We had a Zoom hangout with ‘Pose’ star Ryan Jamaal Swain

Resting in front of an exposed brick wall, Ryan Jamaal Swain exposes his vulnerability and lavishes in it.

The 26-year old Alabama native and HBCU-(historically Black college/university) alumni from Howard University smiles into our Zoom call with joy. Sporting a striped shirt and infectious smile you can’t help but return a gleaming, cheesing grin back.

On FX’s Pose, Ryan plays Damon, a young dancer who’s taken under the house of Mother Blanca Rodriguez after being kicked out for his sexuality by his own biological family. The poignant portrayal had many in the industry paying attention to the actor. Almost instantly, he made the Forbes ’30 under 30′ list and soon, the show was nominated for over 50 awards including multiple Golden Globes and Emmy’sPose, which has just been renewed for a third season, has also made history by having the most Trans actors in television history. Its second season is now on Netflix. 

He takes Damon’s role in stride. Being a Black and queer man, Ryan has experienced pain in ways that the majority of America is just now waking up to. While many celebrities are only recently speaking out about the abuse that Black people deal with on a day-to-day basis, activism runs in Ryan’s blood. “My grandparents have been freedom writers, part of the Southern Christian leadership conference, Black Panthers, and all that stuff,” he tells Very Good Light. “They didn’t want my life to be hard.” 

Before he played Damon in “Pose,” Ryan spent his career in theater. “I just had my off-broadway debut in National Black Theater with the world premiere of Kill Move Paradise.” This was around the time when Hamilton was the hottest ticket in town. “I thought that was going to be my way into this industry altogether. I’m a theater baby. TV and film are things that I’m now learning how to master, and I’m so grateful for ‘Pose’ for allowing me the space to do that.”

SEE ALSO: ‘The High Notes’s’ Kelvin Harrison Jr. on sex, Tracee Ellis Ross, and wearing Joel Edgerton’s sweaty socks

Ryan expresses his gratefulness for his character, Damon. “It’s such a spiritual thing to me, so just knowing that I was going to be endowing a queer narrative or queer person of color, I said I have to do this justice because this is a part of my community. This is a part of my tapestry and this is a part of my history.”

In fact, Ryan’s senior thesis at Howard was about Stonewall.  “I was this fictional drag queen that lived there and that is when I found Paris Is Burning,” he tells Very Good Light. “Never seen it before, at the time I didn’t know that Pose was going to be on the docket, my senior thesis was preparing me.”

We caught up with Ryan over Zoom to talk about Pride, how attending an HBCU helped him nail the role of Damon, and how he deals with newfound fame.

When did you come out? How did your friends and family react?

The first person I came out to was my best friend during my freshman year in college. I had this moment, where I was like, ‘Yo I’m tired of not telling my friend all of the story, all of the tea.’ I sat my friend down in the cafeteria and I told her that I was attracted to men. I’m queer. She responded, “Finally thank you for letting me know.” The one that was a bit tricky was with my family. I was working on a one-man show and my boyfriend was the production director and my mother found out through his mother.

Tell me about your experience growing up in the South. Did you have support growing up? 

I think what was so powerful about what’s happening right now in my life in connection with me coming out is that my grandfather, who is my father figure, was just giving me tenants of manhood. He was the first man in my life that I felt that I was given permission to say that another man was handsome or attractive. That was never present with my immediate family. Growing up I was emotionally and physically abused by my stepfather. My grandfather gave me the courage to step into what it meant for Ryan Jamaal Swain to be a man, on top of the fact that I went to Howard, and that just kind of blew my mind of, like, the possibilities.

Speaking of Howard, which is an HBCU how did that shape your perspective as a Black person?

When you go to an HBCU, or specifically Howard, it’s just us. It let me deepen my nuance and what makes me, me. I can just be me and use everything that is me, in addition to what I’m learning, to create what’s going to make me powerful beyond measure. That’s what Howard gave to me. It was this space where I could cultivate my excellence without my race being attached to it. It’s the reason why I got “Pose,” because of the way that I spoke about it in my audition. Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals said, “That’s when we found Damon.”

Ryan Jamaal Swain interview photoYou credit Howard during your audition, how was that process of auditioning and nailing Damon?

The audition process was kind of normal. I just had my off-broadway debut in National Black Theater with the world premiere of ‘Kill Move Paradise.’ I was sitting on my break reading the script thinking, ‘Yo this is crazy I’ve never in my life seen a script like this.’ Leslie Odom Jr. described in an NPR interview about how he tanked all of his auditions, until one day leading up to all the stuff that he’s doing he just risked it, going in there as a character. So I said, you know what? I’m going to do this. I’m going to go in there dressed, looking like Damon doing everything that I need to do. Six hours later Ryan Murphy wanted to meet me, and we did a character interview. Then, four days later I got a call that they gave me the role and it’s just been a whirlwind since.

How do you get through the heavy scenes on set?

I’m a very spiritual individual, so I had to really meditate and take the time to go in and endow like a psychophysical gesture—something that I don’t have to go home and have on me. It’s very hard because my body has that sense of memory, even though it’s part of the acting craft, but my body doesn’t know that it’s not real. I had to do something immediately after we wrapped to just throw myself out of it, so I tell myself, ‘Okay Ryan, you took off the clothes, you took off Damon’s underwear, you took off all the things. You go home you make yourself some tea you listen to some music and just try and do it again.’ I allow myself grace and take myself out of the world because I knew that I would have to go in again tomorrow and share and bare. 

Who has given you a piece of advice that’s really stuck with you during your time on set? And what’s that piece of advice?

I would have to go to my papa bear Steven Canals. Being a queer artist, there were a bunch of avenues and channels that I had to exit out of to find some type of liberating spirit around myself. In the beginning, the episodes were weighing heavy on me. Canals sat me down and he told me, “You got it. You have everything that you need. What I need you to do is actually believe in you, like truly believe in you.” That shook me. He also told me to get a therapist, which I did. I learned to truly understand what it means to believe in yourself is life work. That’s self-awareness. That’s self mindfulness. That’s self-mastering.

On top of being an actor, you also are an activist and very vocal on social media. How do you take mental breaks for your own self-care? 

My mentor, Jonathan McCrory of National Black Theater, gave me this jewel of wisdom: You have to wake up every morning and do something for yourself because throughout the day you’re going to be giving so much to everybody else. I have to separate Ryan Jamaal Swain and Ryan. Like Ryan, that’s from Birmingham Alabama, eldest of four, lover of music, likes to spend time with friends, loves french fries. Ryan loves to be in the cinema by himself, loves crystals, enjoys meditating to the moon, and all the sage in the world. Those are the type of things that reintroduce me to myself and connect me back to self.

If you could give one piece of advice to a younger you, just another Black, queer child living in a rural town in the south, what would it be?

I see you, I love you, there’s no one like you. The world needs you. Don’t lose sight of that because to choose your truth over your safety is in itself a superpower that nobody has. Whatever your truth is it does not warrant your safety at all. You have tapped into what makes you ALL of you, you’re incredible, you’re unique beyond measure, you are powerful beyond comparison, and I can’t wait to see what you’re about to do. If you can’t find the voice, if you can’t hear it, continue to just live your truth. Because you doing that is raising your vibration for your dreams, your goals, and for that voice to meet you.

It is, of course, Pride Month. How are you celebrating Pride this year, and what does it mean to you?

Pride right now is looking like a cute virtual happy hour. The cast of “Pose” is doing a pose-a-thon, which is pretty dope. Overall, pride for me this year is all about education. It’s reading as much as possible and creating work that puts what is my legacy into the pot of what is Pride. Pride is sitting in your truth, sitting in your power, and I’ve also always recognized it as a form of rebellion.

What are your favorite skincare products?

If I had to pack up a bag it would definitely have Scotch Porter’s face scrub, Dr. Barbara Sturm, because Angela Bassett is the face of their Darker Skin Tones line, Beauty Counter’s radiant essence, Elemis’ veggie masks, Glow Recipe’s overnight mask, and face oil from Skin Glass.

What it’s like to come out twice – once as a lesbian and once as transgender.

Chris Rhodes and his identical twin, Courtney, are used to sharing everything. They’re identical twins, both 28-years old from Austin, Texas and they both came out as lesbian in early adulthood.

“I came out first, and she was pretty resistant, mostly due to being in the closet herself and the conservative suburban community we grew up in,” says Chris to Very Good Light

SEE ALSO: Self-care products to keep in mind when you’re transitioning

Coming out as lesbian for Chris helped Courtney come to terms with her own sexuality. “Chris and I have always agreed upon everything,” says Courtney. “We have the same likes and interests, so when Chris started dating girls in high school, I should’ve taken the hint. Honestly, it was nice to have the solidarity of having someone go through the same experience who wholly understood me along for that journey.”

As identical twins, Chris and Courtney shared the same experiences, even down to their sexuality. When Chris started to question his gender identity a couple years after his initial coming out, it was the first time in his life that he felt something that his twin didn’t. For the first time, he was on his own. 

View this post on Instagram

Happy birthday to us! 🎉 You’re my favorite human @court_rhodes — there’s no one on earth I’d rather share a birthday with or a face with. Thank you for always defending me and being the tough badass to my sensitive sad boy, the butch to my femme (lol). You inspire me daily with how talented you are (I know I annoyingly ask you to show me how to do plenty of design things on the regular), you’re way more disciplined than I’d ever be even if I hate it at times, I’ve loved watching you come into your own, your acceptance and support of me has given me the courage I’ve needed in my hardest times, you tolerate none of the bullshit I don’t know to ignore, your wheezy laugh (inherited from @kellanrhodes) is one of my favorite sounds ever, I can’t get enough of playing sports with you, running a business is something I wouldn’t want to do with anyone else, and I just love you okay? Don’t make it weird. Also can we get matching outfits like the ones on the left again? Okay thanks.

A post shared by christopher rhodes (@seethestarsablaze) on

“When I came out the second time as trans, it was definitely a little more nerve-wracking because we had lots of queer friends but there weren’t any trans people in our immediate friend group, or even represented in media,” says Chris. “I felt very alone in my experience at the time.”

Courtney and Chris got used to sharing the same identity: the twin identity. Experts say this shared identity results in an inexplicable connection that can have both positive and negative effects on twins. 

“Twins have to grow up sharing everything: time, love and attention,” says Dr. Joan A. Friedman, a prominent twin expert and psychologist. “Everyone is searching for meaning and a sense of identity in adolescence. If you haven’t had parents that helped you separate and develop individually, it’s hard to feel confident in yourself as a single.” 

This could explain why Chris didn’t start questioning his gender identity until he was 19. After all, as a twin, it’s more difficult to separate yourself and discover your individuality. Most LGBTQIA+ people can relate to this internal struggle of coming to terms with who you are. For twins, it’s a unique experience as both are unprepared to face a truth that might make them feel different when they’re so used to being the same. 

“After the initial shock wore off for Courtney – mostly she spent time beating herself up over the idea that I could be trans and she had never ‘realized’ it – she was wholly supportive, as were all my friends, because according to them it seemed like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Chris. 

Identical twins have a unique bond that’s unlike the traditional sibling bond. They are genetically identical, meaning they come from one fertilized egg that splits in the womb. They share the same fingerprint and the same genetic profile, so how is it that Chris is trans and Courtney is not? 

The answer lies in an emerging field of science known as epigenetics, which explores how genes are expressed. If genes are musical instruments, epigenetics are the musicians that allow those instruments to make their beautiful music. Environment and lifestyle influence gene expression, which explains why identical twins, like Chris and Courtney, can be identical in so many ways, like sexuality, and differ in others, like gender identity. 

“I still very much view us as identical—we are genetically so—and we are still the same people at our cores who have shared a very similar life for the last 28 years,” says Chris. “I actually think my transition has brought us closer together because I am a lot more me since transitioning.”

Research has shown that in addition to being identical genetically, identical twins are also likely to share the same sexual orientation. 

Studies have shown that if one twin is gay, there’s a 30 to 60 percent chance that the other twin will also be gay. These studies support the theory that genetics plays some role in sexual orientation, but not entirely, otherwise identical twins would have a 100 percent chance of sharing the same sexual orientation. Epigenetics explores the environmental and lifestyle factors that can attribute to this variance. 

For Courtney, it was easy to follow in Chris’ footsteps and come out as lesbian. His transition was a tougher pill to swallow. 

“Chris’s transition and gender identity strayed away from something I thought I had understood for the first time in our lives, so I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it,” says Courtney. “How could Chris feel something that I didn’t feel? That was the hardest part in accepting his transition, along with feeling like I had failed him in not knowing he was trans or had been questioning his gender. But once I got over that, I became his biggest supporter.”

Coming out has brought Chris and Courtney even closer together than they were before. They’re both extremely active in the LGBTQIA+ community in Austin, and even have their own clothing brand that supports LGBTQIA+ causes called FLAVNT streetwear. As the country rallies around our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters this month to celebrate Pride this month, Chris and Courtney will be celebrating together, of course. They share the same DNA, the same birthday, and now, the same Pride. 

“We’ve never not spent a Pride together,” says Courtney. “This year, we will probably just hang out at our house with some of our close friends with some drinks, glitter and music and try and create our own mini Pride celebration.”

Photos by Chris Rhodes and Carli Davidson. Artwork by Alicia O’Brien.

Here’s how MAC Cosmetics is actually fighting HIV/AIDS in a big way

While June becomes a month where brands are onboard to donate to LGBTQ-worthy causes, it was MAC Cosmetics that was the pioneer to do so.

Back when it wasn’t chic or trendy to be gay-friendly, MAC created a charity called the MAC AIDS Fund to support people living with HIV/AIDS. It was 1994, when the AIDS crisis hit fever pitch and politicians to the media were painting gay men as villains of sorts who were spreading a lethal disease. Dubbed “gay cancer,” HIV became highly stigmatized and deemed a death sentence.

SEE ALSO: How Brooklyn became the world’s queer mecca

But it was MAC Cosmetics that was an early champion. The brand, started in Toronot by Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan in 1985, established the fund in 1994 where a single lipstick’s sale and 100% of its proceeds would go towards services to help those affected by the disease. After the brand sold to Estee Lauder Companies, the cause still remained but changed its name to VIVA Glam.

Its first ambassador was RuPaul, with celebrities like Lil’ Kim, Elton John, Pamela Anderson, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and more who came after. Now in its 25th year anniversary, MAC Cosmetics launched a major campaign including nano influencers to international celebrities like Troye Sivan, model Winnie Harlow, among others. Since, the brand has raised a half a billion dollars towards HIV/AIDS that goes to 600 grantees and 190 countries. Though $500 million is a huge amount, it’s still not enough, says Nancy Mahon, VIVA Glam Foundation’s executive director.

“The reality is we didn’t think we’d need the VIVA Glam Foundation for so long,” she tells Very Good Light. “We’ve raised $500 million, which is astounding, but there’s still so much more to do.”

While AIDS and HIV is no longer a death sentence, with better technology, research and medication, it’s still one that’s far from being eradicated. According to HIV.gov, a resource for HIV in the U.S., there are 1.1 million people currently living with the disease. Among them are 1 in 7 individuals who aren’t aware they’re infected. An estimated 38,700 Americans became newly infected with HIV in 2016.

Still, gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men bear the “greatest burden by risk group,” says the site, with more than 26,000 new HIV infections per year. Though HIV infections decreased among 13-24 year olds, it increased among people aged 25-34. And when it comes to ethnicity, the site found that the number of HIV infections decreased among African Americans, whites, and mixed races and remained stable for Asians. From 2012 to 2016, it increased 12% among Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men.

Though the world has become more accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals, there’s still a lot of work to do, says Nancy. “We need to continue rolling up our sleeves and selling great products but need to remember not where we come from and grow our communities even further in the fight against HIV,” she says.

Today, the VIVA Glam Foundation is finding new ways to help not only those affected stateside, but internationally. Whether it’s from recognizing global inequities and stigmas in places like India and Africa, MAC Cosmetics wants to expand its reach.

“There’s still so much to be learned,” Nancy says. “We look to other communities like the breast cancer or alzheimer’s movements and add their successes to see how we can better what we’re doing.”

Ultimately, it’s heartening to know that brands are actually helping the community in an authentic way. Here’s to more brands following in MAC Cosmetics’ footsteps and putting their money into important causes. The world needs it now more than ever.