“I'm here for a bigger purpose. And I know what that purpose is.”
`“I wish that every question I was asked was not something to do with being a trans person,” Hailie Sahar sighs during our Zoom call. It’s Pride Month, and Pose, on which Sahar plays Lulu Ferocity (née Abundance), has just aired its season finale the night before. For all the benefits being visible affords, I expect June makes any visible trans person feel like a spokesperson for a whole community. I imagine she’s answering the same questions over and over again: What’s it like being a trans actress? What’s it like working alongside a cast of so many trans women? “I get a sense that people don't really want to know about me,” she says. “They want to know, this, this fixation they have with the trans experience. That is such a small portion of who I am.”
Pose, FX’s hit drama that follows New York ball culture through the 1980s and ‘90s, came to an end on June 6 after three seasons, and the queer internet both mourned and celebrated a show and characters that felt like family over the past few years — even SZA said she wanted more. It felt like the end of the era: Pose’s devotion to showing Black trans people — not as victims in a police serial, or as sensationalized news reports, but in fullness and in joy on-screen (and on a major network, no less!) — was groundbreaking. Media about trans people tends to lack nuance, to say the least — Boys Don’t Cry was a formative experience for plenty of young gays, myself included, and not in a good way — so when Pose came on the scene in 2018 and shattered every expectation for what media about trans people could be, we were floored.
With 12 Emmy nominations and one win under its belt, Pose — the prodigal queer brainchild of creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Stephen Canals — has cemented its legendary status. But in doing so, it's also highlighted the truly dismal state of trans representation on-screen, and in pretty much every other area of life. Actresses and writers on the show have called out the fact that despite the show’s many nominations, none have gone to the trans actresses, writers, or directors, who are so often the heart and soul of the show.
Trans girls of color growing up nowadays can see themselves in Sahar’s Lulu and her sisters Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Electra (Dominique Jackson), Angel (Indya Moore), and Candy (Angelica Ross), who along with the rest of the cast of Pose make up the largest-ever cast of trans people in series regular roles. It’s a historic role to be in, and has unquestionably opened up doors for trans stories and talent on both sides of the camera. “I feel proud of the work that we've done,” Sahar says. “I'm proud that I was able to bring to life a character that I know a lot of people look up to, or see themselves in.”
Sadly, the rest of Hollywood is still catching up to Pose’s shine — further emphasizing a void of representation that’s all the more crucial at a time when trans people are facing increasing attacks both in the streets and in statehouses. Sahar understands just how big a role representation can play in the treatment of trans people in everyday life. “I think that a lot of times and in a lot of spaces, whether it comes to religion, race, trans topics, LGBTQ+ topics, we kind of glamorize and glorify things,” she tells me. “And in doing that, I understand it, but it doesn't really help to move the needle for what really needs to change.”
Sahar’s quest for authenticity spans beyond her time as Lulu on Pose, and into everything she does. “I think that we must stay on top of being completely authentic,” she tells me — not just in our stories but in the way we live our lives. But letting the “real” self shine through is hard in a media landscape that adores those sensational stories of trans people being assaulted or murdered, narratives of trans people “tricking” cis people, or tearjerker “born in the wrong body” stories meant to elicit pity. Fighting this narrative requires being very intentional: Sahar’s mentioned in multiple interviews that she doesn’t want to limit herself to trans roles, and she’d rather be understood as an actress whose transness is not her sole defining characteristic — a “woman of trans experience,” in her words.
But for Sahar, not everything in her life comes down to how she identifies. “When you think about the grander scheme of who I am, and how long I've been living in my truth, there's so much knowledge, so much wisdom that has come to me, just with navigating through life, where it has nothing to do with my trans experience.” I ask what she wishes journalists would ask her. “Ask me regular questions about life! Ask me how I was able to navigate from point A to point B without any acting classes. How did I get on a hit series? How did my brain fathom to do that? There's questions that go beyond just my trans experience. And when people limit themselves to asking me questions like that, it limits the answers that I can give.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Sahar didn’t have any trans icons to look up to. “And I'll explain why,” she says. “There weren't girls on screen that I saw.” So she turned to cis women who she admired as role models — like her mother, or Janet Jackson. “I would pull strength from these women.”
But being able to see yourself in history changes everything. “I discovered a woman I didn't know much about — her name is Sir Lady Java. She's actually the first woman of color, trans woman of color, to be in mainstream Hollywood.” Sir Lady Java, who Sahar is slated to portray in a forthcoming film (supported by her own production company), was instrumental in changing Hollywood’s “Rule No. 9,” a local ordinance that prohibited individuals from “impersonating by means of costume or dress a person of the opposite sex.”
“It was so crazy to me that I didn't know who this woman was, but she was an open trans woman,” Sahar says. “It wasn't until I got older that I discovered her, but that showed me that a lot of our history has kind of been covered up.” The erasure of trans histories, and trans people of color histories in particular, is something Pose has been praised for fighting. And it’s a very necessary sentiment in the face of anti-trans media and dialogue, which can make it seem as though trans people are a new “phenomenon.”
The landscape around trans media today is thankfully different than it was when Sahar was growing up. The past several years have seen a boom of trans stories (recent standouts include Veneno, Disclosure, and Orange Is the New Black), with a few rare gems that go beyond the stock narratives of tragedy and drama and build intentional space for trans joy and community and love. But few do it as well as Pose, perhaps because few actually have trans people in the writer’s room and the director’s chair — Janet Mock and Our Lady J, both trans women, have writing and directing credits on the series. With trans people in front of and behind the camera, Pose is able to foreground trans people who aren’t perfect, who don't fit into the narrative confines of respectability politics. It allows trans people to be real, complex, and flawed, and still deeply lovable.
But just as much as she wants to celebrate Pose and all its done, Sahar knows there’s so much more work that remains. She also understands being visible is a double-edged sword for trans people — and trans women of color in particular. In the face of the danger that comes with increased scrutiny, community support is a lifeline. “We need to open up more organizations to really help the girls,” she says. “I think we can always … check in with ourselves to say, ‘Hey, are we really doing what we need to do outside of a show? Are we really opening up organizations? Are we really giving back finances to help the girls, to help them get off of the streets, to help them with drug use?’”
For Sahar, the end of Pose signals the dawn of a new era. She’s currently juggling a whole host of projects including a debut album and memoir, not to mention her new career as a producer with her own production company (though she can’t say much about what’s in the works… yet). “I'm realizing over the years that I have a great deal of masking what I've been through. I think that's just a survival tactic,” she tells me, speaking about her forthcoming memoir. “And I'm not going to specify just for the trans experience, but I know that it is a big part of the trans experience, masking what we really feel or what we've really gone through, especially in this business.”
The end of every story is the beginning of a new one — and Hailie Sahar is ready to tell it herself this time: “I'm here for a bigger purpose. And I know what that purpose is. And that purpose is to give back, to educate, to heal. I'm a healer.”