And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.—1 Corinthians 13:13
On the widely claimed FX series POSE, Damon Richards, before moving to New York, was beaten by his biological father and kicked out of his suburban Pennsylvania home by his Christian parents, who decided for God that Damon is not worthy of life or their love. Good Christian neighbors watch at a distance as the sinful son was thrown out of the house for the sake of the family’s dignity.
Damon’s story is a common one, almost universal in feeling. We learn later in the show that Blanca Evangelista, who adopts Damon, left her family for similar reasons, her queerness. Her Puerto-Rican family and his African American family share their Christian faith of hatred for their queer kids.
From the perspective of the theology that the protagonists’ families follow, their children’s flamboyant souls are the epitome of sinfulness. The AIDS epidemic that took away many of them, the queer and especially the queer of color, was, according to those who preach hatred, a proof that God hates faggots. A series about these abandoned queer children who came to New York in the 1980s to run away from their hateful families would have nothing to do with Christianity except that they had to run away from it.
Christianity has long been used as a weapon against sexual minorities, with and without the Bible as a proof text. The touching and encouraging words on the supremacy of love in St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians are preceded by a straightforward condemnation of malakoi and arsenokoitē, two kinds of homosexuals, the effeminate man and the man who sleeps with men. These are sinners who “shall not inhere the kingdom of heaven” according to 1 Corinthians 6:9 (pun unintended).
In recent years, we have seen the resurgence of the unholy alliance between churches on the political far right and propaganda against what those churches call “gender ideology.” This mix of homophobia and religion can be found now in Poland, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Peru, Brazil, and even in Taiwan. Fundamentalist evangelicals preach their version of faith that is faithful in the hatred of queer people.
However, POSE, thank God, hasn’t given hatred much airtime—not even hatred against those who hate. Instead, it adopts, perhaps surprisingly, the language of Christian theology.
Let’s start with the Christian name of Blanca’s house, the one she establishes after she leaves the House of Abundance, where she had been adopted as a daughter by Elektra, the legendary queen of the ballroom world. What does Blanca’s House of Evangelista evangelize? What is its theology? First, faith in the improvement of the living conditions of her community–in the flourishing of her work in alternate family-building with abandoned queer children and the possibility of their rebirth. Blanca put it this way to Damon, “The house is a family you got to choose.”
Then there is hope, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the show. Unlike so many portrayals of queer people of color, POSE does not try to win cheap sympathy of the poverty-porn kind by showing the pain of the others as spectacle. The queer and trans people of color are not merely victims of discrimination and repression, they are protagonists of the story whose struggles are fought not only with dignity but with glamour.
It is not the hope for a coming messiah-savoir. This lesson is painfully learnt by Angel, Blanca’s sister when they were living in the House of Abundance and now a daughter in the House of Evangelista. Angel has a short-lived romance with Stan, a white boy from the suburbs who aspires to become someone in the Trump Tower. When Blanca tells Angel about her (Blanca’s) seropositive HIV status and asks Angel to become mother of the house, she adds “no white boy from the suburbs is going to rescue you.” Angel, the angelus or messenger of God, gets and sends out this message: Stan finds Angel outside the ballroom and tells her, “I came to rescue you.” Angel gives him a firm, “the only thing I need rescue is the way you made me feel.”
There is no messiah ex machina, but rather “we have each other’s back.” This is the outstanding quality of the show because it speaks to us amid today’s rising homophobia.
Brazilian philosopher and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, writing about our ecological crisis, alerts us to learn survival strategies from the Amerindians, whose world was destroyed five hundred years ago by European colonialism. Similarly, we have something to learn from those who survived the AIDS epidemic.
The show ends with Blanca winning the “Mother of the Year” trophy of the ballroom. The award speech is given by its legendary host, Pray Tell, whose role RuPaul—the American actor, singer, and drag queen—would later popularize. Pray Tell, more like St. Paul than RuPaul, describes Blanca’s qualities in theological language, “Blanca has saved many a soul lost in darkness, simply by shining her light. I know this is true because that is how she saved mine.”
That light is love—but not the self-centered love RuPaul suggests when she says in Drag Race (the three-time Emmy Award winning drag-competition program): “If you can’t love yourself, how in hell you gonna’ love somebody else?” No, for Blanca and Pray Tell, love is spelled “charity.”
Blanca’s theology of hope is based on this love, love for others, which is also for St. Paul the strongest among the three—faith, hope, and charity (1 Corinthians 13:13).
First published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 24 April 2019.