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Munroe Bergdorf and Angelica Ross
Munroe Bergdorf and Angelica RossIllustration by Callum Abbott

Angelica Ross and Munroe Bergdorf discuss a decade in trans rights

Munroe Bergdorf and Angelica Ross

The star of Ryan Murphy’s Pose looks back on the impact that the show has had, and her trans heroes of the 2010s

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

On June 3, 2018, Pose first aired in America. Directed by Ryan Murphy, arguably the hero of the last decade in television, it looked at the ballroom scene of 1980s New York, and the people in it: mostly queer and trans people of colour. A show about survival, chosen family, and creating joy out of pretty much nothing, and written by and starring a record number of trans cast members, Pose has reached millions and feels like the perfect culmination of the leaps in trans visibility we saw over the 2010s.

This decade, trans women covered magazines for the first time, from TIME to French Vogue to Vanity Fair, trans and intersex models came out and dominated the fashion industry, plus – as well as Pose – we got films like Tangerine and shows like TransparentThere were also many legal moments to be happy about; several states in America began to allow for X options on driving licenses, Obama suggested schools let trans kids use the bathroom of their choosing, and in 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ended the forced sterilisation of trans people. We saw a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act in Britain, “they/them” pronouns were added to the dictionary and we stopped saying “gender reassignment” and started saying “gender confirmation” – recognising that trans people are simply living their truths. Currently, the US Supreme Court is reviewing LGBTQ+ people’s protections against workplace discrimination. (To name just a few moments of progress). 

However, while some things have moved forward, sadly life isn’t necessarily any safer for trans people. In the US, violence – particularly against trans women of colour – persists, and in the UK, hate crimes towards trans people have recently spiked. Since his inauguration, Trump has done as much as he can to reverse trans rights, rolling back Obama’s guidance on the Bathroom Bill, imposing a trans military ban, and trying to legislate trans people out of existence. In the UK, the recognition and visibility of trans people has resulted in a vicious backlash from some feminists, and particularly from a transphobic right-wing press. 

The story of trans rights in the 2010s is a complex one, and there’s clearly a lot more work to be done. To try to make sense of it, we asked two of the people doing that work to have a conversation. Below, model and activist Munroe Bergdorf talks to American tech entrepreneur, coder, trans rights campaigner, and star of Pose and American Horror Story Angelica Ross about what’s changed, who their mutual trans heroes of the 2010s are, and what shows like Pose are doing to change trans representation in the mainstream. 

So, what is it like being Angelica Ross at the moment?

Angelica Ross: It's exhausting for sure! But good. I'm at a place where I'm having the audacity to experience joy as a black trans woman with all the things that are going on and that I am responding to. I had my difficult moments through this year, where it has been hard to find joy. When I was filming Pose Season Two in March and April and May trans girls were being killed. It was hard to experience the joy of filming a television show when even the storyline that I was doing was illustrating what was going on right then and there. 

Absolutely. Let’s take it back to 2010. Can you describe who Angelica was in 2010? I think we followed each other then!

Angelica Ross: I think so too. It is so crazy, 2010 seems like it was just around the corner. I was clamouring for my freedom and I was trapped in this unhealthy on-and-off relationship. I was also doing drag at this bar called the Kit Kat Lounge in Chicago. I was one of the showgirls there for about four years. In establishments owned by cis gay men, I was constantly put in a box to perform for them at their will and with their song selection. A lot of people don't understand that within the LGBTQ+ community there's a lot of racism; they thought that letting me play black music would encourage “the wrong crowd”. I wanted to break free and one night I brought my guitar to the drag bar and I just played all original music. I didn't lip-sync a single song. Whether or not people were into it, I don’t know. But I was making a statement. Shortly after that I moved to LA. I was like, “I'm gonna go for my dream” and I cut all my hair off!

So I had very short, curly hair. I had a relaxer before so that’s when I went natural. It was a moment in my life. It was a moment where I was reclaiming everything that was me and rejecting everything that wasn't me. It was a struggle: I moved into an LA motel – the one that they shot Pretty Woman in and I was there for weeks until I found a job and an apartment through Craigslist.

“When we get rights passed, we can't just acknowledge me or Laverne Cox or you and Janet Mock. We have to acknowledge the fact that there have been girls on the streets pushing for this change for years.” – Angelica Ross

What was it like to be a black transgender woman at that time?

Angelica Ross: I was still benefiting from the fact that I had cis assuming privilege. So personally, I could travel through the States relatively safely, but when it came to being trans and travelling at the airport or going to the bathroom and whatnot, that was harder. The conversation on trans rights was not as prominent as it is now. I worked with trans organisations and when we would do workshops and training with trans folks we would just focus on the basics, like self confidence or accessing hormones. The reality is, me and my girlfriends, we all accessed hormones on the black market.

Oh me too, me too. And lot of people still do. 

Angelica Ross: They weren’t available. They weren't being covered through Medicaid at that time. 

There were gatekeepers that would assert their religious expression and withhold services or access and just genuinely trying to discourage us from transitioning...

Angelica Ross: Yes and because we had the employment discrimination, and housing discrimination, sex work was the only option for many of the girls. Even though in 2010, in certain spaces, we were starting to come out as a trans community in some of these internal conversations (within LGBTQ+ communities), still we would call some of the girls “vampires” since they would only come out at night.

For sure, or the men would only see us at night.

Angelica Ross: Yes. The men would only see us at night. There's a certain skill that you need to have to navigate during the daytime in a world this transphobic and over ten years we've passed down the blueprint. But still not everybody can work that blueprint or fit into that narrow model. 

One of the things I recognise is that I've worked with a lot of girls over the years who have worked in sex work. For them it was survival sex work, but they are now at that point afterwards where (they realise) it was not something that they ever wanted to do or want on their record. That's like the case of Ts Madison... Ts Madison is one of the biggest talents I've seen come out of the past decade and yet, you know, I hear from her in so many interviews that she feels like she's experiencing a ceiling. Because of how she's still seen as a porn girl, even though that was so far in her past. TS Madison is a hustler. So she’s gonna do whatever is available to her and work the hell out of it. The internet and social media, she took that. She sort of blueprinted things for mainstream folks to use, like... what’s that one short video social media platform? That's no longer here?

Vine?

Angelica Ross: Yeah Vine! Yeah, she made Vine basically.

I remember that.

Angelica Ross: Yes. Her Vines made that shit very viral. There are so many of us over such a long time that really have not been credited with our contributions to society. So what is beautiful is that when we have things like the Trans 100 or the Out100 you really realise that there's a lot of narratives and stories that haven't been told, a lot of people who are unsung heroes who have been fighting for equality. When we get rights passed, we can't just acknowledge me or Laverne Cox or you and Janet Mock. We have to acknowledge the fact that there have been girls on the streets pushing for this change for years.

Who was the first trans person you saw doing something in television or cinema in the 2010s and you just thought, “that's what we need”?

Angelica Ross: Janet Mock! That was the first time. When I saw her show on MSNBC and how popular it was, her career working for People magazine and coming out… That was, for me, the start of something new… the start of girls coming out of the shadows.

100 per cent. 

Angelica Ross: When the girls want to start shedding the shame they start shining a lot more. I mean, they start being like, “ok, well bitch, it is what it is”. Janet Mock made me feel empowered. It made me feel empowered like I don't have to worry a single moment about somebody bringing my past up. I felt free. I really did. 

What would you say is our biggest win as a community over the last ten years?

Angelica Ross: I think probably around identity documents: being able to identify with the gender that you identify with, and having documents to prove it. I worked as a waiter for years and my ID at my last waiting job did not match me and so it caused me problems. I was harassed on the job and I was threatened. A guy sexually assaulted me on the job. There were so many things that would that happen because of me not being able to just get in there and do the work. It's a big ass barrier for employment because without that you're taking away my ability to disclose whenever I'm ready those things that are personal to my story, to my medical history, and they have nothing to do with me performing the job. So in America, I think the biggest milestone for trans rights was being able to get identity documents. However, that is still not possible across all 50 states (in Ohio and Tenessee you cannot legally change your gender on your birth certificate). So again, in the place that we call the United States, we haven't quite reached a place where we are even united on these issues. 

“Trans people are like beautiful, rare flowers, each and every one of them” – Angelica Ross

What would you say is the biggest loss for our community?

Angelica Ross: I think the biggest loss is all the lives that we've lost in the community, those that we know about and those that we don't. It's an incredible loss, it's such a loss that I really don't think that our community – and when I say “our community” I mean both the LGBTQ+ community and the human race – understands how much we have lost because trans people are like beautiful, rare flowers, each and every one of them. But the unfortunate thing is that we have communicated to these people that their lives aren't valuable, especially those who took their own lives. They feel that they didn't have anything to contribute. 

The reason why I know this is because I attempted suicide at 16 at my mother's direction. I was recently on the Oprah Winfrey Network with my mother and she admitted to the audience that she told me to kill myself and that if I didn't kill myself, she would kill me herself because she could not live with a child that was identifying like me. And so I attempted suicide and I blacked out. I don't know for how long, all I know is that I woke up. All I know is that I got a second chance. All I know is the ripple effect of that has been my life. The things that I've done and the lives that I've changed would not have happened, and so I can only imagine that once all those other people have also discovered their value that they can also have ripple effects that will change the world too.

Wow. I’m so happy that you’re still here.

Angelica Ross: I'm happy too! I'm happy I'm still here too because my god, what a ride this has been.

On that subject, what did it feel like to be cast in Pose and where were you when you found out? 

Angelica Ross: The way the story went is that I had auditioned for Blanca. When I found out that I did not get that role, I was devastated. I cried it out, let it go and three months later I'm sitting in this car outside a restaurant and I get a call to say that I got the role of Candy and all the things that I thought I lost in not getting Blanca were agreed to. It was just an incredible moment. 

Did you know how big Pose was going to get when you were filming it?

Angelica Ross: You could feel that something big was happening as we were filming Pose, but none of us knew or had any clue what, except for maybe Ryan Murphy because he kept saying, “I hope you all stay the same because I've seen this before and it's going to change”.

The best part about it is that we were one big family. Especially in the beginning with House of Abundance – all of us were new and scared and just not knowing what was next and so with Indya, MJ, Dominique, Cubby and Lemar, Jason and Jeremy, we were a family. But it was interesting because as the story started to unfold we had to sort of break apart a little bit. When Blanca started the House of Evangelista that meant we were no longer filming together. It just naturally separated us! But we went above and beyond to reconnect outside of the show. So, we would get together, we would have our group chat. 

How does it feel different when a cast is all queer and trans? 

Angelica Ross: It feels like you never have to police your language. You don't have to police yourself as a queer person. You can be as flamboyant or as whatever as you want to be and it is what it is. Even someone like Ricky, played by Dyllón Burnside, he's very handsome, and seen as a masculine guy, but to be able to queen-out in an environment and for him to feel good about it, that’s good. Even in the LGBTQ+ community, the gay community, people have issues with femininity (in men). And so, to see us all together – feminine, masculine, trans, queer, non-binary – it doesn't just make us figure out how to exist together (on set) but it shows audiences we can exist together too.

“Pose is definitely the antidote to cis people playing trans people. I'm so glad we got over that this decade.” – Munroe Bergdorf  

In what other ways do you think Pose has changed representation? 

Angelica Ross: Working on the set of Pose, most people were fresh. We have to remember Pose really is a community project, a lot of people came from the ballroom scene. We don't get a lot of opportunities when Hollywood is not telling a lot of narratives around trans people or around black LGBTQ+ people. You can only play a dead prostitute so many times, or there's only so many opportunities to dance at the gay club as an extra or whatever the situation is. So shows like Pose help to stock the pond of talent by making a whole bunch more people eligible (for other acting roles), because of how many hours we put in on Pose. It's an incredible thing: now I’m seeing so many other LGBTQ+ actors of colour paying their dues on other shoes and I'm so proud. 

Pose really came in like an alley-oop. It came in for Her Story through the assist! I'm using sports terms, Lord, who am I? But basically Her Story was a web series that I did with Jen Richards and it was Emmy-nominated and it was the first time that folk got to see a high-quality project that had trans people playing trans people, written by trans people, directed by trans people and so it was top-to-bottom a narrative told from our perspective. Pose came through and then completely obliterated that by doing the same thing on the level that we are on with FX. 

For sure. Pose is definitely the antidote to cis people playing trans people. I'm so glad we got over that this decade. What do you think about that conversation?

Angelica Ross: I think what conversation is there now? It’s dead!

What was your career highlight over the last ten years? 

I would say my biggest career highlight is definitely the moment I popped out of the casket as Candy Ferocity. That moment will never go away for me. It was a special moment for me and for Candy and for a lot of other girls because, as the poem by Lucille Clifton goes, “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed... won’t you come and celebrate with me”. It's just this moment that I'm not dead, my spirit’s not dead. And Stephanie Mills (who sings the song Candy lip syncs to) got to get another really low down residual check because iTunes said she was on the top three replayed songs of the year after that scene. It's replayed over and over and over again, people watch it over and over again. And so for me, that was the biggest highlight. 

And finally, what are your hopes with regards to the trans community in the 2020s?

Angelica Ross: I am hoping that we can drop the armour. I think about it like in a movie: you see the battle is over and hear the resounding sound of all the weapons hitting the floor. I want us as trans people to be able to stop fighting and be able to start painting and start writing and start dancing and start working on all the other things that we want to work on. That's my hope.