When the latest episode of Pose, FX’s groundbreaking series about the black and Latino transgender and gay communities of the New York City ballroom scene, premiered last night, it opened with a scene in which Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) arrive on an island off the Bronx. It is 1990, two years after Season 1 ended, during the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Who wants to come to the most remote part in New York?” Pray Tell replies when Blanca wonders why no one else is there. Then, with a map in hand, the two walk around the island in search of the grave of their friend who recently died of AIDS. That friend, who passed away alone and was unclaimed by relatives, was buried in a mass grave marked by nothing more than a number. Only Pray Tell and Blanca—who both learned they were HIV-positive in Season 1—know this is his final resting place. Holding hands, they pay their respect in what becomes a makeshift funeral.
The setting (pictured above) is Hart Island, a little-known place that occupies a largely untold chapter in LGBTQ history. Even Porter, who has lived through the AIDS epidemic and experienced so much of what Pray Tell grapples with in Season 2, admits he was not familiar with the location. “I didn’t know anything about Hart Island until they told me about it,” he tells NewNowNext.
The one-mile spot, situated on the Long Island Sound, has had a number of purposes since first serving as a training grounds for the United States Colored Troops, regiments of the U.S. Army made up of African-Americans and other minorities. Over the past 150 years, it has been a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War, a quarantine zone for yellow fever and tuberculosis patients, a site for male prisoners, and, for a short time, the location of the Phoenix House drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Now, it is New York City’s potter’s field—one of the country’s largest mass graves for unclaimed or unidentified bodies, the homeless, stillborns, and deceased infants—with no regular public access.
It was also the burial ground for people who died of AIDS complications during the epidemic. In 1985, some 17 bodies were interred in a quarantined spot on the southern tip of the island. At the time, each body received an individual grave for fear that the disease could contaminate the other corpses.
“I said, ‘Why are they buried separately?’ and they said, ‘Because they had AIDS,’” Barbara Butcher, a longtime chief of staff for the city’s medical examiner, told The New York Times last year. “I said, ‘Do you think the other dead people will catch it from them?’ and they said, ‘Well, we didn’t know what to do.’”
Soon after, tons of bodies were buried in mass graves as scientists learned how HIV was spread and the AIDS epidemic reached new heights in the city. Although the precise number remains unknown, the Times reports that “the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS.”
Ryan Murphy, who co-wrote the Season 2 premiere with Pose co-creators Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, spoke to NewNowNext about the incidents on the island, comparing them to the mass genocide of World War II. “It reminds you of the Holocaust—images of these mass graves, people wearing hazmat suits,” he says.
While Hart Island is not usually accessible as a shooting location, Murphy was able to bring a crew of hundreds there to capture the poignant opening scene, which they filmed over the course of a week. It was an expensive and emotional moment for the show, but he thinks the payoff will be worth it. “LGBTQ history is so important and so undocumented,” Murphy says. “I think millions of people will now learn about this and be outraged.”
“Part of the history of the AIDS epidemic is buried on Hart Island, and it’s the unknown part,” Melinda Hunt told The New York Times. Hunt is a longtime advocate and visual artist who runs The Hart Island Project, which maintains an interactive online database of burials that dates back to 1980. A tour of its online map shows a number of plots on the island in which “a person with AIDS has been identified.”
The organization is one of many actively trying to change the perception of the island. Although it is closely connected to a story of hysteria and injustice, Hart Island is still one of the city’s important monuments—more than one million bodies have been laid to rest there.
In 2014, the New York City Council introduced legislation to create a public park on the island, making it more accessible to everyone, particularly the families of those buried there. This year, CBS New York reported that “elected officials have agreed to support a bill to transfer control of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks.” This shift would help in the continued redevelopment of the area. However, before anything moves forward, legislation would need to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said in a statement to The New York Times that it was “now time to chart a new course forward for the island.”