When the first Tales of the City premiered on PBS in January of 1994, 235,000 people had already died from AIDS-related causes. Angels in America had won the Pulitzer, Philadelphia was set to win Oscars, and straight society seemed to finally be noticing the ongoing tragedy a decade too late.
Tales of the City takes place in 1976 and was decidedly not about AIDS. By pre-dating the crisis, it provided an escape, a window into gay life before the epidemic began. But just like the work about AIDS, this show would center queer people who were white, cis, and male.
When Tales of the City premiered in January of 1994, I, a millennial, was one-month old.
The recent Tales of the City reboot (which is actually a sequel, which is actually the third sequel) has been promoted as a big queer celebration. With a diverse young cast joining a handful of returning characters, the new series acts as a bridge between eras. Laura Linney’s straight cis Mary Ann is back, but out actress Ellen Page plays her daughter. White gay Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (played now by Murray Bartlett) is back, but his new boyfriend is young and black. Cis actress Olympia Dukakis is (regrettably) back playing trans matriarch Anna Madrigal, but trans actress (and writer and activist and all around icon) Jen Richards plays young Anna in a flashback episode. Margot, an Asian lesbian woman, and Jake, a Latinx trans man, are major characters in the series (played wonderfully by Margot Park and Garcia). And comic relief is provided by the Winter twins, Asian siblings attempting to become Instagram influencers.
Much has also been made about the all-queer writers’ room, a decision that should be standard for a show like this one, but regrettably is not. Like the cast, the room ranged in age and race and gender, lacking a trans feminine voice, but including Thomas Page McBee, a trans man. Again, this should be bare minimum, but, alas, it is not. Showrunner Lauren Morelli was clearly committed to starting a conversation within queer community and her task was not a particularly easy one. The original series, and Armistead Maupin’s books the series are based on, were important for their time. But they’re filled with characters, details, and plot twists that are dated to say the least and unbelievably transphobic and racist to say it plainly.
Rather than ignore the obvious contrast between what was and what is, Morelli and her team confront these generational differences directly. The older characters circle the younger characters, the younger characters circle the older characters, both groups puzzled, fascinated, and annoyed with each other. Even when they’re sleeping together.
This dynamic reveals itself most explicitly, and dramatically, when Michael invites his boyfriend Ben to a dinner party at his ex’s house. Ben is 28. Everyone else is 50 pushing 60. And they’re all white. Ben is immediately uncomfortable. Sitting around the dinner table, discussing travels to Peru and Mexico, the men say racist comment after racist comment. Ben plasters on a fake smile and uncomfortably fidgets his body and touches his face. Actor, Charlie Barnett (who you may recognize from Russian Doll) is phenomenal in these moments, and the whole scene, as he captures an experience most of us know all too well.
“He told us about this club down there,” one of the men begins. “So we’re out walking around this totally sketchy part of Mexico City. I mean, it’s really late, and we finally think we found it… We go in and, oh my God. It’s full of trannies! It’s a tranny club, a Mexican tranny club.”
Ben’s face drops. As a white trans woman, I know that I’m generally more lenient with transphobia than I am with racism. It’s often harder to defend oneself than it is to defend others. And there’s an added sense of responsibility when an offense is not directly about you. It’s also, unfortunately, when saying something is most effective as people tend to listen to those who share their privilege. Maybe this is why Ben finally speaks up. He gently places his hand on the man’s shoulder and says kindly, “I don’t think we use that word.”
There is a dramatic silence. Michael gives Ben a look and shakes his head. (As someone who has loved Bartlett since Looking this broke my heart!) One of two men named Chris (they’re a couple!) refuses to change the subject. He says that he doesn’t appreciate having to be “policed” at a gay dinner party. A rather interesting word choice. “I just think it’s important we call other people what they want to be called,” Ben replies.
Michael and his ex keep trying to pivot the conversation, but the other men are ready to fight. “Why is your generation obsessed with labels?” one of them asks with disdain. Ben says it’s about dignity and visibility. He says we owe it to people especially when coming from a place of privilege. This word sets Chris off.
“Any so-called privilege that we happen to enjoy at this moment was won. Okay? And by that, I mean clawed, tooth and nail, from a society that didn’t give two shits if we lived or died, and indeed, did not care when all our friends started to die. When I was 28, I wasn’t going to fucking dinner parties. I was going to funerals. Three or four a week. All of us were.”
Ben tries to respond but Chris shuts him down. “This world that you get to live in, with your safe spaces and your intersectionalities… This entitlement that you now have to dignity and visibility as a gay person. Do you even know where that came from? Do you know who built that world? Do you know the cost of that progress? No, of course not. Because it would be more than your generation could ever bear to comprehend. So if a bunch of old queens wanna sit around a table and use the word tranny I will not be told off by someone who wasn’t fucking there.”
Ben leaves the table. The show lets Chris’ monologue hang in the air. Underlining every word.
Outside, Ben and Michael continue the argument. Michael tries to apologize, but Ben won’t accept it. He asks how they could suggest, as a black man, he doesn’t understand “a society that doesn’t care whether we live or die.” This is a fair response. But it still allows most of Chris’ words to remain unexamined.
This scene made me mad. I felt like the show gave Ben and Chris’ arguments equal weight. I wanted it to take a firmer stance on the issues it was presenting. But then, as I try to do when something that’s meant to provoke provokes me, I considered. As a young millennial, of course I’d agree with Ben. Of course, I’d take his side. Maybe I did need to consider the privileges I hold living in 2019 instead of 1989.
I was still think about this moment when Pose began its second season and settled my mental debate.
Tales of the City was inevitably a show of compromise, but Pose is an unadulterated television fantasy. With Ryan Murphy’s industry clout, Steven Canals, Janet Mock, and the rest of the creative team are getting to tell the exact stories they want to tell, stories never before seen on mainstream television. Within their first ten episodes they’ve portrayed aspects of the trans experience I previously only dreamed of seeing represented. They’ve also portrayed the realities of the AIDS epidemic for queer and trans people of color.
Media about the AIDS crisis has not been completely devoid of queer black and brown representation. Most famously, Angel in Rent and most notably the work of legendary filmmaker, Marlon Riggs. But Angel is overshadowed by Roger and Mimi (and rarely cast as the trans woman she obviously is). And Riggs has only recently begun to receive the mainstream respect he deserved when alive.
The extent and nuance that Pose is bringing to these stories is, at the very least, incredibly rare. The first season established two main characters, Blanca and Pray Tell, as positive. And while a lesser show may have used their diagnoses as mere character motivation, Pose‘s decision to skip ahead two years after season one shows a commitment to confronting the crisis directly. The very first scene of the new season has Blanca and Pray Tell visiting the secluded mass grave on Hart Island.
The second scene takes place at a hospital where Blanca enters her appointment brandishing her usual optimism. She’s been taking her Flintstone vitamins and she’s feeling good. Unfortunately, Nurse Judy shares that her T-cell count has dropped below two hundred, officially giving her an AIDS diagnosis. She suggests Blanca start on AZT. “Ain’t that stuff for rich folk?” Blanca asks.
This prompts a montage. Judy says that there are some people out there who care about the community. We see Judy and her hot butch girlfriend (sorry off-topic!) enter a stunning apartment with purpose. “When the wealthy white queens and their friends know that the end is coming close they call us,” she begins. “We pay our respects, we say our goodbyes, and then we collect the leftover meds.”
While a show like Tales of the City views the realities of the television industry as a limitation, Pose views them as an opportunity. Both shows feature famous white actors alongside their lesser known queer and POC cast. Both shows frame these characters in opposition to one another. But Pose never strays from its primary point of view. Even last season when a significant amount of time was spent on Trump employee and low-key chaser Stan, it always felt in service of creating contrast with the characters we cared about most.
Again Sandra Bernhard’s nurse is not the focus, but an access point into another world. Last season the glitz of Trump Tower paralleled the glitz of ballroom. This season the tragedy of the AIDS crisis for cis white gay men parallels the tragedy of the AIDS crisis for our main characters and their immediate community. The differences may not be as obviously stark, but they’re just as vast. The straight cis world doesn’t care about any of them, but it especially doesn’t care about anyone black or brown or trans.
Tales of the City‘s Chris understandably looks back on this time as one of impossible hardship, but it’s clear he does not understand that hardship was even greater for anybody poor, trans, and/or a person of color. Instead he buys into the mainstream narrative, where his story, that of cis white gay men, is the story. He credits all of them for making the world a more hospitable place for queer people. We sometimes say simply existing is activism. It can be, to an extent. But the actual activists, the ones who helped make the world more palatable for 28-year-old black gay Ben, were not just cis white gay men, and they did more than simply exist.
When Chris said, “Do you know who built that world?” I shouted at my computer, “Not you, bitch! You weren’t at Stonewall! You weren’t at Compton’s Cafeteria!” And while this visceral reaction is in need of some nuance, it’s not wholly unfair. Maybe Chris was involved in Act Up, maybe he was engaged in community organizing, but probably not. These seem like specifics he would’ve used for leverage in their argument.
I will never know what it was like to be gay in the ’80s and ’90s. I cannot imagine the trauma of watching your community die one by one. But the Chrises of the world were not the only people to experience this trauma. And many of those who had to face racism and transphobia in addition to homophobia were also those who fought hardest for the rights of the entire community.
The question becomes, are the generational differences portrayed in Tales of the City actually generational differences? Is the argument actually between baby boomers and millennials, gen x-ers and gen z-ers? Or have we simply widened the conversation to include, or begin to include, voices that were already there? By pretending like transness is new, like queer people of color are new, like queer disabled people are new, we do a disservice to so many of our queer elders and ancestors. That’s what I wish Ben had said to those men.
Then again, maybe he should’ve just skipped the dinner party altogether.