A performer stands and arches their back on a New York City street. Their long, flowing brown curls are on display as they show off their Calvin Klein sports bra. The caption under the photo reads, “I don't identify as inherently male or female. I'm not a woman. My pronouns are they/them.”
Those words belong to Indya Moore, the ascendent darling of FX’s Pose, the Ryan Murphy co-created celebration of queer Black and brown voices. At this point it’s no surprise to see Moore, a non-binary performer of color, sharing joyous images of themself. Moore, who plays sex worker-turned-model Angel on the hit series, has modeled for Louis Vuitton, covered Elle, been tapped as a Time 100 luminary, and seen their face splashed across industry magazines as their network readied Pose’s 2019 Emmy campaign — the period drama’s first.
Now that 2019 Emmy nominations have been announced, Pose has officially cemented itself as a true contender on the rise. Following a strong showing at the Golden Globes in January, lead actor Billy Porter is celebrating an Outstanding Actor in a Drama nod at the Emmys. Pose itself, currently airing its season 2 every Tuesday on FX, picked up a Best Drama nomination. The series also has nominations for costuming, hair styling, and makeup. Unfortunately, leading lady Mj Rodriguez was shut out of the Best Actress race, as was Moore in the supporting category.
However, just five years ago, a different sort of queer visibility seemed boundary breaking enough. That was when future multi-Emmy winner Amazon Prime’s Transparent premiered, telling the story of an older trans woman coming out… with a cisgender white man in the lead role. That is not the route Pose is taking.
“In the past two years, if you look at how trans stories were being told versus how they’re being told now, what is happening with Pose is that trans stories are being told by trans people and written by, directed by, and starring [trans people],” executive producer Ryan Murphy tells Refinery29 during a journalist roundtable at Pose’s Bronx set. “If you look back in the day, that wasn’t really true. Many of those roles and many of those stories were being told by people who were maybe interested in that world, but were not of the world.”
We’re shifting on what’s possible. Not just on the screen, but what can happen behind the scenes.
As a white, cisgender gay man, Murphy explains that he doesn’t see himself as “the main person” behind Pose’s storytelling. Rather, he’s the “godfather,” of the series, helping amplify the voices of its Black and brown queer creatives. At the heart of the show is Steven Canals, the Bronx-born writer of Pose, who starting workshopping the series all the way back in 2004. Network executives shut doors in Canals’ face at the time, suggesting the drama was “too urban” or “too niche,” as the scribe says on set. Eventually those decision makers got blunt, explaining, It’s Black, it’s too brown, it’s too queer, it’s too trans, it’s a period piece. You’ll never get the money to make that.
In 2017, super producer Murphy, who was recruited to project through Pose executive producer Sherry Marsh, officially got the money to make that Black, brown, queer, trans period piece. “I was adamant that if we were going to do it, it had to have the exact same budget and marketing money as O.J. or Feud or Glee,” he explains, ticking off his other prestige series. “I looked at Steven, who was so excited and desperate to be at the table. And was like, Okay, well, I can do that. And I can do that for this whole group. And make them be seen and treated well and also with equality.’”
From there, Rodriguez, Porter, Moore, and the rest of their sprawling cast — from the larger than life Dominique Jackson (Elektra) to up-and-comers like Ryan Jamaal Swain (Damon) and Dyllon Burnside (Ricky) — found their way on television every week for two consecutive summers (and will return for an already announced season 3). Transgender thought leader Janet Mock was given the opportunity to write and direct her first TV episodes. Now she has a history-making deal with Netflix.
“The most rewarding part of directing and writing on this show has been being able to be the first line on the call sheet alongside Mj Rodriguez, who’s our No. 1, and then Dominique, who’s our No. 2, and then Indya Moore, who’s our No. 4. That’s rare,” Mock, who had wrapped directing a season 2 episode the night prior, says. “[We’re] shifting on what’s possible. Not just on the screen, but what can happen behind the scenes on a show like this, or any show.”
Hailie Sahar, who plays rising mother Lulu, argues the show is doing more than mere representation. “Pose has allowed the world access in seeing that we can do the work. If you give us the opportunity, we can do the work and we can do it well,” the actress, who also appears in Freeform's Good Trouble, says. “It wasn’t until [my fans] started reaching out to me, and telling me they had reason to live and they had hope [because of the show] that that clicked, and I said, This is really, really saving lives. Not just changing the industry. This is bigger than that.”
Performers outside the Ryan Murphy universe are enjoying the Pose effect, too — just ask Quintessa Swindell, the 22-year-old non-binary star of Netflix’s Trinkets.
I am non-binary. I am a femme. I am Quintessa. I am a strong-ass person.
“Girl, I remember watching the first season of Pose and being shell-shocked,” Swindell tells Refinery29 over the phone (after first confirming this writer's pronouns). They were bowled over by the sheer level of representation, from non-binary femmes like Indya Moore to the countless trans woman of color populating their screen. “People are more aware and open to hearing about trans people. I feel like now, especially with the second season of Pose, they’re more comfortable talking about it.”
Swindell got their biggest bookings in the aftermath of Pose’s successful first season, which wrapped in July 2018 with a standout showing in the 18-49 demographic (and has kept those eyeballs watching its second season). Swindell was tapped to play Trinkets queen bee Tabitha Foster, a cis teen, in late October 2018. Then HBO’s Euphoria came knocking earlier this year. Now Swindell is shooting YA sci-fi film Voyagers, co-starring Colin Farrell, Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead Wright, and Lily-Rose Depp in Romania.
“Recently, I’ve gone onto sets with this comfortability with myself, and this thing that people love,” Swindell explains. “People are like, ‘Yes. That’s unique. That’s interesting. Those stories need to be told.’”
They found no greater example of that acceptance than working on HBO’s Euphoria, where Swindell will be playing a non-binary character named Anna for two upcoming episodes. They are already gushing about sharing the screen with Euphoria breakout Hunter Schafer, a trans performer, activist, and model. GLAAD, Swindell says, lent a big “helping hand” with ensuring Anna actually reflects the non-binary community by pitching in to guide the new teen’s characterization. That interest in real LGBTQ+-support spilled out onto set.
“I remember there was this one moment. I was getting a touch-up, and then I think someone from production had came up to me,” Swindell recalls, explaining the person repeatedly referred to them using she/her pronouns. Within seconds, the makeup artist looked Swindell in the eyes and confirmed their preferred pronoun. Then she offered to remind the entire production team of that fact if Swindell was comfortable. “My jaw dropped. I’ve never been a part of a team that not only listened to you so actively, but rather would relay things to other people who maybe didn’t really get it.”
That’s why they call their experience on Euphoria a “blessing” and went to Romania “100% not nervous, not scared” to insist on people using their proper pronouns. “I left it being like, ‘I am non-binary. I am a femme. I am Quintessa. I am a strong-ass person. I can do this,” they say.
It’s impossible not to think of Pose’s co-creator Steve Canals as Swindell speaks. When asked if his series really was changing queer life in Hollywood, he told reporters, “I would hope we’re getting there. I don’t know that we’re at a tipping point … I think the proof is in the pudding. Other than Pose, what other content is out there that is centering trans people? How are we the only one?”
Maybe this time next Emmy season, Canals won’t be asking that question.