I am so bored with conversations around the pros and cons of trans visibility and representation. These conversations tend to center the perspectives of cisgender audiences and install an imagined, dehistoricized, and intrinsic scarcity, emptiness, or tragedy into trans womanhood and trans feminine life. I am much more interested in celebrating a central premise of the best kind of television that already showcases trans women and trans children: how it shows, unequivocally, that being a trans woman is a gift, that trans sisterhood is life-sustaining, something good to be shared with children. “Trans women and children.” Not a political slogan, a vision in a dream, or a predatory accusation. Not in the newspaper, where trans women and children are photographed side by side protesting for the rights to their lives at town halls or in the streets. No. This time, on television.
For trans women audiences witnessing trans feminine sorority on TV, characters become sisters and friends. The history of your trans feminine life becomes bigger. You carry her with you for a little while. You get the chance to live out an aspirational vision of wanting trans women and children alive and all around you. How beautiful would it be if trans kids saw trans womanhood as a viable form of life, if children had the freedom, confidence, space, and resources to find themselves and their people? But this is not the world we have made for children. The family as we know it in the living rooms of the white, cis, hetero, bourgeois household model today (its pervasive dispersal, an effect of Euro-colonialism) functions to further isolate trans children from trans women and vice versa. Thank goodness for TV.
From PBS’s Pier Kids (2019), HBO’s Euphoria (2019–present), and TLC’s I Am Jazz (2015–2022) to HBO’s The Lady and the Dale (2021), FX’s Pose (2018–2021), and HBO Max’s Spanish biographical television limited series Veneno (2020), trans women and children—trans women with children and trans women as children—have appeared on TV in recent years. All these trans women’s and children’s stories on view for my mother, my girlfriends, and a little trans girl in Texas with her life on the line at the level of state legislation.
Euphoria, Pier Kids, The Lady and the Dale, and I Am Jazz are always of interest. But I am particularly struck by Pose and Veneno for their prolonged scenes of trans feminine sorority among trans women and trans feminine youth. Indeed, I wrote this essay because I am enamored with trans women and children—trans women with children and trans women as children—on serial film. I love seeing trans women and children together in their respective worlds, telling me and my girlfriends stories, week after week. And other trans women do too. The short form of Pose and Veneno draws this experience out nicely. For the trans girl viewer of any age, the episode holds her in conversation with her many past-present-future selves, and with all the women and girls she feels like being at any moment, in a sustained way. And if she cannot find herself there, she will run into a friend whose differences she shares in all their complex pleasures and difficulties.
Trans cultural production in the arts reveals how the dependence on mainstream visibility for care, protection, and resources from majoritarian culture relies on the continuation of trans women and children’s suffering unevenly across race, class, ability, age, and gender presentation. Discussions about trans visibility are often framed in relation to a cisgender audience who we assume have all the resources trans children need to survive. This cannot be further from the truth. Trans women have what trans children need. A vital shift in the discourse of visibility takes place when trans women and trans children instead see themselves through the eyes of people who keep them alive—who see them as inherently valuable and whose share of resources is certainly easier to obtain and more pleasurable too. This different visibility dislodges visuality as the only sense through which we know trans feminine life in favor of other, more satisfying sensualities of affective and material support.
While I do not want to dwell on the topic of visibility as it pertains to what cisgender people think about trans women and trans children, Pose and Veneno struggle with the paradox of hypervisibility. To be on TV as a trans woman or a child means to be up for grabs for anyone—the little girl who loves you, the girlfriend who relates to you, the police who want to arrest you, the trans-exclusionary feminist who hates you, the workplace that exploits you, the man who desires you but wants to kill you—and both shows dramatize these different encounters.
Luckily, film and media scholar Eliza Steinbock titled their recent study of trans cinema Shimmering Images, giving us language to describe the mesmerization and beauty of such television in the language of a trans feminine viewer.1 Like shimmer’s opacity in the human eye, the shimmering images of these trans women’s and children’s stories are refractive, meaning they shine differently in the eye of their beholder. In fact, I truly believe that Veneno and Pose will totally evade normative capture and reductive narrativity by the mainstream once we center the complex, infinite perspectives of trans feminine audiences like a choral harmony or discordant cacophony of trans feminine voices in rebuttal. Veneno’s and Pose’s many sparkles—what they gave me and what they give you, sister—are case in point.
Veneno explores the cinematic qualities of trans memoir in the life of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, better known as “La Veneno” (“Poison”), a Spanish trans woman singer, actress, sex worker, and media personality. Rising to fame in the mid-1990s following a chance appearance on Spain’s popular late-night talk show Esta noche cruzamos el Mississippi (Tonight We Cross the Mississippi), La Veneno performed regularly on the show before being fired due to budget cuts and living the rest of her life in poverty. La Veneno often intervenes in the script, speaking back to the televised narration of her life by telling the story in her own way. The show is inherently meta, depicting the effects of popular media and cultural visibility on trans women’s everyday lives—how inclusion in mass media can shelter and ruin them at the same time.
Based on her 2016 memoir ¡Digo! Ni puta, ni santa: Las memorias de La Veneno (I Say! Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La Veneno), Veneno follows La Veneno’s life from childhood to adulthood until her untimely and mysterious death in 2016, just months after the publication of her memoir. The story is told through the perspectives of both La Veneno and her superfan Valeria Vegas, a high school student and aspiring journalist who remembers seeing La Veneno perform on TV when she was a child—she would sneak out of bed to peak at her parents’ television screen when she should have been sleeping.2 Vegas is absolutely enamored by La Veneno for reasons she cannot yet explain, and she and her friends set out to find their idol after her fall from grace. Two women born in very different times end up united forever in intergenerational trans sisterhood when La Veneno and her girlfriends help Vegas transition and Vegas offers to cowrite La Veneno’s memoir with her. From here, cinematic flashbacks, multiple perspectives, and dramatic time warps help to recount La Veneno’s beautiful, wild, and dangerous life.
Veneno features a deep commitment to La Veneno’s life from childhood to old age. Each episode devotes time to vital flashbacks from her childhood. At one moment, with a flair for magical realism, she becomes a peacock at her Communion (a Roman Catholic feminine boy’s dream!); the next, La Veneno holds an out-of-place lamb from her childhood in Adra, Spain, after she loses her job and the talk show set behind her falls apart in Madrid. Later in life, at her book launch, La Veneno, now older and a little drunk, dances with all the women and girls inside her—all the women and girls she once was and still is—as the song “Always on My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys plays in the background. La Veneno twirls and they become her, or she twirls and becomes them. The truth is, trans women are rarely fully fleshed-out characters with three-dimensional lives, let alone childhoods. This scene presents trans feminine aging as ordinary, rewarding, possible. “Let her dance for a while,” a girlfriend says, and La Veneno gets to stay there a while longer.
The first time a child sees La Veneno, the girl cries in terror. Desperate for attention in her old age, La Veneno rushes to the door in excitement to greet her fans when she hears they are looking for her, only to find a terrified mother with a little girl in her arms in the courtyard of her apartment building. Wrong child. It takes her a moment, then they find each other, eye contact like magic. “Are you my fans?” La Veneno asks desperately, to which Valeria and her girlfriend enthusiastically nod. For Valeria and La Veneno, it is love at first sight. La Veneno wants to be fangirled over and Valeria indulges her. Every baby trans girl knows what it is like to be in the presence of a trans feminine elder. It is mostly humility and respect, a lot of gushing with a flushed face. If you are brave, you share a joke or two, maybe some shade. La Veneno and Valeria are bound for life from that day forward. La Veneno lives with her best friend, Paca La Piraña, and it is in Paca’s living room that Valeria finds space for her own trans feminine growth. And in Valeria’s affinity for journalistic storytelling, La Veneno’s life is in good hands. The act itself—telling the story of your life to your sister—becomes a therapeutic process of La Veneno’s own (mis)remembering and fantastic retelling.
“Valeria, I’ve had an amazing life,” says La Veneno from the dead. “It’s been wonderful,” Valeria responds. “Then read it back to me.” And Valeria obliges and begins again: “I was born… ” So conclude the final moments of the series. For trans girls, such an ending is a wish fulfilled; we hope La Veneno’s story plays on repeat forever. And it is this longing to see the story of La Veneno’s life on TV again and again—our untamed viewing pleasure and leisurely time spent daydreaming about them with our girlfriends—that keeps trans feminine sorority alive, in memoriam and ad infinitum.
with a click of a button, trans women and children will be there. For me, for you, for her, for us.
Pose follows suit, offering us in-depth stories about late 20th-century Black and Brown trans women and children over three seasons, from the late 1980s to 1994. Pose tells the story of house mother Blanca Evangelista, who, in the first season’s opening minutes, receives an HIV diagnosis, confronts her mortality, and dedicates the remainder of her life to leaving a legacy behind in New York City’s 1987 ballroom scene.
This legacy necessitates raising children of her own. Blanca breaks from her mother Elektra, mother of the House of Abundance, and starts her very own house called the House of Evangelista, an open kinship structure that provides refuge to gay and trans youth, all of them rejected by their birth families. After turbulent beginnings (to house children, you need shelter, a job, and food), the House of Evangelista snatches trophies and crowns, becoming a premier force in ballroom, with Blanca receiving the community’s ultimate honor when she is crowned “Mother of the Year.”
In the final season, we fast-forward to 1994, amid the AIDS epidemic, and ballroom dancing of the mid- and late 1980s feels like a faraway past. Blanca balances being a mother and a partner to her new lover, and steps into her latest caregiving role, that of a nurse’s aide, where she cares for patients with AIDS, a few of them street youth.
Blanca and her children do a lot by the third and final season: one becomes addicted to drugs, one engages in sex work, one moves away, another gets married; they fight amongst themselves, all the while becoming legendary children in Harlem. By the end of the final season, two trans mothers share the screen: Angel, who takes in her lover’s child as her own (not before almost fleeing from her relationship in a culture that tells trans women they could never be mothers), and Blanca, who survives until the end of the final season and presides as mother-sister to all her children from the first season to the last.
What I admire most about Blanca’s character is what she teaches us about mothering: that mothers can be their child’s best friend, too. Blanca’s maternal-sisterly bond with her children, her role of mother-sister, is a vital part of trans feminine life, especially for those of low income and of color in the ballroom scene, and is a viable parenting strategy for feminine sociality everywhere and for everyone, feminine boys and their mothers included. It challenges the hierarchical structure of parenting that treats children as the property of adults. You cannot tell your little sister what to do all the time, even if she is your “daughter,” and all the girls in the scene know it.
Pose’s final season also features several of the main characters’ lives as street youth before they find a mother and a house to call home. This is not only extraordinary in the extensive background stories it gives to trans feminine characters on prime-time television, but also historically accurate. The most active members of trans-people-of-color organizing in New York City post-Stonewall during the early and mid-1970s were trans femmes and street youth; and in the ballroom scene, Black and Brown trans feminine elders performed most of the care work as they mingled with trans feminine youth in alternate kinships of motherhood and sorority and still do today. Pose stays true to such intergenerational pleasures, antagonisms, and general complexities. For all the things Pose gets wrong (the worst of it when Ryan Murphy reigned supreme before Janet Mock stepped in), trans women and children remain right.3
Out from Paca’s and Blanca’s living rooms and into our worlds. Here we have it: trans women and children on TV.
Yes, imagining an alternative history and future of trans women and children on TV is difficult. It asks that we radically challenge the transmisogynistic erasure and white childhood innocence of official history in the popular media of television, both its content and its methods. It must be done with the imaginative power of trans women in the room writing, sharing experiences, and making edits on the cutting room floor to survive and develop as a practice.
Trans feminine audiences might not recognize their own daily practices of TV viewing as revisionary history and as having future-making potential. But they are. Against progress narratives, we must choose the histories we want to live. Pose has deep roots in Black trans women and children’s histories and futures, as the enduring presence of trans women and children in the New York ballroom scene evidences. And as for La Veneno, her sisters and daughters from West Park in Madrid—where she pulled tricks, fought for her life, and experienced pleasure among sorority—live to remember her through oral history today. Many of them appear in the series as themselves, while the younger girls she left in her wake memorialized her with a tribute show in Brooklyn.4
In Pose’s and Veneno’s prolonged, televised encounters with trans feminine sorority, we see trans woman and children together. A material resource, this new trans feminine cinema is no longer the stuff of our childhood dreams. Into the living rooms of our lives, we glimpse the future proliferation of trans feminine sorority in stories across (the) ages.
An unerasable note in the history of 21st-century television, these shows are for the next trans girl born. And with a click of a button, trans women and children will be there. For me, for you, for her, for us.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Eliza Steinbock, Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change (Duke University Press, 2019). ↩
- This is how the miniseries begins its first episode, with Valeria as a child sneaking a peak at La Veneno on TV. ↩
- TV critics agree: Mock changed Pose, “which began as a darker series and matured into a warmer, more affirming one—a family drama with some glitter and spectacle.” Alexis Soloski, “True Romance: Janet Mock on the Final Season of ‘Pose,’” New York Times, April 30, 2021. ↩
- I am referring to a 2021 tribute show to La Veneno at the queer bar C’Mon Everybody in Brooklyn. Read more about the performance here: Harron Walker, “One Night with La Veneno,” The Cut, June 10, 2021. ↩