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When Bronx-native Steven Canals first watched “Paris Is Burning” in college, he was coming into his own queer identity.
The documentary inspired him to do two things that would change his life: come out and create the Emmy-winning FX show “Pose.”
“If all of these incredible individuals could live in their truth at that time with everything that was facing them,” he says, “then I, as someone who at that point had the privilege to be working on a college degree, had no excuse.”
The melodrama tells the story of a teenage boy who was kicked out of his home for being gay and runs away to New York City. Set in the 1980s, he discovers the underground ball subculture.
Ball culture — also known as drag ball or house culture — originated decades ago in New York City. The vibrant show of dancing, voguing and posing also serves as a support system for young LGBTQ youth.
“I didn't know what ballroom culture was,” says Canals. “And I was so taken by this documentary to see that there were all these incredible queer and trans black and brown people.”
“Pose” has also been lauded for doing something TV shows rarely do — centering the lives and experiences of queer people of color.
He watched “Paris Is Burning” several years before he wrote the show, but he conceptualized the main character as a black boy named Damon who wants to be a dancer. Think Jennifer Beals’ character in “Flashdance,” he says.
Canals envisioned Damon ascending to greatness as the character becomes immersed in ballroom cultures and gets caught in a war between two house mothers — but Canals pursued a career as a college administrator instead of screenwriting.
When Canals turned 30, he experienced an important moment while talking to parents and students about how to be successful.
“I just realized … I feel like a fraud,” he says. “I am sitting in these offices across from all these young people telling them how to live their best life and I'm not living my best life.”
After taking a screenwriting class at UCLA, he started putting the “puzzle pieces” together and knew he wanted to pursue a career in entertainment. He later attended UCLA’s graduate screenwriting program where he wrote the screenplay for “Pose.”
After meeting with at least 167 executives over two years, everyone passed on the show. People told Canals his idea was too “niche” and questioned whether the show would have an audience.
Some of the feedback was homophobic and transphobic, he says.
“There were folks who would say to me, you know, it's too black,” he says. “It's too black, it's too brown, it's too queer, it's too urban, too many trans characters. So I knew that it had a lot going against it.”
Despite these obstacles, Canals’ “hardheaded,” “idealistic” attitude helped refrain from giving up on telling this story.
“For us as people of color — those of us who come from marginalized, historically marginalized communities — that is our lived experience. We can't take that off,” he says. “So if you're a person of color, if you're a woman, if you're LGBTQ+, that is your reality. We deserve to take up space unapologetically, and our stories have value and deserve to be told as well.”
When he was pitching the show, executives often question who would play Canals’ characters. His inability to “rattle off a list of queer and trans” actors signaled to these executives that the show couldn’t work, he says.
After meeting his “co-conspirators” — screenwriter Ryan Murphy and producer Sherry Marsh — the trio advocated for transgender characters landing a place on FX. The characters needed to be based on real people, not caricatures, Canals says he told Murphy in their first meeting.
The emotional center of “Pose” is Blanca, who is played by Mj Rodriguez, and Billy Porter as Pray Tell — two characters that embody the definition of building a family despite the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Main character Damon’s journey tells the story of the fear Canals felt back when he thought coming out would lead to rejection from his parents.
Damon is rejected by his parents in the pilot but at the end of the episode, he’s embraced by a black mother figure — a “beautiful bookend” between rejection and acceptance, Canals says. He felt the same way when he was accepted to UCLA.
“Walking around, having a dream and just not stepping into your greatness. Not allowing that to shine and getting in your own way. And then finally having incredible people around you who lift you up,” he says. “I literally just put my journey on the page.”
Without giving away any spoilers, he says the writers went through an “emotional process” writing the next “heartfelt” season of “Pose.” Some characters have hit rock bottom and the season shows the audience what it means to “show up for family,” he says.
Last month, Canals signed a deal with 20th Century Fox TV, a subsidiary of Disney, to create more shows. He’s still working on an idea for his next show, but he knows he wants to use his position in the industry to help other creators.
“What I'm most excited about, particularly as I move forward, is getting to a place where I can now be the person to hold the door open and get more people in,” he says. “I want to help all of those individuals out there who have a story to tell.”
This segment aired on February 17, 2020.
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