No Sesso Is Making History

No Sesso’s ethos extends far beyond the runway.

In Los Angeles, spaces where queer women can go out and feel safe are in short supply and even legendary bars for QPOC are disappearing. Plenty of local recurring queer nightlife events claim diversity as a marketing ploy while indulging the pleasures of only one letter in the LGBTQ acronym. Enter Pierre Davis.

Davis created the fashion house No Sesso in 2015 to empower people of all colors, shapes, and identities through fashion shows, parties, workshops and more. This month, Davis will likely become the first trans woman ever to present a collection at The Getty, one of the world’s largest art institutions, while simultaneously throwing one of their hallmark fabulous afterparties.

Ahead of presenting her capsule collection with close friend and collaborator Kelsey Lu, Pierre Davis sat down with INTO. She eschews designer wear and greets me in casual garb. In true Scorpio form, she’s laser-focused on getting ready for an upcoming fashion show, yet lacks any signs of fatigue.

 

How many times have you been featured in Vogue this year?

I would say No Sesso has been featured so many times. Out of all of The Vogues, like Vogue Italia, Teen Vogue — all the Vogues: at least ten times already. Something crazy like that.

 

Where are you from?

Born in South Carolina. I’ve lived so many other places since I was 9 because my dad was in the military. Then I moved to Seattle where I finished high school. I started studying fashion design at the art institute.

 

Why did you come to LA?

I chose to move to LA for fashion design. When I was living in Seattle, I visited LA once. I really liked the city. I went to the fashion district and fell in love. I said, “I want to move here to pursue design.” I then moved here in 2014. No Sesso was a brand by the end of November 2015.

The photographer and stylist for this shoot, the models, the teams and models for your shows and your campaigns — everyone appears to not only be a friend of yours but a carry as well. What is it about you that makes you a lightning rod for beauty, talent, and all things fab?

Well I mean, obviously I love beauty and I love glam and everything but I’m also just obsessed with my friends because they’re all so effortless. They’re giving it because they’re just born that way and that’s what I’m obsessed with personally. I don’t know, I guess fab people just attract each other. Takes a bad bitch to know a bad bitch.

 

I’ve actually described the energy and the turnout for your parties with that same word: effortless. Everyone is so effortless and authentic but also so glam and so cute.

I feel like our parties are definitely safe spaces for people to come out and like, let it out without people judging or without bothering their carry. Everyone’s living their life. That’s what everyone wants to do when they go out. It’s cute to like be social and stuff but sometimes you just want to rage and hang out with your friends. I feel like that’s what No Sesso parties give. Everyone is just able to come out and come together and you know you’re gonna be safe no matter what. You don’t have to worry about any kind of hate or homophobia or transphobia. Everyone is going to be there for you and if someone is fucking up, it’s so easy for them to get the door.

 

Would you call your friends and collaborators your chosen family?

Totally. Yeah we are definitely family. We chose each other. Yeah it’s so funny how we all crossed paths and made what we do happen.

 

What was your inspiration behind this shoot with Clifford Prince King and Malcolm Robinson?

Well, there are two inspirations behind this shoot. Me and Clifford were chatting because — I believe Clifford shot a little bit of the collection before it was done. Like a private show of what I was working on at the time. Basically, he shot the lookbook for the collection. So he was able to experience all types of levels of where the inspiration behind the garments were, ya know? He really fell in love with the “trade pants” and “trade dress” that I made.

Are those the official names of those garments?

Yes. We made this look and the inspiration was like, a real trade boy wearing these pants and maybe like a femme boy also wearing the dress — looking like a couple in a sense. So that was some of the story that we started playing off of at first when we knew we wanted to shoot it together. And we also wanted to work with a couple that was actually in love. Someone that was in a relationship already. So you can see it in the imagery.

I mean, anyone can act and make that happen, but there’s also a different emotion when you feel compassion for someone else and you’re photographing them. You can act that out but when it’s real, it’s real. We wanted to work with Niko and his boyfriend Junior. We just thought that they would be the ultimate couple and so cute and I love seeing them together on social media. We just thought it would be the perfect fit. So I gathered up a few pieces that I thought would be iconic and we had Malcolm do most of the styling. I laid a little bit of it out and then I let Malcolm go off from there. With the hair —and the accessories which we used in the actual No Sesso runway show. It was the same collection but we made sure that it was telling a different story.

We just like, came together and made magic. Malcolm is an ongoing collaborator. We’ve worked together so many times and every time, it’s always major. He does all of the hair for the runway shows. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Authenticity is really important to No Sesso.

Absolutely.

You were initially based in Seattle before relaunching in LA and being in operation as a brand again since 2015. Meanwhile, you’re throwing these fashion shows and parties that are cultivating something so special here in in the city. How do these gatherings make you feel, seeing your work and your friends coming together?

It’s such a positive experience and I’m like mad happy about it. I’m happy that everyone sees something in my work that they can relate to — that’s the most important part: bringing all of the elements together and people together and everyone being able to identify and to see what we’re producing. It’s very all around when it comes to the parties that we throw, the fashion shows, the art exhibitions. Everything that we do is full circle and it’s a lifestyle. We’re just bringing like-minded people together so that they feel safe because this world can be so harsh. Suicide is so intense right now. We just want to let people know that we’re here and doing whatever we can to bring our community together. So they know that they’re not alone. That we’re all going through this together. Especially when you’re identified as this subculture. It’s so tough out here.

 

What does this togetherness mean for you and your mental state?

Cultivating this togetherness, making safe spaces is all we’re really trying to do. Make a place for our homies to kick out and chill with other people who are into the same shit as us. I feel like it’s very important that black trans women and POC women and POC LGBTQ…and everyone feels like they can come together with us at No Sesso and feel safe. All the bullshit is put to the side and everyone is able to live. So many people say that they want to do it, but are they really doing it?

 

Are they really accomplishing what they set out to do at the end of the day, in an authentic way?

Right.

 

What are your thoughts on the current state of gender and representation in fashion? How would you like to see LGBTQ be represented in fashion?

OK well, I just feel like the current state of fashion — like yeah you’re starting to see more POC people and more queer people represented in fashion — but I also feel like it’s real trendy and not everything is authentic. I’m not coming for every brand but I do feel like there’s some marketing that might communicate, “we’re here for queer people,” but you’re just wanting their money and not really there for anything they have to do. I feel like it just needs to be a little more authentic. If you fuck with these people —  if you care for these people, for us, then really be about it and not just down because it seems trendy right now.

Fashion still has a long way to go and we still need to improve garment sizes — we need fab garment sizes that fit everyone. There’s still so much work that needs to be done. Don’t get me wrong — things are changing but I feel like it’s the subculture and the underground designers who are changing fashion and these bigger brands are able to see what’s happening on social media and they’re able to get hip because you know… they have people working for their brand who are just like, on the internet all the time. So people are able to tap into the culture and what they should be doing.

I don’t want it to be only in the month of June. Do you notice that a lot in fashion? It’s when they’re able to market it. It’s not an all year round type situation.

 

Yeah, people really come out of the woodwork come June. People are just all for the gays. Flying their rainbow flags suddenly. But where were you in April?

Right!

Tell me about how you and Kelsey Lu came to be friends and collaborators.

We have a lot of mutual friends first of all. We have a lot of people who run in the same circle. We would always be liking and commenting on each other’s stuff and then she ordered some pants online. We were basically just online friends for a really long time. Then we happened to be at the same function. Then we just meet and we’re like, “Oh my gosh… girl, what’s up? Finally we get to see each other.”

From there we’ve been nonstop. I’m such a huge fan of Kelsey Lu’s work. We’ve been working together — I’m a big fan of her music and she’s such a force and so talented and so fucking cool and sweet and just so humble and we can just talk for hours about things and just like — I don’t know, we just vibe out. She’s a big inspiration behind a lot of the stuff that I design. I listen to her music a lot and can’t wait for her album to come out.

 

What can we expect of your collaboration together at The Getty?

Fierce. Magic. It’s going to be something that you’ve never seen before. It ’s going to be incredible and you would be a fool to miss it if you’re in LA.

In past interviews you’ve touched on the symbiosis between music and fashion. You’ve collaborated with Lu, SZA, Kelela — so many greats in music. Who’s someone you would like to see wear your clothes that hasn’t yet?

Beyoncé. Lauryn Hill: A fashion icon. Obsessed with her. Erykah Badu has worn No Sesso already… yeah. I love Junglepussy. I listen to her often while I’m designing. I would love to see her in No Sesso. I’ve already worked with bbymutha. I’m a big fan of hers. I guess like, all of the fierce girls, pretty much. Come through!

 

What’s on repeat right now?

Travis Scott.

All garments by No Sesso.

Photographer — Clifford Prince King

Stylist — Malcolm Robinson & Pierre Davis

Models — Niko Karamyan & Junior Sealy

Whitney Houston’s 10 Greatest Live Performances

Whitney Houston was an incredible talent, role model and inspiration. From her iconic looks to her undeniable charisma, she really gave the gays everything they wanted. Though her she had her struggles — and, maybe, because of them — she will always remain a queer icon. In honor of what would have been her 55th birthday, here are her top 10 live performances.

10. A Song For You

In 1991, Whitney Houston performed in a Welcome Home Heroes concert that aired on HBO, honoring 3,500 servicemen and women returning from the Gulf War. They way she covered this Leon Russell song. Full coverage. Insured. GAG.

9. A Quiet Place

Picture it. Public Access Television. 1987. Whitney dons a iconic scarf, simple red lipstick and had an entire choir behind her simply to cheer her on. Mutha Cissy close by just nodding in approval and awe at the fact of this blessing she brought into the world. Riffs inside of riffs! SEETHE.

8. When You Believe

The best moments are so pure. Nothing was as pure as the look Mariah gave Whitney halfway through this performance. While both of these women are icons and immensely talented, it’s almost like Mariah was set up. Honestly, you can tell Whitney went way off book. I’m convinced someone turned Mariah’s mic down. Either way, this performance is so perfect and pure.

7. Home

In her first live television performance, Whitney Houston stunned. Introduced by her then mentor and head of Arista records Clive Davis, Whitney gave a jaw dropping performance of this classic from The Wiz. If you watch closely, you can see Mutha Cissy come in behind the curtain to direct the band so they can keep up with the force that is her daughter.

6. I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Honestly, the best part about this song is the joy it brings to queer bars and nightclubs anytime it comes on. The happiness is palpable — you can feel it as you belt it at the top of your lungs. This performance reminds us of the power true talent has. She didn’t need not ONE backup dancer, just a mic and a bolero.

5. All The Man That I Need

Woooo chile the vibrato!!!!! This performance makes me sweat more than she does. “All The Man That I Need” might be lyrically, one of the most incredibly raw songs Whitney ever recorded. This performance really sails in the last few minutes after the instrumental break, which our ears need after being delighted for so long.

4. The Greatest Love Of All

More iconic than “Amazing Grace,” “The Greatest Love Of All” is the gold standard in religious songs. Whitney sang this song like she ran an orphanage, she believed in the children and the children began to believe in themselves. And that dress on ol’ girl was snatched like perfume tester on a busy sales floor. GET INTO IT.

3. One Moment In Time

Released in 1988, this song was the true gold medalist of the Olympics. The ways she moved so gracefully through these notes. Imagine being so blessed to as to have been in the room when this happened.

2. I Will Always Love You

This is a matter of personal taste. While undoubtedly her biggest hit, there are so many great performances of this song, it’s almost impossible to choose. I chose this one because, well, that Stepford Wife updo cannot be touched. She looks like she’s about complain about the Riesling being too dry at Le Bernadin. It must’ve been nice for Dolly Parton to have owned this song for the brief time she did. It’s Whitney’s song now. This and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

1. I Loves You, Porgy / And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going / I Have Nothing

The only medley to ever exist. I’m absolutely convinced that the “I Loves You, Porgy” portion of this medley was her warming up live on national television. Your faves can barely make it 4 minutes into a live broadcast lip syncing their own songs. Whitney covered two others and finished with her own just because she CAN. They look. The stage presence. The power. The RANGE. The best of all time.

Michelle Tea Gets the Tea From… Beth Pickens

A little over a decade ago, I was running a queer literary nonprofit that had become successful beyond my wildest dreams. However, because I have zero admin skills, the dream was swiftly curdling into a reality, and I was about to call it quits. I called my grant writer in despair, and he barked at me, “Hire Beth Pickens!”

I already knew Beth, from when she worked the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and brought two of my queer performances to town. Luckily for me, she was available, and she not only swept up the festering paperwork pile, she applied her clear vision and deep love for queer arts to the organization, allowing us to bring back a defunct performance tour, start a Caribbean writers’ retreat, offer an annual poetry chapbook contest and so much more!

Beth has since moved on to private career counseling for queer and marginalized artists. Hers is the secret name that artists across the US whisper to each other when they despair of getting a handle on their creative output or healing their bad relationship with money. Her services have become so popular that she is unable to take on new clients, but luckily for the world The Feminist Press has published Your Art Will Save Your Life, a manifesto, pep talk, and workbook for professional artists and writers (or those working towards getting profesh) who feel at odds with the larger culture. It’s funny, it’s wise, it’s spiritual, it’s tough love. Read below and get to know your new best friend.

What is the most uncanny thing that you have ever experienced?

Once, around 2003 when I was about 24, I went for an early evening walk in my neighborhood alone and I saw something floating approximately six feet overhead. It looked like a string of Christmas lights, the old-timey kind with big round bulbs, but the thing was slightly more organic looking. I watched it for about five minutes, as it floated above higher and higher, puzzling over what it could be. Finally – alone and pre-smartphone, therefore camera-less – I walked away wondering if it was something extraterrestrial. It’s the only “unexplained” phenomena I’ve experienced.

 

What is in your bag right now?

Boring regular things – wallet, Chapstick, lipstick, portable Neti pot nasal inhaler, hand cream. My purse situation is a canvas bucket back inside of a lesbian tote bag.

 

Please share the 15th picture on your cell phone.

Someone sent me this pic of my book in a bookstore! Can’t remember who or which.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How are you like or not like your sun sign?

Capricorn – I definitely have a powerful data processing center where my heart should be. I’m organized, care about money and structure, and know that I know the best way to do things. I am NOT (I don’t think) boring, miserly with others, or singularly focused.

 

What is the last book you read? Song you listened to? Show or movie you watched?

Last night I finished How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Last movie I watched was Death Takes a Holiday. Last song was Angélique Kidjo’s cover of the Talking Heads song “Crosseyed and Painless.”

 

What was the last meal you cooked?

Last night I made what has been referred to as a restaurant-grade greek salad and “ultimate banana bread” from the Cooks Illustrated cookbook.

 

Where would you like to go on vacation right now?

Akumal, Mexico.

 

Tell me about getting to meet someone you idolize or admire.

I just went to Queer Talmud Camp where I got to meet Rabbi Benay Lappe, who created a queer yeshiva and an annual camp where queer and trans people gather in the woods to study Talmud together.

 

What are you like when you’re sick? 

I want to be left alone to die.

 

What are you obsessed with or inspired by right now?

I am inspired by my artist clients who are so committed to their work, even while the whole world seems to pummel them, shit on them, or otherwise encourage them to give up.

I am obsessed with double salted black licorice, finding the right cocktail of skin care products, hiding from the current LA heat wave, and discovering a bra I can believe in.

 

What are you upset about right now?

Late-stage America.

 

What is the most recent dream you remember?

I dreamt one of my artist clients told me she was giving up on Oakland and needed to move away and I was thinking about what we’d do about her arts non-profit if she moved. Then when I talked to this client in real life, I realized that never happened. Just a dream.

 

Who is/are your queer ancestor/s?

Cookie Mueller. My Hebrew name is for Shulamith Firestone. James Baldwin, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Alice B. Toklas. And the ones whose names are never captioned in photos.

 

What is your dream project?

To create large-scale, effective wealth re-distribution.

 

What are you doing this weekend?

Yoga x 2. Date night with my beloved. And Sunday is the 15th of the month so it is my personal admin day, which I learned from an interview with Sabrina Hersi Issa on the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. On the date of your birthday each month, you set aside the day for your own personal admin – the stuff you keep putting off. So on the 15th of each month, I do things like get a massage, clean out a closet, deal with health care paperwork, send emails that keep getting buried, re-pot my orchid, etc. Very Capricorn but highly effective.

Steven Canals Wants to Build Hollywood a Brand New Boat

On a Saturday afternoon in Hollywood, a room filled with Latino filmmakers, producers and general Hollywood types hangs on Steven Canals’ every word. We’re sitting in neat rows of chairs in a hotel conference room at the official 2018 media summit for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and everyone wants to know more about Canals, the queer Afro-Latinx creator of Pose, but even more, people want to know how it all happened.

They want to know how Pose made its way onto one of television’s hottest channels and how Canals came to work with TV mega producer Ryan Murphy, who became Pose’s executive producer. They want to know how Canals overcame the number of doors slammed in his face. They want to know how something so queer, so black and so brown somehow made it onto our screens.

Pose’s very existence is impressive. But the true miracle, Canals insists, is that queer people get to make it. It features the largest cast of transgender actors ever assembled. The show’s own Janet Mock is the first trans woman to write, direct and produce a television series. At every level of creation in front of and behind the camera, queer people mold the show. And before its season finale aired, FX announced a second season.

“I’m concerned not so much with ‘Are the stories being told?’ but who is telling the story,” he says to applause. “I think we have not been allowed in the room to tell our own narratives.”

He specifically cites the importance of his Pose trans collaborators Mock and Our Lady J, who also writes and produces.

“For us to have a seat at the table to tell that story, that’s progress,” he adds. “That’s how you’re going to see narratives that will open up discourse in healthy, critical way. For too long, that hasn’t been happening.”

Canals discusses serious complex realities like colorism, transphobia and intersectionality all while making everyone, including myself, guffaw. Pose is a serious show — it tackles the lives of black and brown queer and trans people living through the simultaneous epidemics of poverty, HIV and drugs in 1980s New York City. But Canals is all smiles and levity. He draws laughter out of you. It’s a skill he wields in public as he continues to speak in support of the fledgling series that could.

He’s the writer, executive producer and creator of one of the queer community’s favorite shows, but in his sneakers, glasses and enamel pin-laden denim jacket, he just looks like familia. When his fellow panelist (and One Day At a Time star) Isabella Gomez tells a story about her friend “Rita,” and clarifies that she means “Rita Moreno,” Canals lifts his mic up and says, “Girl, we know.” The room and his fellow panelists burst into even deeper laughter.

As magnetic as Canals is, he’s also adept at sharing credit. He possesses an uncanny generosity that lends itself perfectly to Pose’s ethos. He’s not just about making sure his story is told: he wants to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table. When audience members and panelists praise Pose, he makes sure the audience walks away hearing the names Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock, and Our Lady J. He speaks about his fellow producers like the characters on Pose might discuss the House of Evangelista — with love. Later, in private, he jokes that the writers’ room dubbed itself the House of Murphy.

During its first season, Pose jostled its way onto every queer person’s calendar, their Twitter fingers going into overdrive every Sunday night to discuss the show’s characters and the complex psychological world they dared to inhabit. But, how did Canals go from working as a student affairs administrator in eastern Pennsylvania to tweeting along with his #PoseFamily every Sunday night in only a few short years?

The show’s origin story, it turns out, is shade.

In 2012, Canals was a college administrator at a university in Pennsylvania. A resident assistant during his undergraduate years, he was unsure if a career behind the camera called to him — and several professors dissuaded him from his artistic pursuits. He fell into student affairs and worked in a campus multicultural office telling students that they should be their best selves. All the while, he ignored his own creative impulses.

“I felt like a fraud,” Canals said to me in his Los Angeles home. His apartment is uncluttered and open. The most dominating visual in the room is a big book bearing Keith Haring’s name. He also wore a t-shirt with the legendary gay artist’s recognizable figures on the chest. He’s laid out cheese, grapes and preserves.  His denim jacket and my own were hanging side-by-side next to the door.

One evening, an art professor invited Canals to a soiree at his apartment with other artists. Canals said another creative approached him and asked him, “What’s your art?” At that moment, the art professor happened to be walking by and muttered, “He’s not an artist.”

Canals called the moment “soul crushing.”

“I’d never given myself the label of ‘artist,’ but at that moment, having it taken away from me, it didn’t feel good,” he said. He had contemplated returning to school for some time and, within a month of the incident, he turned in his application to UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program.

Pose didn’t come to life until Canals’ final semester in the program. Burnt out from writing features, he felt his idea well had run dry. All he had in his back pocket, he thought, was a semi-autobiographical piece about Bronx in the 1980s. But it didn’t feel right. A graduate program in screenwriting, he says, is all about branding, and he had branded himself as the gritty, urban scribe. The story seemed to fit his brand, but it wasn’t the right moment.

“At the time, I didn’t have the confidence as a writer,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was the person who should tell the story or if I was ready to tell it.” On a walk near campus, his friend, The Magicians writer Noga Landau, prodded him until he realized his back pocket held one more idea.

In 2004, as an undergraduate at Binghamton University, Canals watched Paris Is Burning for the first time. The film stuck with him not only for its historical significance, but for the potential of even more stories in the world its director Jennie Livingston chronicled. Later, as he walked through the residence halls a name popped into his head — Damon, the name of a young boy who would move to New York City and enter the ball culture.

Canals, and Hollywood, slept on Paris Is Burning for a long time. At one point, Precious director Lee Daniels was meant to helm a musical version of the film for television. And prior to Pose, Murphy bought the rights to Livingston’s documentary, set on making another hit TV show based off its characters.

Ten years after watching Burning in class, Canals wrote the pilot for Pose in just 10 weeks.

Canals is a natural storyteller. To hear him answer a question is to be brought to another world. His answers contain beginnings, middles and ends. When I ask him about being a writer, his whole family plays the cast in his answer.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Canals let his parents turn him into a genre cinephile. He learned story from a steady diet of highbrow popcorn flicks like Terminator 2, Alien, and Aliens, movies his father loved. His mother, an educator, read to him at night. Sometimes, she concocted his bedtime stories in her own head. Canals’ media leash was long.

“They let me watch whatever and we’d have a conversation about it after,” Canals said. “Nothing was off limits.”

Even in play, Canals couldn’t leave story behind. While other kids played freeform with their action figures, Canals invented scenarios and crafted yarns for his Thundercats and Ninja Turtles figures.

“I used to suck the fun out of play,” he said. “I was the kid that had a notebook and would write down storylines.”

Canals was 15 when he knew his love for story would translate to a career. With an after-school arts program, he and other students in his 10th grade class produced a documentary about gang violence with help from a then-fledgling HBO Family. Canals and his friends interviewed community members and worked for eight months to create the final product. But as they came to the end of the academic year, one of his peers — a co-producer on the film — was shot and killed.

“Her death was for me … I think it’s one that I still haven’t quite emotionally processed to be honest,” Canals said. “We went from highlighting a very particular experience to all of a sudden having that experience of loss at 15 and not having the emotional intelligence to comprehend how it could happen.”

With life imitating art, Canals said this is when the power of film and television truly resonated with him. These stories were not just there to entertain — they could educate.

“I think that’s where my own personal work always lives,” Canals said. “I always want to live at the intersection of [education and entertainment].”

And Pose does. The show traffics as much in queer reality as it does in queer fantasy. As much as it depicts queer and trans people’s lived experiences, Canals and the rest of the writer’s room knew that they’d be writing scenes never before depicted on television. For instance, Murphy and Canals knew that when Blanca spoke to Damon about gay sex, it would be the first time a young queer kid on television got “the talk” from his mother.

“The first time that I went to go attack the page, the first draft was super clinical,” Canals said. It felt as if Canals had just Googled a checklist about queer sexual health. “It wasn’t funny. The humor had been sucked right out of the conversation.”

After a quick kiki with Murphy and four days of rewrites, Canals said they arrived at the final conversation, which covered tops, bottoms, and more. Canals described the final scene as an “honest conversation” between a son and his mother — “a mother who happens to have a young boy who’s attracted to boys.”

“You can research any particular topic as much as you want until you’re blue in the face,” Canals said. “When it comes to crafting the narrative, you have to let all that go. You just have to tell the story.”    

Storylines around HIV also showed Canals and crew’s deft ability to toe the line between information and amusement. In episode four, ballroom MC Pray Tell talks to the young queer men in the House of Evangelista about getting tested in a restaurant booth. Scenes later, Pray Tell takes the younger generation to test at a clinic. And in episode six, he throws an AIDS cabaret to honor his dying lover. Canals said that the former plotline is meant to send a message, while the latter is meant to send the viewer a message about humanity.

While Pose does employ fantasy, it does so in the pursuit of justice. Canals said that every week, he received tweets during beats of the show about the character Angel (Indya Moore), who pursues a relationship with the upper middle class banker Stan (Evan Peters). He’d see tweets concerned for Angel’s safety, considering how much violence against trans women is often intimate partner violence. Canals saw the disconnect early on when the scene the writer’s room had concocted as the beginning of a love story between Angel and Stan was taken as a dangerous moment for Angel.

But, Canals said, that’s not what they wanted to portray. The life of Venus Xtravaganza, one of the most infamous members of New York City’s ballroom scene, and star of Paris Is Burning, inspired the character. Yet Angel is meant to be a blueprint for what her life could’ve been if she weren’t killed.

“We looked at Venus’s life and art in the documentary, and everyone was so moved and touched by her,” he said. “We decided to honor her by telling a story where that’s not her ending.”

Other characters take inspiration from Canals’ own life, as well. His favorite character to write is Blanca Evangelista, inspired, he said, by his own mother. Her love is a tough love: she forces Damon to apply for dance school, but only to meet his potential.

“Blanca is a fighter and my mom is — she’s just resilient,” he said. After our conversation, Canals took a moment to go to his room and came back with three pictures of his mother in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One picture has Canals as a baby.

“Blanca is truly just my mom on the page,” he said. “I understand her and understand how to write for her from growing up in a household with three really strong, complex, intelligent outspoken Black and Puerto Rican women.”

And as for Lil Papi, a young homeless Latinx man trying to get out of the drug game, he’s inspired by straight men Canals knew growing up in the Bronx who had no qualms with Canals being queer. Canals wrote an impassioned email to Ryan Murphy defending the character of Lil Papi being male after the writer’s room had a large discussion about whether they should change the character to be a lesbian. However, so much of Lil Papi came from Canals’ upbringing that he didn’t want to see the character’s gender altered.

On the first day that Angel Curiel, the actor playing Lil Papi, came to set, Canals said Murphy gave him the greatest compliment yet: “I’m glad you fought me on that one.”

Pose has proved to be a years-long lesson in what it means to be an Afro-Latinx creator in Hollywood. After writing the first draft in 2014, Canals said the show’s first pitches landed with a huge thud.

Pose opened every single door, but it would not keep me in the room,” he said. Executives would say it was too niche or use coded terms like “urban” to suggest that it wouldn’t connect with viewers. Everyone was enamored with the strength of the pilot; no one would foot the bill to see it realized.

Enter Ryan Murphy. Canals first met with Murphy in September 2016, days after Murphy won nine trophies at the Emmy Awards for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Canals’ personal favorite series of that year. Canals had been a fan of Murphy’s since Popular, his short-lived but much-loved WB series. The two spent 45 minutes together discussing Pose and what it might look like to work together. Canals said that with most pitches, he strayed conservative, not giving away too many details. But with Murphy, he put all his cards on the table.

“I felt like the ball had been in his court, but my team had been mindful about saying, ‘In reality, it’s in yours,’” he said. “You can go in there and if you don’t get along with him or you feel like it’s not the right fit, you don’t have to work with him.”

But, after the 45 minutes had ended, Canals knew the pair would be a fit. Canals said there was one moment that cinched that Murphy understood his vision for the show. Like every other executive, Murphy asked him who he envisioned in the series. When Canals couldn’t name big name actors to star as the show’s five central characters, most executives’ eyes glazed over. To Murphy, Canals said: “I don’t know, I haven’t met them yet.”

When Murphy agreed with Canals’ instincts, the two became a pair.

Murphy, Canals, and frequent Murphy collaborator Brad Falchuk began re-imagining Canals’ original script. The Damon storyline of the dancer coming to New York City was brought over wholesale from the original, but Murphy did make a few changes. He owned the rights to Paris Is Burning and, at one point, Pose had fictional characters interacting with real people like Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey. But that was eventually scrapped. Canals admits that for his own personal taste, authentic has always meant gritty, but Murphy suggested that the tone be lighter. Canals worried the show might veer into Glee territory when it came to lightness, but Murphy assured him that that was not what he was talking about.

“The word for the writer’s room for the entire season was ‘aspirational,’” he said. For Canals, the tone of Pose was so much larger than just how the viewer might receive it. Potentially flubbing the show might in turn cost himself and other creators of color jobs. Canals said the fate of Pose weighed heavy on him in that way.

“If I fuck up, then I just shut the door for everyone else who’s come after me,” he said.

Canals thinks about his relative privilege in the industry all the time. When I ask him how long it took for his own impostor syndrome to wear off, he replied, “I don’t think it has.”

Canals launched into a story, his modus operandi. He said a friend of his, a woman who’s been around the Hollywood block, explained to him that Tinseltown is a tugboat filled with white men. Every once in a while, the white men allow one person unlike them onto the ship, but it’s only one at a time and only when they feel like extending the invitation. They let you into the room and they usher you back out.

“Aside from reaching over and pulling people out of the water onto the boat, the other option, which is equally as important is to say, ‘Fuck it!’ and build another boat,” Canals said. “Just build my own goddamn boat, I’ll decide who is on it.”

Canals’ dedication to getting Hollywood a bigger boat probably stems from his own confusion as to why he is here rather than anyone else he grew up with. Why does he have a show on FX and others from the Bronx don’t? Why does he have a show with several trans writers, directors and actresses of color? He doesn’t know the answer.

“I’m always going to have that feeling of ‘I don’t know why I got here,’” he said. “I don’t know why the universe selected me as the person to make it out of that environment. There’s plenty of people with the same story as me, born and raised in the Bronx in the 1980s that don’t have the same opportunities I’ve had.”

“I don’t know why the universe decided I would be the person,” Canals said, “but I’m grateful for it.”

Photo Credit: Alex Schmider/INTO

Finding Your Community After a Tragedy

On the night of September 16, 2017, my boyfriend Caden and I stood on a dark Atlanta sidewalk and watched in horror as Caden’s roommate and friend, Scout Schultz, was shot and killed by a Georgia Tech Police officer. After the shooting, we had no idea what to do. So Caden and I made our way back to the dorm room he shared with Scout. It was where I first met Scout.

We didn’t sleep that night. We didn’t really talk either. We just held each other, with only the coming and going of other roommates and friends to break the silence. We were lost.

In times of tragedy like this, it’s easy to focus on just the event. We all huddle around computer screens or televisions and watch as body counts, motives and identities are revealed. And then, we move on. We forget about it until the next senseless tragedy happens. And there we find ourselves again, glued to our screens wondering why this keeps happening.

No one talks about what happens when the news cameras leave. Amid the protests, funerals, arrests and vigils, there’s a handful of people trying to put it all back together. Families are left with an empty seat at the dinner table, witnesses are left with horrifying images in their head that they’ll never be able to shake, roommates are left with an empty room in their home and friends are left with a part of their group missing.

Putting your life back together after something like this isn’t easy. Your brain begins to play tricks on you. Your dreams, although they start off as just dreams, quickly turn into nightmares full of traumatic flashbacks. Random strangers on the street reaching into their pocket are potential shooters. Fireworks become gunshots. Police lights become sensory overload until you feel like you’re standing back on that sidewalk. Nothing is safe anymore and everything is corruptible.

But you have to take back control. For some people, that comes with medication and for others, therapy. But for myself, it was finding my own community. More specifically, it was forging my own community, something I’d never been too good at.

I grew up in rural Louisiana with not a queer person in sight. I lived my life safely, in the closet, until I was in college and able to take care of myself. I found my communities in small groups of friends, and eventually, a fraternity.

I’m an only child, so doing my own thing has kind of been my brand for as long as I can remember. Even among communities I’d forced my way into, such as that fraternity, I felt like an outsider. And that became more apparent when members of that fraternity slowly but surely pushed me out of it after I came out. I’d never truly found my people.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m moving to Atlanta. I told myself this would be it. This would be where I could finally find my people and truly be myself. And though it took me a while, and one heart-wrenching tragedy, I think I finally have.

After Scout’s death, I felt alone. I didn’t know Scout well. In fact, we’d only met a handful of times. But they made an impact on me. They were the first person I had ever met that identified as non-binary and also used they/them pronouns. They were a fierce activist and a beacon of hope to me and to the LGBTQ+ community in Atlanta. They were a sign that maybe, just maybe, I might be finding my people.

Just two months later, I, along with a fellow moderator of the r/lgbt subreddit and friend named Ash, launched Spectrum. We had been discussing it for months, but still reeling from Scout’s death and looking for something to do with my time, I took the initiative to get it started. It took a lot of coordination and was a lofty goal, but we did it. Spectrum is a server that operates on a voice and text communication platform called Discord. It’s a safe space for queer people to communicate and make friends.

We launched the server with the goal of it serving as a platform for subscribers of r/lgbt to get to know each other better and hold conversations in a more casual manner. But it outgrew that purpose quickly. It became this vibrant platform full of people of all ages, identities, races, and religions. It’s a plethora of diverse people with diverse backgrounds.

Spectrum, a server that I thought would be just a small group of people who used the subreddit frequently, has become a community. It’s a place that I love and appreciate dearly. It’s a place where I, the weird queer kid from a small Louisiana town that no one has ever heard of, am not alone. I receive messages from Spectrum members all the time about how it’s made a huge difference in their lives. High school kids with no other queer people in their school are able to make friends like them. Transgender people are able to connect with others and seek advice. People who aren’t sure of their identity are allowed the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their feelings with others.

We’re not alone anymore. We’re a community of people that love each other and are finding our places in the world together. As marginalized people, we have to stick together. Not just in fights for marriage equality or the freedom to pee in peace, but in life in general. We have to make a community. It’s the only way we’ll survive.

Scout’s death was a tragedy. It’s something I am still dealing with to this day. But it served as a catalyst for me to find my own way and forge my own community. It gave me the spark I needed to finally find my people.

Image via Getty

The Vixen Speaks On Season 10 Reunion and How RuPaul and ‘Drag Race’ Fail Black Queens

The Vixen came to the season 10 reunion ready to talk about her time on the show. The Chicago queen is one of the most talked-about queens to ever sashay into the workroom, forcing the fandom to confront its racism and talking about what it means to be a Black queer person in America without apologies.  

But The Vixen’s time on the floor during the reunion was cut short after a back-and-forth with RuPaul that led to her exiting the stage. In an exclusive interview with INTO, The Vixen spoke about what was going through her mind as she walked out, why she wouldn’t let the show make her the one to blame and what it means to hold the door open for the next generation.

Going into the reunion, did you think that RuPaul would bring up the confrontation between you and Eureka?

Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, in interviews leading up to it and the week we were in LA for all the filmings, it’s a question that me and Eureka both still get asked about. So I knew that would be something that the show would want to talk about because me and Eureka were unresolved when I was eliminated, so I knew it would come up.

Ru specifically brought up “poking the bear” during the reunion and you recently talked on social media about wanting to move past that catchphrase. What do you think about her and others still using it?

Well, I think typically when people use it, they’re trying to follow the narrative that I’m this uncontrollable angry person and when we first started saying it on the show it was more of a …  the conversation between me and Monique was like, “If you take me to that place, then that’s what happened,” and now it’s like assumed that I’m always at this angry level. I literally have to be provoked into that. It’s not a place I enjoy going to.

“It felt like I was talking to a Reddit troll.”

At one point, with the drama between Aquaria and Miz Cracker, RuPaul asks you if you were “stirring the pot” to throw them off their game. Do you feel like Ru read a lot of negative intention into everything you did?

Yeah, it felt like I was talking to a Reddit troll. It was like, with her being a person in the public eye, you think that she would understand that I had more layers than that. It just seemed very vapid and I think even on the show I did a good job of showing that I was a person with intention and that there was more to me than trying to get under two girls’ skin for some type of reason. It was an insult to my character. It was very out of touch with who I am.

You said during the reunion that, before you saw the fight playback on TV, you really beat yourself up over it for months, because you thought you were a monster. What were you beating yourself up about?

You know, everything had gone down and I left the show feeling very misunderstood. I didn’t feel like I was going to be accepted or that anyone … I felt like once everything came out, I would be seen as this one-sided evil character and that I had done something atrocious. Even with the fight with Aquaria — when, the day after Untucked with the whole “leave me alone” conversation, the next day when we talked to producers again and did our boy interviews, no one gave me any indication that I had done something good. It was like they wanted to steer away from the conversation. It was more like, “Do you really think she tried to create a narrative?” I was surprised it even aired and that the audience accepted it the way that it did. It felt like the show thought that I was petty for making it about race.

The Vixen/Adam Ouahmane

You were surprised that the show would air a conversation that called itself out?

I don’t think they did it with good intention. I think they did it to show me in a bad light. But then with Monet, I think having Monet’s part air, too, I think only added validation and then the validation from the All Stars and former contestants that came out online and had my back, I think that really changed the story. But I don’t think the show expected that to be a good day for me.

During the reunion, you spoke about the way Eureka came up to you after the fight and wanted to produce a kind of “ending” for the cameras. Were you hyper aware at that point, especially after you talked about how black queens come off on TV, that another conversation with Eureka might play into her hand and make you look bad?

Yeah, that’s why later in the next episode, I didn’t want to give her a hug or any physical confirmation, because I was like, “I know you’re trying to put a bow on this” and I’m not going to make you feel like it’s OK because it’s not. I don’t want the audience to think that it was magically solved.

I have to ask, because I don’t think non QPOC can understand: Is it mentally tiring to always think about how you’re going to come off on TV?

On TV?! In the world! I was recently in London for a gig and I went alone because it’s expensive to go and I had a panic attack because it was the first time traveling so far away and not having anyone to kind of be an ally in situations for me. Because of the show, people are looking for a story like, “I worked with The Vixen and this happened…” I was very stressed out about not having anyone there to speak on my behalf. Even going out as a tourist, I was very afraid to be in public without someone to back me up, knowing I was so far from home in that I didn’t have a safety net, someone who could speak up for me.

Because you see it all the time on the news that person of color was asserting themselves in a conversation and they end up dead. So I had a big realization that I carry that with me more than I knew.

What do you think about RuPaul telling you several times that you have a choice to be silent?

I think that sends a horrible message to people of color who want to be on the show, people of color who watch the show, that their only option is to be silent or to be persecuted. That’s exactly what I was talking about in London: you feel like you have no voice in this world. Why would anyone want to put that message out?

Tell me what you were thinking the moment you decided to remove yourself from the reunion.

So, I think, any time I had an answer for a question, it would be like, “But you said you were here to fight!” And it felt like Ru was trying to redirect the story to make sure I was at fault. And so I kind of just realized that there was no way for me — that my side was not going to be told that day. And so I was like, “OK.” It would’ve been one thing if the girls were coming at me in that way. Technically, Ru is there to be a moderator and it felt like I was having a fight with her.

I don’t think any of us ever go on the show expecting to have a battle with RuPaul. So, that wasn’t why I was there. I knew that the reason I even bothered to do the show — a day before we shot the finale and two days before the reunion, I found out that my mother was in the hospital with a tube up her nose and so I called my mom and I said, “Do you want me to come home?” And she said, “No, if you don’t stay for the reunion, they’ll say you’re being petty,” so I was taking time away from family and a serious situation to be there and the reason I was there was being completely overlooked. So that was always in the background of my mind and I’m here because I have to be but I really want to be with my mom at that moment.

So, once I realized that I wasn’t going to get that opportunity to thank the fans or talk about all the amazing stuff that happened since the show … Right now I’m on two “most influential” lists, I’ve like been honored and covered by all these publications and done some really great things that other Ru girls never got to do before because of what I did on the show. To be there at the reunion, it almost felt like they wanted me to apologize for these things that have given me a better life and made a difference in viewers’ lives. It’s like, “This is not what I signed up for and this is not going to get better,” so that’s why I left.

“Technically, Ru is there to be a moderator and it felt like I was having a fight with her.”

 

After you left, RuPaul invited the queens to comment on your exit and your attitude. Do you think it was fair for her to open up the floor like that while you weren’t in the room?

No, because I think the interaction was between me and her, so it really was for her. That’s what gets me about this whole thing. I wasn’t in the moment having a fight with Eureka. Me and Aquaria are so great. All of this has been resolved and I think instead of revisiting it and talking about it objectively, there was this intention of pointing the blame. I don’t know, a lot of times we get asked, “What have you learned since the show?” and I didn’t go on the show to learn about myself; I came to show the world about myself. I came as a fully realized person. It was just this game of trying to make me be ashamed of what I had done. Even after I left the room, there’s this thought that … I think Eureka understands me. Aquaria gets me and she’s been very supportive. To expect the girls to chime in in a way. I can imagine they’re terrified because they don’t want to say anything that would agitate her or hurt me, so.

After you left, RuPaul argued with Asia, who was defending you, saying you had left the room as a way to de-escalate the situation, and Ru said, “At one point you have to say ‘There is nothing else you can do’ and ‘you gotta let people go”‘ and that you, The Vixen, have to be willing to me meet people halfway. What do you think about her assessment?

Well, that’s what kills me about television. Literally this thing has just played out in the room and she’s talking about it as if facts weren’t facts. I wasn’t the problem in the room. The room was the problem. I didn’t leave the room because I was the problem. I left the room because I was the target. I think that’s really shady to make it out like I’m this lost soul who needs help. I have literally — They put the words in my mouth! My Cher character during the Rusical said, “No regrets, dammit!” They wrote that for me to say. It baffles me that they want me to be ashamed of … and what kills me is that it’s been preached to us since day one that we have to own our story. “Don’t be afraid to be who you are in front of the camera. If you own up to it, you’ll be fine!”  I’ve owned up to my personality and I haven’t apologized for it.

But because it has started this conversation on real issues, which they glossed over — they skipped over the most important conversation of the series! I think so much of the conversation that we’ve started has been about the problems of the fandom and I think this reunion shows the problems on the show. I think when [the issue] first came out, the show was fine with me pointing fingers at the fandom, but I think this reunion shows that the show has some growing to do and has to take responsibility for what comes out of it.

I also feel like what Ru said, that’s something a lot of QPOC youth hear, too. Like, “I can’t help you if you don’t act right” — it’s very much in the spirit of respectability politics.

Yeah, even like the reason I look up to RuPaul or ever looked up to RuPaul, is — there’s an awards show she was on years ago when she was presenting with some actor named Uncle Miltie [Milton Berle]. I remember she was there in full drag presenting with this older actor and I guess the shtick he was trying to present was this tongue in cheek, “It’s a man in a dress” [thing] and Ru was not having it and she was very Vixen in the moment. She spoke up and she called him out on it and she raised hell and it was very inspiring to see someone say, “You’re not going to make a mockery out of me.” Here we are years later and that’s the reason I took the journey of the show and it’s being done to me by the person who inspired me in the first place.

Asia O’Hara becomes very emotional when you leave the room and says that, especially during Pride season, it’s so unfortunate that the queens let someone leave the room without trying to help her. Do you think a queen coming to you would’ve helped in the moment?

I think, and this is how I explained to the girls later, if you saw a black kid on the street being stopped by the police and a cop pulls a gun on him, there’s nothing the kid can do. He can’t make one move: he can’t reach for a cellphone or put his hands in the air. That’s how I felt in the moment. The only way I was going to be saved was for someone else to step in. One false move and I was going to take the bullet. That’s why I left. And so I think it is really sad for Ru to say that I couldn’t be saved. One, I don’t need to be saved. I wasn’t an issue. I don’t think I needed help. Apparently, based on how things went, the reunion wasn’t designed to help me. They weren’t interested in talking about the good I’d done or interested in addressing issues or celebrating what my journey has really been. I think they wanted to teach me a lesson about speaking up and they failed really horribly.

Well, it’s telling that Ru chose to begin the segment by saying that she was going to talk about your confrontational moments and now how you started a conversation about racism on a national level.

The fact that that was the first thing they wanted to talk to me about. Not even like, typically you get a “How you been?” and you look at Vanjie’s segment, it was more like, “How has your life changed since it started?” My segment started from the gate like “Vixen, why are you such a bitch?!”

“Here we are years later and that’s the reason I took the journey of the show and it’s being done to me by the person who inspired me in the first place.” 

Did any of the queens reach out after the reunion?

Yeah, so when I went up to my room after, when I walked off stage, I walked directly to my hotel room. A production assistant followed me, I gave her the microphone that was still on me. I got out of drag the fastest I ever had. A producer came up to try to get me to come back down and by that time I was already in jeans and a t-shirt. That conversation didn’t go well. And a few of the girls, Asia and Miz Cracker especially, had stepped out, they had taken a break and they talked to me and wanted me to know they loved me. The following night I talked to most of the girls and they just wanted me to know that I was supported.

Later, RuPaul says that you and she came from the same place, but she does distance herself from you and says, “I fucking learn how to act around people and I deal with shit,” in reference to you walking away. What’s your take on that?

That’s the problem, you know what I mean? And I understand that to get to the level Ru has gotten to you have to play the game and you have to deal with shit, but you would at least think that she’s gotten to this point and I’m glad she acknowledges we’re cut from the same cloth, because I felt like I wasn’t recognized on the show, like we spoke a different language.

But I think that’s exactly the reason that she should’ve been more of an ally, because we are cut from the same cloth. The point is to make it better for the next generation, not become part of the problem and make it harder for the next one. I didn’t make Black Girl Magic so Black girls have a harder time getting gigs. You should open the door even wider fo the next generation.

But she’s just become a part of the system.

Hero Image Credit: The Vixen/ Adam Ouahmane

Uh Oh… I Agree with Azealia Banks: Gender, ‘Drag Race,’ and Gatekeeping

I can’t say I often agree with Azealia Banks. I was horrified when she endorsed Trump in 2016. Disgusted when she body-shamed CupcakKe earlier this year. Really fucking angry at the homophobia and racism she hurled towards Zayn Malik. She sacrificed a chicken on her Instagram. She’s working with Dr. Luke on her latest album (which annoyingly, will be really really good).

But during a series of tweets, fueled by an ongoing discussion of RuPaul plagiarizing her original music, Azealia made a particular argument about Drag Race and subsequently how drag has come to be understood by the mainstream that I found difficult to disagree with:

“if a woman wants to be a drag queen she can. I dunno what y’all boys keep talm bout – women can’t be drag queens. If women can’t be drag queens then neither can you. You can’t be a caricature of a woman and then try to disinclude her. Ridiculous”

“If a woman wants to be a professional drag queen she absolutely can. She doesn’t have to have a dick to be a drag queen”

“Y’all sit up here and beg for respect and inclusivity then turn around and tell others they can’t be included. You want your feminity [sic] to be respected but won’t allow an actual woman to participate in any gay male affairs. Makes no sense”

What Azealia might not fully realize is that a number of women have already competed in the competition. Sonique, from Season 2, was the first openly transgender contestant. Monica Beverly Hillz, Season 5, became the first transgender woman to reveal her identity throughout the competition, followed by Peppermint in Season 9. Other contestants Carmen Carrera, Kenya Michaels, Stacy Layne Matthews, Jiggly Caliente, and Gia Gunn  have also openly spoken about their transition after competing on the show.

While the show’s application process doesn’t actively discriminate against gender and sexuality (thank you, Reddit, for the casting questions), Azealia’s tweets came hot off the heels of comments Ru made earlier in the year about the inclusion (read exclusion) of trans women: “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics.” Though Ru has since backtracked on this (honestly quite vile) comparison and apologized to the trans community, there are many still who share his sentiments.  

This then begs the question: Who’s allowed to perform drag, and who are the gatekeepers?

The history of drag is threaded across artistic genres and timelines. The Elizabethan theatre in the 1600s was dominated by Shakespearean plays instructing men to play female roles in full drag. In romantic opera, certain male character alto and soprano roles were performed exclusively by women en travestie (trouser roles). More recently, cult-classic films such as Hairspray (1988) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) introduced audiences to “genderfucking” characters — inspiring a slew of genderfucking traditions (dressing in drag for Rocky Horror screenings and, less impressively, John Travolta in Hairspray’s 2007 re-do starring Nikki Blonsky).

Significant inspiration behind Drag Race stems from New York’s ballroom scene circa ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The premise is all too familiar: a number of houses walk against each other, judged thoroughly on their dancing, costumes, aesthetic and persona or attitude. The first “House” was formed in 1977 by a trans woman, Crystal Labeija, looking to differentiate the performance at her balls from others at the time. From voguing to an eclectic array of categories (Butch Queen up in Pumps), “the shade of it all” to Mother Ru, much of the fashion, dance, language and music we consume on a weekly basis through VH1 is thanks to this counter-culture movement.

But there’s one aspect of the ballroom scene that Drag Race is very slow to borrow from: membership. The ballroom scene and the house system served as safe spaces — chosen families — for predominately Black and Latino queer youth facing systemic, familial and communal discrimination. Looking to remedy and buffer against the rampant racism of the wider queer community, the houses largely catered to queer people of color. The houses further gave rise to a complex gender system which includes “butch queens,” “femme queens,” “butches,” and “women.” The toying and blurring of traditional forms of gender — whether through accentuating the performer’s masculinity or femininity — served as a parody of heterosexuality and gender alike. Drag flourished as an artistic expression: to experiment, blur, confuse, celebrate. Drag was performed by men, women, butch queens, and femme queens alike. Drag was inherently political.

It therefore seems strange that in a time where we’ve come to note the mainstreaming of new ideas beyond binary gender (trans, non-binary) and sexuality (pansexual), where lines between masculinity and femininity have come to blur, where traditional notions of how the body must perform are constantly eroding, a show like Drag Race would demand entry based so squarely on genitalia.

Beyond this, it’s important to recognize that the mainstreaming of these new ideas is also under threat in a Post-Trump world, where healthcare protections for the Transgender community are at risk, where violence and murder is a devastating truth. While not every drag performer is Transgender, it would be completely misguided to not recognize the tremendous influence the trans experience has had in shaping the performances we see today.

If we are to agree that drag is art, exploration, parody and the coy blurring of gender and sexuality — as the ballroom scene has given life to — then it’s ultimately disappointing that its biggest stage only permits license and access to a specific subset of the queer community: gay men. And while I’m sympathetic that gay men have a long and overflowing history of being denied spaces in television, film, and theatre, I’m more sympathetic to the fact that we also tend to dominate many of the queer spaces we are given access to. Double-points for white gay men.

Even Drag Race isn’t immune to this overarching dominance of whiteness. Drag Race has a Race Problem” wrote Garrett Schlichte, addressing how the show largely pedestals the artistic “avant-garde” form of white drag over its black sisterhood, and further interrogating the insidious racism of the show’s fandom: “If you’re pretty and white you can get away with murder.” Season 10 and the show’s treatment of The Vixen in addition to outside commentary from the fandom is prime example. At times the show has also been an outward vehicle for its own racism: two episodes have now featured a Native American Headdress (Raja in Season 3 and Monet X Change in Season 10). To any future contestants reading: just don’t — it’s much more difficult to wear a headdress than to not wear a headdress — and having to explain to members of a culture why they “shouldn’t be upset” or that they “just don’t get the art” isn’t a great look.

While Drag Race has made incredible waves in how mainstream audiences experience drag — undoubtedly applauded for its inclusiveness and diversity — it can certainly do more. Coming into Pride Month we recognize and honor our queer history: those that paved the way for the community and culture we see today. Stormé DeLarverie — a black biracial butch lesbian and, well-known drag king — is historically cited as one of the initial catalysts of the Stonewall riots. There shouldn’t be any reason why Stormé’s legacy couldn’t be memorialized in and platformed in future Drag Race casting and membership.  

To demand broader inclusivity in Drag Race, however, would be to grapple with the reality that much of its viewership and formatting is designed for the male gays under the male gaze — both in how it approaches the “quintessential” feminine form (“fishy”) and how it takes jab at the gay man’s “most prized” body ideal: Ru’s round-up of the shirtless, masc, muscle “pit crew.” Much of the show’s humor and frame of reference — its continual self-deprecation and parody — circles tightly around gay men’s sexuality and experiences. To demand more would be to think deeper about how that form of parody and ridicule could wash over other identities and their tropes.

While it’s difficult to imagine a stampede of women (both cis and trans) trampling over each other — and our favorite femme/butch queens — for that year’s supply of Anastasia makeup, opening access to women (drag kings and queens alike) will only further the show’s goal of offering herstory and honoring the ballroom scene. We should be more open to experimenting and blurring of the show’s current format and premise.

It’s time we dragged the full race.

‘Pose,’ ‘My House’ and The Need For Chosen Family

Before the release of Paris is Burning in August 1991, the world had very little information on ball culture and the significance it played in the lives of queer/trans people of color. But with Viceland’s new docuseries My House and the recent premiere of FX’s scripted show Pose, audiences are being given a provocative look into a community that’s redefining tradition and changing the definition of family.

Since the premieres of both series, viewers have seen the various struggles that many queer/trans people of color face. While both shows examine the resilience associated with being Black/Latinx and queer, both series remind us why chosen family is important for LGBTQ people.

Since 2006, multiple studies have shown that LGBTQ people of color are often at higher risk for homelessness and harassment due to being rejected by their family members. For those who do experience said rejection, the concept of chosen family is one that not only provides a sense of belonging but an overall sense of self-worth.

For many in the LGBTQ community who also identity as people of color, the concept of “traditional” family can often be defined as painful and traumatic, rather than a source of support. For many QTPOC individuals specifically, chosen families remain the pillar of their community, built upon not just kinship but the intentionality of love, support, intimacy and most, solidarity.

Though the concept of chosen family might be new to some, both My House and Pose truly helps us to understand why chosen family is essential to the livelihood of queer/trans people of color.

In the first few episodes of the show My House, cameras quickly introduce us to individuals who seek safety and security by way of the houses they join. While many of said houses are known for being alternative kinship networks for those who are often left homeless due to discrimination, each house is known for providing a unique protection to each of the individuals being documented on the show. For most of these individuals, the relationship that each of them has with their chosen family members in their houses not only represents care, but love and protection that the streets (and, often, biological families) won’t provide. For individuals like Brielle “Tati” Rheames (who is considered 007 because she isn’t affiliated with a house exclusively), the ball scene still provides her the opportunity to not only empower herself while finding social support in the ballroom community.

The same can be said when thinking about Pose and its accurate portrayals of LGBTQ people.

In the show’s opening, we are introduced to Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who is rejected from his family for not only wanting to follow his dream of being a dancer but also for being queer. We see art imitate life when Damon is kicked out of his home and begins to sleep on a park bench. Upon meeting him, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) the house mother begins to view Damon as one of the “children” she needs to protect. Damon later reminds Blanca that it is because of her support that is not only a better artist but more importantly, safe.

Though the storyline between Blanca and Damon is fiction, several queer/trans people of color share the same sentiments as Damon, noting that they, too, would not have peace and security if it was not for their chosen family. Even more, many queer trans people of color would not have the safety and stability needed to survive in this world without the love and support of chosen family members.

While both shows hint at the important conversation needing to be had around trans women of color being the glue of LGBTQ as a whole, My House and Pose both exemplify how necessary it is for QTPOC to have strong support networks, especially in cases where there are folks who are actively in the process of coming to terms with rejection from their biological family. While each show examines what freedom means for QTPOC, My House and Pose challenge QTPOC individuals to reexamine their self-worth outside of their toxic relationships with biological family members.

More importantly, both shows remind us that the concept of “family” continues to be a radical formation as the personal continues to remain political.

With the growing popularity of each television show and the investment society makes into comprehending ballroom culture, people must understand that the concept of chosen family is necessary and vital to our survival.

Images via Viceland and Fox

Clarkisha Explains: Your Queerbaiting Has No Power In 2018

Ah, queerbaiting.

How did I know that Star Wars was eventually gonna pull this queerphobic messbesides the biggest hint of having the same brown-haired White girl protagonist in all of their movies?


These jokes just write themselves…

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll bring you up to speed. A week ago, Star Wars writer Jonathan Kasdan asserted in an interview that Lando was possibly, kinda, mostly likely, maybe, strongly pansexual, despite having no evidence on-screen or in canon to show this.

As you know, I’m a bit newer to this queer thing than most. And while I have no doubts that queerbaiting is a concept that proceeds this year and my existence, I was first introduced to the concept when, you guessed it, I heard about J. K. Rowling’s baiting-ass interview about Dumbledore and how he was possibly, kinda, mostly, likely, maybe, strongly gay back in 2007.

Mind you, I got into Harry Potter late (my Nigerian parents thought that and Pokémon were extra demonic, but strangely enough accepted Yu-Gi-Oh) and most of what I know of it stems from the movies. And obviously, watching the movies, there ain’t nary no sign of that mofo Dumbledore being gay. But because Rowling likes her brownie points, that was all that was needed to throw a crumb of hypothetical representation at queer/LGBTQIA+ audiences.

And of course, in true queerbaiting fashion, since her fake assertion of this, nothing has been done to develop that point. Hell, homie is set to appear in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (played by Jude Law) and the powers that be made sure to confirm that they wouldn’t be making any mention of it or reference to it in the movie or, as they put it, he wouldn’t be “explicitly” gay.

Which is bullshit, of course. And it was something I thought about as I heard these new “details” about Lando.

In true fashion, I have a variety of issues with this. The first being the following:

1. One of my pet peeves (as a film student who graduated from a fancy schmancy-ass school that I paid way too much for) is when writers throw up a middle finger to the “show, don’t tell rule.”

Look. I don’t need a bunch of exposition to explain something you could have explained with 2.5 seconds of action. And in this case, I don’t need you yanking my chain, verbally telling me that Lando is pansexual when you could be showing me. in. the. movie.

And it’s not like it would be that hard either. We all know Lando as a smooth-ass operating scoundrel. It would be easy as hell to merely show this dude flirting with folx of different genders and species in one of those seedy bars that Star Wars likes so much. Hell, make it a montage if you’re feeling creative and humorous.

Look, I just wrote your movie for you.


Please. Hold your applause.

2. The assumption that everyone would be some kind of gay in space is not as progressive as you think.

When that baiting-ass article on Lando came out, I saw a lot of what I assumed were decent Twitter takes, stating that it would be absurd to assume that everyone would be cis and heterosexual in space. That most folx would probably abide by no gender or ascribe to pansexuality like we assume Lando does.

Then after seeing one of my friends tweet about how it didn’t sit right with him, I started to think more about it. I mean, ideally, yes, this would be the case, but this only works if cishet (cis + heterosexual) is not the default or majority in space. That means having everyone engage in some type of sexual or gender expression that is not “straight” would have to be the norm. Otherwise, this doesn’t work. And this is mainly because, as we’ve seen, humanity kinda sucks ass and people tend to arbitrarily (and sometimes violently) divide themselves no matter where we go. Some more than others.

And if we’re taking the same bullshit into space, including [cis] White supremacist patriarchy (I mean “The Empire” is literally made up of Space Nazis), what the fuck is stopping the same systems of oppression, biases, and hierarchies from being replicated…in space? Besides a “hopeful” locale change? And besides leaving Chet and them behind (which I doubt would happen and may honestly not do shit, because we would still have deal with intra-community violence and bigotrywhich includes colorism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, etcfrom our own skinfolk)?

I mean, y’all ain’t see that Matt Damon movie Elysium? You really things will suddenly switch up if we aren’t on Earth?

3. Saying Lando isn’t openly pansexual in the film because it would “take away from the real story” says a lot about how bigoted you are (and think).

This was by far the most annoying and bigoted part of this discourse.

However, like with most homophobe talking points, it’s not new.

Indeed. I heard this kind of thing a lot when we were informed that scenes nodding to characters like Valkyrie and Ayo and their sexualities had been cut. In the midst of battling back homophobes and racists and the intersections thereof, both groups tended to agree on the fact that being more overt with these characters sexualities would have somehow distracted from the story or made it less than.

Which is funny, because we had time to nod to a possible thing happening between Thor and Valkyrie and time to attempt to develop Whac’kabi and his undercooked romance with Okoye, but the moment folx question where this kind of representation is for queer folx, it is somehow “extraneous” and not needed.

Even if I assume some folx don’t mean any harm when they say things like this (I don’t, because homophobia and queerphobia are intrinsic to the society we live in), it IS harmful. Because the implication is that our existence as queer folx is somehow lesser and “extraneous” and isn’t worth exploring on any screen or in any medium.

It’s similar to what we heard about Iron Fist and how him being Asian-American would be “extraneous” and take away from the story. Even though his diasporic struggle would have enriched it. It’s similar to what we heard about how MJ being Black is “extraneous,” because her race somehow takes away from her story, even though not nary one of y’all yeehaw muthafuckas can name anything significant about “canon” Mary Jane besides having red hair and being Peter’s forever-in-need-of-saving girlfriend.

Let’s call a spade a spade. The assumption is that anything that deviates from a White normincluding queernessis “extraneous” and thereby unnecessary and somehow too cumbersome to include in your so-called “progressive” story that isn’t so progressive after all if there isn’t nary a queer person to be found in it.

And bringing this back to Lando, it takes a special type of audacity (read: caucacity) to assert that Lando’s assumed pansexuality would somehow be extraneous to the Star Wars universe in general considering all the “extraneous” things in the Star Wars universe.

You know what’s really extraneous?

Phantom Menace. That Slave Leia outfit. Any reference to pod-racing. 99.9% of Anakin’s scenes in the prequels. Snoke. The Unbearable Whiteness of The Star Wars Universe. Jar Jar Fucking Binks.

Shall I continue?


I can do this all day.

Nah. Fuck that “extraneous” shit. I would rather homophobe-lites puff out their chests and just say that they “don’t wanna see that gay shit” on their screensno matter how big or small “that gay shit” israther than dick around and say there’s no time for it in the narrative or whatever the fuck.

Because I’ma keep it completely 100: if we have time for a [Han] Solo movie that no one asked for and one that is clocking in with the lowest debut of any [Disney] Star Wars movie, we do, in fact, have time for “that gay shit.”

And we do, in fact, have time for a Lando movie or a Lando-centric plot that does more to *show* Lando’s pansexuality rather than merely use it as ally clickbait in some press tour interview.

Kameron Michaels Talks Femininity, Thirst Traps, and Her Time Away from Drag

Throughout the 10th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Kameron Michaels has branded herself as the Bodybuilder Barbie. Michaels has brought up several times on the show the challenges she has faced being a muscle queen the teasing she’s received from fellow queens, the problems with dressing her body and, in an emotional Untucked, her own history of not facing emotions.

Last week, INTO took a deep dive into Michaels’ tenure on the show and what it meant to see a queen struggle with her body in the drag community. This week, we caught up with Michaels and spoke to him about his drag origins, Instagram thirst, and whether he thinks he’s more feminine or masculine.

Can you tell me a little bit about what led you to first doing drag?

So I started doing drag when I was 18 years old and I was working at a club on the weekends as a go-go boy. I was hanging out around drag queens and it was super interesting to me and I was like, “These are like angels! They’re so pretty, but they’re also so awesome and cool.”

Who were some of the models of your early drag?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I think my aesthetic has always been inspired by cinema and video games, any fantasy characters. I really look up to them, because not a lot of people do it. I was modeling myself after the drag queens around me, like the Nashville girls. Just trying to be like them, I guess.

You spoke on the show about your time away from drag and how it had to do with being in a relationship with a man who was a big gym-goer. Was that how you picked up exercising so much, because of your partner?

Actually, the person I started going to the gym with is not, like, a gym-goerwe started going together and he stopped going, and then we broke up and then I started using that as filling the void of a breakup. So I started going to the gym religiously and adopted that into my life. And that replaced the relationship, and I kind of just flourished in the gym. I was just lifting weights.

What made you give up drag while you were with your ex at the time?

Well, that relationship I started going to the gym withthat I talked about when I said someone made me throw out all my drag. It doesn’t have anything to do with the gym; it had to do with the relationship.

You also said that your drag sisters didn’t think that your muscle body would be good for drag. Can you tell me about hearing that for the first time and what that felt like?

Yeah, I mean, it came from people I respected and it wasn’t very nasty, but I could tell they were serious. They weren’t being mean, but they were saying, “You need to cover up your arms,” “You need to wear costumes with long sleeves.”

I didn’t really care, but it was my sisters and I didn’t know anybody else like me at the time, so I thought “Maybe they’re right. I don’t want people to make fun of me on stage.” That’s the worst feeling, being made fun of as an entertainer. It’s never a fun feeling, and I thought people would make fun of me and I would like look like a man.

Before the show even aired there was a lot of thirst for you for being so muscular and handsome and I’m just wondering what it felt like for you to see all that thirst.

I mean, I had an idea watching prior seasons. And while we were filming, being with the girls I was with, I was like “I guess that’ll be my aesthetic on the show!” So I expected it but the amazing thing to me is, I want you to pay attention to my drag! I don’t want you to throw me in that box of like the “hot boy,” because my drag has nothing to do with that. My drag is very feminine. It’s very southern drag, very pretty.

I’m interested in dating as a drag queen and having a typically masculine appearance but identifying as femme. Have you ever gotten any grief about that from potential suitors?

Yeah, all the time. I can’t even count on my hand how many times someone has found out and it’s always very quickly. It’s casually dating and people have found out and then told me the reason why they would stop talking to me and that’s the reason why, is that they don’t date drag queens. I don’t know, I’ve heard that a thousand times and every other drag queen in the world can relate, because they all know what I’m talking about.

You spoke this week in Untucked about being uncomfortable with emotions and how that comes from your dad. Do you feel the show made you more in touch with your emotions?

Um, absolutely. And that’s the most frustrating thing right now. A lot of people I appreciate compassion and I’ve changed so much from the show. People are saying, “We want you to believe in yourself!” and the funny thing is I’ve learned that now. So it’s funny or silly to hear that six months later. So, yes, I’ve cried a lot since the show, so I think it definitely opened me up. I’m not as hard-shelled as I was before the show.

When it comes to masculinity and femininity, what do you consider yourself? Do you think you’re more one or the other?

Yeah, so um, if I could point the trigger one way or the other I would probably put it more towards feminine. I’m pretty feminine in my voice, the way I carry myself. I like to play with masculinity and that’s like the way I look in pictures, because I sound like this and act like this all the time. There’s nothing masculine about that. I like playing with that all the time.