The category is: royalty.
If you are a fan of the Emmy-nominated television drama Pose you’ll recognize the phrase, “The category is . . .” Actor and Emmy winner Billy Porter utters it during the ballroom scenes of every episode.
Steven Canals is television royalty. He has joined a small number of gay men who create stories about the LGBTQ community and who have the power to put that story on a television screen. But unlike most of these gay men, Canals is a person of color (POC)—he’s Puerto Rican and part African American. So, for gay persons of color who have worked in the entertainment industry for a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, he’s an idol.
“I identify as a ‘queer Afro-Latino’, and getting to that place has been a long journey,” he explains. “This is partly because for a period of time I simply identified as ‘gay.’ But over time I realized that this term doesn’t feel inclusive of everyone.”
The thirty-nine-year-old Canals noted that, while growing up, his family stressed his Puerto Rican background over his black ancestry. He now refers to that as an “erasure.” As he got older, he realized the importance of embracing that part of his familial identity.
“I grew up in the Bronx in the 1980s, in the housing projects, in the midst of the chaos that was AIDS and crack addiction,” he says. “We lacked access to everything. There were no role models. And it wasn’t until I was fifteen—in high school and part of an after-school program working on a documentary—that I was deeply impacted by the experience and decided to become a storyteller full-time.”
After graduating from Binghamton University, he entered the MFA program for screenwriting at UCLA. It was there that Pose was born. At least, that is where the idea was conceived for what would become the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated and Peabody Award-winning series. The show also holds the record for most transgender leads.
Canals took the idea to 150 executives in the entertainment industry, and he got rejected every time. Then the king of LGBTQ storytelling came along: Mr. Ryan Murphy. While Murphy has a strong handle on LGBTQ representation, an area that had been lacking for him—save for Naya Rivera’s lesbian character in Glee—was persons of color. Enter Steven Canals.
For Canals, whose show centers on ballroom dancing, a cultural phenomenon in the queer POC and transgender communities, it was important that he “fill a gap.”
“If I am feeling unseen, then I know that there are many others out there who feel the same,” he says. “And I am privileged. I am a cisgender male in the community. I know that if I am feeling this way, then the women and transgender members of our community are feeling it even more.”
Canals knows that there are more queer stories being told now than ever before. But he is also aware that most of these stories are still revolving around white queerness. “There are nuances in the POC LGBTQ community and definitely in the transgender experience,” he explains. “Yes, we are alike, but there are differences and these stories must be told.”
So how does Canals manage to remain focused and keep his eye on the prize? And what advice does he have for other young Hispanic executives, no matter what industry they work in?
“Whatever it is you want to accomplish in life, it’s important to create a set of goals—and don’t let anyone dissuade you,” he asserts. “After letting go of the fear that often controlled me, I learned to trust myself to know that I was good enough and committed to making something happen. I am going to fight to see it through.”
“There are nuances in the POC LGBTQ community and definitely in the transgender experience. Yes, we are alike, but there are differences and these stories must be told.”
Pay attention. There is something significant happening here. In television, the showrunner and creator role is everything.
Of course, if you’ve seen Pose, you already know that. From season one to season two, the three leads that were not POC have vanished. The characters who were POC and LGBTQ got more screen time. Could someone—a gay POC executive, perhaps—be looking out for the greater POC and LGBTQ communities? And, in particular, for transgender women of color?
If there’s one thing that the POC LGBTQ community could collectively say to Steve Canals as it relates to Pose, it might just simply be, “Thank you.”
Because that community views Pose as its own. It takes pride in every episode and shares every accolade. When the show gets an Emmy nomination, the community gets an Emmy nomination. When it gets an early renewal, the community celebrates that early renewal. And when its star, MJ Rodriguez, becomes the first Afro-Latina andtransgender actress to play the lead in an LA stage version of Little Shop of Horrors, the community is there cheering her on.
Canals recently inked an overall deal with 20th Century Fox to create programming. This means more stories and representation for LGBTQ and POC communities to “fill that gap.” And, without a doubt, so many more thank-yous.