Yes, they covered a house in a condom: a run-down of the historical references in the second season of Pose

Pose is back! The second season of the hit TV show just dropped on Netflix and it takes history SERIOUSLY.

Set during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, this season is filled with historical references – and mostly they are impressively accurate. Here are some highlights to look out for as you watch (and rewatch) the series.

[Image: Blanca and Pray Tell on Hart Island]

Blanca and Pray Tell’s trip to Hart Island

In the opening scene of the series, Blanca and Pray Tell pay their respects to Pray Tell’s lover. They travel via ferry to Hart Island, where they find he has been unceremoniously buried.

Hart Island is a very real place that has been used to bury New Yorkers during many epidemics – including during the present Coronavirus pandemic. The bodies of the first people to die of AIDS were the only people to be buried in separate graves. They were delivered in body bags and buried by laborers wearing protective jumpsuits – just as the episode says. What the episode doesn’t mention is that those workers were actually prisoners – apparently New York City was happy enough to risk them before they understood how the virus was transmitted. When it was later discovered that the corpses could not spread HIV, the city began burying the bodies of people who died of HIV/AIDS in mass graves.

You can virtually visit Hart Island yourself. Hart Island’s AIDS initiative documents the stories of people who were buried there.

I’m not sure that Blanca and Pray Tell would have been able to visit Hart Island at the time that the episode is set. Today, visitation requires coordination with the Department of Corrections.

I’m also not sure that the massive memorial to the victims of AIDS that Blanca and Pray Tell visit actually existed. The series shows it as a huge collection of heart-shaped rocks covering a hillside. I haven’t been able to find verification of that, only a picture of a single rock here. (If anyone has details about this, do pipe up.) One thing is for sure, the pain and grief on Blanca and Pray Tell’s faces was all too real.

[Image: Angel during a die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral]

The Stop the Church Demonstration

The climax of the first episode of the new series is the House of Evangelista’s participation in an ACT UP action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

This demonstration, known as Stop the Church, was completely real. Pose’s portrayal of the event is largely faithful to history, except for one detail: the episode is set in 1990, to correspond with the release of Madonna’s song Vogue, but Stop the Church took place in 1989.

That aside, the opening meeting where Pray Tell is introduced to ACT UP is surprisingly realistic. There were, as Judy Katz says, lots of dykes involved in ACT UP. In fact, Stop the Church was a joint action with WHAM, a women’s organization. In addition to criticizing the church for dismissing the effectiveness of condoms, the action addressed the church’s anti-abortion position.

We know a lot about Stop the Church because the planning and execution of the protest was beautifully documented in a short film by Robert Hilferty – which was regarded as too controversial to air. I strongly recommend watching it; it’s available on Kanopy, which is accessible through many public libraries.

I figured the planning meetings for this action weren’t rallies, like on Pose, but after having watched the footage of them, I can now say that they were. They were wild, part rabblerousing and part fight over tactics. If anything, they were much more intense than in Pose.

During Stop the Church, five thousand people protested Cardinal John O’Connor’s public stand against AIDS education and condom distribution and the church’s opposition to abortion. Most of these people formed a huge crowd outside the church. They tried to block access to the building and in many ways succeeded. Pose doesn’t show them, but they were a pivotal part of the protest.

The action inside the church unfolded much the way it’s shown on the show. Cops did not wear PPE, like in Pose. However, it’s a fair representation of the general attitude toward ACT UP activists. Queer people were treated like HIV carriers and generally stigmatized.

Cardinal O’Connor was not surprised, as in Pose. The church was expecting the demonstration. He had ice water in his veins and he just kept right on going with mass. Then he published an editorial calling the protest “blasphemy.”

111 people were arrested, just like Pray Tell mentions.

[Image: Senator Jesse Helm’s house covered in a condom]

Covering a house in a condom

The wonderful thing about Pose is that whenever I’ve said to myself that some detail can’t possibly be historically accurate, it is.

ACT UP activists did cover a house in a condom, just like Lulu, Damon, and Ricky, and you can watch them do it. In real life, the house in question belonged to Senator Jesse Helms. Activists raised the condom for about an hour. There really was a neighbor who began arguing with the activists, just like in the series, but police were present the entire time and no one was arrested.

[Image: Blanca and Angel at the beach]

The iconic beach scene 

In one of the sweetest episodes in the series, Blanca, Elektra, Lulu and Angel take a girl’s trip to the beach. This episode doesn’t reference a specific event, but it does resemble the timeless beach scene in Paris is Burning. I’m not sure that this call-back is intentional, but in light of the care taken with the rest of the series, I believe it was.

Pose does trans and queer people proud for so many reasons, including its historical accuracy. It’s delightful to watch such a loving tribute to our history.

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