Pray Tell and the Church of Pose

In its final season, the FX series exposed the heavy toll of religious stigma for countless queer people—and illuminated the beauty of a different sort of fellowship.

Billy Porter as Pray Tell in the final season of "Pose"
Pari Dukovic / FX

This article contains spoilers through the series finale of Pose.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor Billy Porter explained the monumental meaning of his role in the FX drama Pose, which aired its series finale tonight. Yes, he won his first Emmy in 2019 for portraying Pray Tell, the cantankerous fashion designer who moonlights as an emcee in New York City’s underground ball scene. But for the 51-year-old industry veteran, playing a character who is HIV-positive has also offered a kind of personal catharsis. Having spent 14 years hiding his own HIV diagnosis from the world, Porter saw the part as an opportunity to “say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate.”

Pray Tell has been a central figure in Pose, which spent three seasons following a group of Black and Latinx queer and transgender people navigating New York City life in the ’80s and ’90s. In Season 1, Pray Tell learns that he’s HIV-positive and decides to keep the test results a secret, even from the younger characters he’s helped get screened for the virus. Soon afterward, his partner dies of complications from the virus. Despite the prominence of HIV in Pray Tell’s life, the show waited until this season to shade in crucial parts of the character’s backstory, deepening his bonds with the rest of the ensemble even after his climactic death.

As the series neared its end, it used Pray Tell’s story to address the hypocrisy of Christians who discriminate against queer and trans people, while showing how communities like the one he found in New York can be a sustaining force in the face of bigotry. For a new generation of young LGBTQ people, Pose has served as a pathway to understand—and draw strength from—chapters of queer history that are often overlooked or characterized only as periods of loss. The show has sometimes struggled to reconcile its more outlandish impulses with the mandate to represent queer life authentically. (It’s also attracted backlash from viewers over another onscreen death, the murder of Candy, the young trans sex worker played by Angelica Ross.) But Season 3, in particular, insists on the importance of community, especially as contrasted with the pitfalls of religious communion. Among one another, the characters can do what elders in the series—and many in real life—haven’t been able to in the Church or around loved ones who have rejected them: mourn in public, without shame.

The fourth episode focuses solely on Pray Tell and his past. Titled “Take Me to Church,” it is set almost entirely outside of New York, as he travels to see his family in Pittsburgh and tell them he’s dying, after being diagnosed with AIDS-related lymphoma. That distance from the usual goings-on of the show creates the feel of a pilgrimage, and gives the reaction to Pray Tell’s arrival more weight: Pray Tell’s hyper-religious mother (played by Anna Maria Horsford) and aunts (Janet Hubert and Jackée Harry) respond to his news with a mixture of heartbreak and judgment. He reminds them that he needs their love, not their prayers. “Sometimes I think I wouldn’t even have this disease if it wasn’t for the Church and how y’all treated me,” he says.

A different hometown encounter with a former flame—who’s with his wife and children—underscores just how isolating the Church has been for Pray Tell. Later, when Pray Tell performs with the choir, he’s visibly wrestling with how meaningful that mode of artistic expression can still feel. These scenes echo the personal details Porter shared with The Hollywood Reporter about navigating the Church as a gay Black teen, and how he and his mother quietly suffered “so much persecution by her religious community because of my queerness.” Taken alongside his series-long arc, Pray Tell’s storyline these last few episodes makes a damning critique of the Christians who preach love and acceptance while hurting the queer people in their own lives.

Emphasizing religious imagery and experiences this season, Pose also suggests that spirituality, and faith in general, isn’t dependent on Church membership. In fact, some of the show’s purest moments of fellowship are those that occur in secular venues, among people who have been neglected by the families and institutions who should have been protecting them. Toward the end of Episode 4, when we see Pray Tell return to his chosen family in New York, including the impossibly nurturing House of Evangelista mother, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), he’s clearly come home.

Before he dies, Pray Tell is reunited with the people who have held him tightly all these decades. He’s even able to choose the mementos he’ll leave to them—a privilege not afforded to many people who contracted HIV during the early years of the disease. (The show ties those tokens into its depiction of early AIDS activism by groups such as ACT UP.) And though Pray Tell’s death in tonight’s finale is tragic, it’s also an important rallying moment within the context of the show. Despite spending much of the series as a surly enigma, Pray Tell ultimately brings the entire ensemble together to mourn and celebrate, even the people he’s most antagonized. Sharing reflections about him while seated at a dinner table, the surviving characters realize Pray Tell’s gift to them wasn’t just his verve. They discover that he’d also been giving away his HIV medication to his younger partner, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), unbeknownst to everyone—including Ricky. The series certainly doesn’t suggest that this sacrifice makes Pray Tell a Christlike figure, but it does present a different reading of salvation, one that appreciates the tenuousness of life and death beyond a Christian interpretation.

The table-side revelation is also the kind of scene that best exemplifies the spirit of Pose, a work that pulses with the grief, resilience, and uncertainty that defines queer life. Created by Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals, and Brad Falchuk, Pose premiered in 2018 and ushered in an unprecedented wave of programming featuring LGBTQ people of color. In the years since, Pose has consistently been a flash point for conversations about stubborn disparities, and a lack of opportunity altogether, in Hollywood too. That tension was notably present at the show’s season premiere in April, when Janet Mock—who directed the Pray Tell episode and is also an executive producer and writer on the series—critiqued the industry’s disregard for trans people and implicated Murphy in the mistreatment.

The questions raised by Mock’s speech, and by the show’s trajectory these past few years, remain existential ones: What can Hollywood do to bring about a world that’s less hostile to queer, and especially trans, people—or at least doesn’t replicate the violence they experience elsewhere? What responsibility do shows about queer people have to their viewers, to their actors, to their crew? Pose’s finale doesn’t answer any of those definitively, but it does say goodbye to its ensemble, and its audience, with a quiet grace that’s still rare on television.