Janet Mock and Steven Canals on stage during Legacy Awards gala on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for Outfest

No one was more pleasantly surprised by the warm response to FX’s Pose than its creator, Steven Canals. The Bronx-born writer always had faith in the idea for this show, which told the story of a group of people associated with the ballroom scene in the late 1980s in New York City. But two years of trying (and failing) to get the show picked up and developed took its toll. By the time the show premiered in June 2018 with the backing of Ryan Murphy and boasting the largest cast of transgender actors on any show in United States television history, including Indya Moore and MJ Rodriguez, Canals kept thinking it was all going to come crashing down. “I think that there’s just a part of me that was waiting for the shoe to drop at any point,” he shared with Remezcla. “I kept waiting for either Ryan or FX, to say, ‘Yeah, just kidding, this is actually not the show that we want to make.’ I think that all of those rejections that I had heard for two years had just really started to permeate my brain.” He needn’t have worried: upon its premiere, the show was rightly hailed for its fabulous and empathetic treatment of trans and queer people of color. And just this past week, soon after the show’s second season premiered to its highest ratings yet, FX renewed the show for a third season.

Any fears that a show centered on black and Latina trans women, HIV-positive gay men of color, and runaway young homeless teens wouldn’t find an audience were thankfully unfounded. If anything, Pose fans continue to reach out to Canals and remind him why he was initially so adamant about telling this story about a disenfranchised community that nonetheless found ways to survive, thrive, and find beauty in an art form like vogueing that many to this day still associate with Madonna and not with the ballroom community that first birthed it.

“It’s always really tough to talk about the audience reaction without getting really emotional,” Canals admitted, “because there have been so many people who have approached me or written to me to say what this show has meant to them. Whether it’s a couple telling me that they went in and got tested together (which is something they hadn’t ever done) after watching an episode. I’ve had numerous trans identified individuals tell me that the show inspired them to live authentically and finally step into their truth. I’ve had parents approach me to say that they know now because of the show that their children are going to be OK.”

Part of the reason Pose so resonates is that those in front and behind the camera look like the very characters being portrayed. “As a queer Afro-Latino who grew up in the Bronx in the ’80s,” Canals said, “it isn’t difficult for me to tap back into that experience. You know, I may not specifically be, you know, a trans woman of color who is part of the ballroom community, but I know what it feels like to want a life bigger than the one that I’m living. I know exactly what that feeling is. And so it’s easy to tap into the emotional part of these characters’ journeys.” What helps is having the glittering joy of the ballroom as a space that can counter the gritty and bleak world of New York City: Blanca, Angel (Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) may face cruelties out on the streets, but inside the balls, they are embraced and nurtured by a community that loved them. Achieving that balance — of being able to tell frank stories about the AIDS epidemic or the discrimination black trans women face alongside legendary balls full of splendor — is perhaps Pose‘s most ambitious accomplishment. And it’s one that’s key to its design.

“I think that there’s this belief, somehow, that particularly for people of color — for black and Latinx people — that somehow our lives are just doom and gloom and bleak all the time,” Canals shared. “And the reality is no: we have lots of joy. And we have hopes and dreams and fears and aspirations, just like everybody else. It’s just important for the audience to know that our lives matter. And our voices matter. And that, regardless of the environment that we are living in, that so we have the right to dream.”

Pose airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.