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Angelica Ross on Revolutionary Trans Queer Joy

Count it all joy. At 40, this is my mantra of gratitude as I live and reflect on what and who it took for me to be here today. I’m in a new stage of life, in love with myself and the many, many people who helped me become myself. Of course, no life is without struggle, and I’ve had my share. Though I’ve been performing long before breaking hearts as Candy on Pose, it took years for me to be able to come into the entertainment industry as my full, authentic self.
Before 2016, my entire acting career was in stealth; I just knew the industry and our society well enough to know that there would be very few opportunities for trans actors to have sustained careers playing nuanced, developed characters — not to mention, the threat of violence we face as out trans people in the world every day. So for most of us, if we were doing any auditioning, any performing in the mainstream, it was under the radar.
I remember taking a job as a featured extra in the music video for “Get Low (Remix)” by Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz back in 2002, and no one knew I was trans on the set. I felt so uncomfortable in that hypermasculine, very misogynistic environment, with dudes pouring water or alcohol on the girls. Producers wanted me to be in this cage and gave me these really short shorts to wear — and this was pre-surgery, so I refused; I was not going to put myself on a pedestal for guys to be looking at me in some very small underwear. So, I just laid low and got through the job and got paid. This was how I got through many jobs, whether it was a diet commercial or being on the cover of a jewelry magazine in south Florida — nerves shot, always fearing that I could be found out and that I would never work again.

Whatever shine you see on me now, this industry didn’t give that to me; Hollywood could never! I came here with this shine because of these people.

Despite being stealth in the mainstream, I was always in community with my trans family, through my house and in the ballroom and pageant scene. I get my name Ross from legendary performers Tommie Ross and Traci Ross who mentored and inspired me as I began my transition at 19. When I was doing sex work, in a world that degrades and dehumanizes sex workers and especially trans sex workers, the people in my community surrounded and supported me and spoke life into me. They knew there was even more I would do with my life. Whatever shine you see on me now, this industry didn’t give that to me; Hollywood could never! I came here with this shine because of these people. That’s why I will forever fight for my trans and queer community and I will always be open to accountability from us.
Back then, my house mother would call me our Norma Rae, because I was always trying to make things better for us. Whether that was fighting for representation for Black and brown and trans folks in queer spaces, training under the National LGBTQ Task Force, or starting my non-profit TransTech Social Enterprises to train trans people to enter the tech industry, my mission has been to see us not only live but thrive, everywhere we set foot.
Soon after, I finally landed the role that would allow me to step into the industry as my full self. The 2016 Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story centred on two trans women characters played by me and Jen Richards, as we struggled through dating and life in LA. The groundbreaking series showed trans women outside of the stereotypes we’re plagued with on screen and in life. It opened new doors for me as I stepped further into my authenticity. My community saw me and encouraged me to finally focus on my own healing.
“Angelica, you need to reserve some space for yourself. What about your surgery?” my friend and trans activist Joanna Cifredo asked me a few years back. I had quit my salaried job to build out TransTech and had finally raised enough money to start paying employees while I was drawing no salary, surviving with food stamps and had moved into a spare room in a friend’s home to save money on rent. The thought of saving thousands of dollars for gender confirmation surgery seemed completely out of the question. I was so nervous about doing a GoFundMe to raise the money for myself, but Joanna assured me, “If anybody should do it, you should do it. You have given so much to the community and there are people who want to give back to you.” She was right.

When fans felt that pain with Candy and they felt the pain of the colorism in the show, I felt it too. As a Black dark-skinned trans woman, I’m experiencing in real time what we’re telling onscreen... dark-skinned trans women were not allowed to breathe as much as the light and bright girls.

Not only did people donate to the GoFundMe, my roommate had saved all of my rent payments and donated them towards my fundraiser as well. After landing the primetime role of Candy on Pose, in between the first and second seasons, I finally had the money I needed to get my surgery and live in the freedom of my body like never before.
This is just one of many opportunities and joys that being a part of the Pose family brought to my life. But even with all of the beautiful intentions and pure hearts that poured into the making of this show, the experience wasn’t free of struggle. So many fans reached out to share how heartbroken they were when Candy was brutally killed off the show. There’s a saying in the industry, “No tears from the writer, no tears from the reader.” When fans felt that pain with Candy and they felt the pain of the colorism in the show, I felt it too. As a Black dark-skinned trans woman, I’m experiencing in real time what we’re telling onscreen in a 1980s story, where the reality is, dark-skinned trans women were not allowed to breathe as much as the light and bright girls.
When I first heard about the Pose cast coming together, these five trans women with their own lives and stories, I thought it would be like our version of Girlfriends in the ‘80s, where you see all these girls struggling but getting through it together. What you ended up seeing was me and other characters getting sidelined a little bit, as well as becoming the villains of the show.
It’s a microcosm of what was actually happening in the ballroom scene. When we came from this other space, the mainstream, that was being oppressive to Black and brown folks and trans folks, we created our own ballroom space. But that space brought on some of those oppressive ideologies when it came to ideas of “realness” and the certain images and stereotypes of femininity they were trying to live up to. That had painful implications for those of us living in the intersections and being the darkest amongst us or the biggest of us.
Candy lived out those real experiences on screen. When she says, in her final episode in season two, “You’re gonna regret your words, I’m a star,” and the ballroom doors closed behind me on set, I just started hyperventilating. I could barely breathe. I was thinking about what it feels like to have so much talent and such a fire and a power and not be able to express it because the people around you won’t let you. I took all of that real hurt and channeled it into her final performance.
I remember watching that episode for the first time with Laverne Cox at The Standard Hotel in Los Angeles and her saying to me, “Why didn’t they do this sooner?” She didn’t mean kill me off, but show me — show Candy — in her full light. Why not show that I had the range to be more than the punchline of someone else’s joke, but that I could still do the punchline with the best of them and come with the attitude as well as so many deeper things?

I’m very clear on what I’m worth and centered in who I am now.

I laid my soul bare in that performance in order to let Candy live in those moments, to give her full life. The cost of that is a cost that I feel like I agreed to pay. When I found out that Candy would be killed off the show, the natural question in my mind came up, Why me? My spirit immediately said, Why not you? You’re a Black trans woman; why not you? So I took the privilege and the responsibility. With my Buddhist practice, it’s given me the new definition of responsibility as the ability to respond. I could’ve been all kinds of salty and bitter about the experience, but I showed up fully and willingly. I did what needed to be done and I only say that because I feel that from my community. It’s not about an award for me; I didn’t get not a single nomination. But the overflowing of love, and tagging and Tweeting and TikToking is still going on, well into season three.
Going forward from that moment, I felt empowered to do anything. We’re going on 100 years of television, and I just became the first trans actor to have two series regular roles in primetime when I took on the role of Donna Chambers in American Horror Story. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but we know that we have to be four times better than them to get half as far. We don’t get the privilege of being imperfect. But in this new power and love I have for myself, I knew I couldn’t just say “yes” to Ryan Murphy because he asked me to do another show with him or because it would be history-making. I actually said “no” to the offer a few times until we got those numbers up. I’m very clear on what I’m worth and centred in who I am now.
A major part of that is from my Buddhist practice teaching me the difference between fame and celebrity. Fame is a spotlight. So, if you have anything that you have not processed, if you have anything that you are hiding, if you have places that need work, fame will amplify that. My Buddhist practice has taught me to become a celebrity in a different way; it asks me to become a celebrity of the very mystic law that my spirituality commits to and understands, which is that everybody—I don’t care what your ability is, I don’t care what your experience is—everybody has the opportunity to do something miraculous with their lives. And how you become a celebrity of that belief is by being celebrated for that very fact. I’m celebrated not because I’m an actress on TV, but because I’m a Black trans woman who has overcome again and again and again and who does not allow other people’s limitations to define my possibilities, my value. For anyone desiring to be a celebrity: you better know what you think you’re going to be celebrated for and make sure that it’s worth celebrating.
The life I’m celebrating now is best described by Candy in her final grand performance as she sings, “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” It’s an illustration of the type of love that I now have for myself. The kind of adoration and compassion, encouragement, accountability, patience — all of the things that I know love to be. I have gone from thinking, Who’s going to love a Black trans woman? to Which one of these people am I going to try and give my time to? And even getting to the radical space that confirms I don’t need to give my time to just one. I’ve always seen myself as a binary trans woman attracted to the masculine, but during quarantine I’ve been opening myself up to experiences with women as well and am no longer close-minded enough to think that the masculinity that intoxicates me can only be found in one form. I have embraced my queerness in a way that I have never thought about before.

I have gone from thinking, Who’s going to love a Black trans woman? to Which one of these people am I going to try and give my time to?

As good as I feel right now as myself, in my body, I wonder what it would’ve felt like to have had this feeling 10 years ago at 30, or 20 years ago at 20. When I think about trans youth today who are telling us with such determination who they are; I am proud of them. I want to make space for them and get them the resources and access they need that it took me so long to gain.
I don’t cry for what I didn’t have back then. Now, I just live in every one of these lifetimes all at once. I’m walking and living as my 21-year-old self, my 18-year-old self, my 12-year-old self, and my 25-year-old self who was engaged to the wrong person and didn’t know her power yet. I’m living and healing through all of that right now and it’s giving me joy to know that I made the right bet on myself.
It’s been quite a journey to be able to, as a Black trans woman, find that freedom and love for myself when, all along, Dorothy, it’s been there for me to find.

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