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Positive Voices

EPISODE #217 - Played Role in "Pose"


Ryan Jamaal Swain and Activism in Hollywood

April 1, 2024. 44:44

For our season finale, Tei and Malachi sit down with actor, singer, dancer, and activist Ryan Jamaal Swain. You might recognize Ryan from his work on the FX series "Pose” as Damon, but in this exclusive interview, Ryan talks about his journey as well as Damon’s. Listen in as Ryan talks about how doing the work reinforces what it means to live your life, the power of representation in media, and finding the beauty in life.

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This program contains language and subject matter that some audiences may find triggering or sensitive. Our purpose is to encourage engagement in care and treatment; however, please consider your well-being before continuing.


Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Because there's a call to action, right? There's a call for [inaudible 00:00:08] non-violence. There's a call for that. But then right now, no, because people getting out of hand.
Malachi Stewart: Hello, everybody. From the DMV and beyond, welcome to Positive Voices. Today we are here to talk about HIV with a very, very, very special guest. My name is Malachi Stewart.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hey. And I'm Tei Pearson-Hall.
Malachi Stewart: And we are here with somebody that you all know, unless you're living under a rock. If you've seen Pose before, if you haven't seen Pose before, I'm going to let my guest introduce himself. Ryan.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hi. My name is Ryan Jamaal Swain, actor, activist, singer, dancer, healer, all of those multi-hyphenates. And I was on a little show called Pose. I played Damon Richards-Evangelista.
Malachi Stewart: Just a little show.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Just a little show.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Just a little show, a little something something.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Nothing major.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: No. And really, really incredible show about the 1980s, and specifically just what Black and Brown people did to forge community, and also ballroom culture. Also, just, I guess, being on Positive Voices specifically, just being in the space to talk about what it means to live a life with the virus and not for the virus. I think that that is a really big caveat. But I was on there with the likes of Billy Porter, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Angelica Ross, Hailie Sahar, Dyllón Burnside. I got to do all of them.
Malachi Stewart: Oh, the icons.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And all of them. And so then I've just been here doing the work on and off the screen. I think that that's really been the best thing, is just to be in service. And this show just kind of made space for that. So yeah, that's what I'm here.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: We appreciate it. Thank you.
Malachi Stewart: We do.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. No, thank you for having me.
Malachi Stewart: We do. No, thank you for being here. We're really honored to share a space with you. And we really want to talk about the work that you're doing on and off screen. So let's start with on screen.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Okay.
Malachi Stewart: A lot of us were introduced to you, again, on Pose. We saw your character Damon. And I want to say one thing about Pose. It was the first time in my inner circle of butch queens. We felt like we had always seen characters on TV where we saw bits and pieces of ourselves. That opening scene with the character Damon and his mother and being put out, I remember being on a conference call with my friends and being like, "Every part of that character, I identify with. Every part of that scene, I identify with." It was the first space.
We did not care about any of the critiques that there was in the show because it was like this is the first time we saw ourselves. And it forced the world to see us because so many people mamas called them like, "Okay. I get it now. I get how ..." My mama called me. She saw the first episode and called me and apologized.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, wow.
Malachi Stewart: Like, "I don't think I made space for you in the beginning. I thought I was doing a good job," but I saw a little bit of myself in mama.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's good.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah.
Malachi Stewart: And so I wanted to acknowledge that. What was it like in that moment, playing that role, studying for that role, maybe even your own experiences? Did you feel the weight of it in that moment?
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I did. I think for me, the crazy thing about it is I think that we're all in the kind of vicinity of Millennial, Gen ... Whatever the case may be. And I never had a Damon on my TV screen. And I think that there's this term called symbolic annihilation, where if you don't see yourself represented, you then thus don't feel important.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Mm-hmm.
Malachi Stewart: Absolutely.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And I had to find myself in shows that ... With characters that didn't look like me, didn't have my same socioeconomic class, didn't have anything. And so for me to be able to tap in, number one, with Ryan Murphy, who I've seen do the likes of Glee and American Horror Story and et cetera. But this is supposed to be a piece specifically about Black folk, Black and Brown people from this White prolific showrunner. It was just like, "Wow." And then also something that's close to my heart. The first time that I actually even saw anything about ballroom, ballroom adjacent was my senior year at Howard University. I did a one-man show about this fictional drag queen of the Stonewall Riots. So I looked at every piece of queer culture source material from before and after Stonewall, and that was the first time that I saw Paris Is Burning.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Wow.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And that was the year before I got my job. So there was already something manifesting inside and also in the spirit of this is moving in the direction. But to answer your question specifically, I think doing that work really just reinforced what it means to live a life and show up for your life. Think that Damon is one of those characters where his softness is what you see first. His vulnerability, his kindness, his openness. And a lot of times, I think as queer and Black folk and just people of the LGBTQIA+ community in specifics, sometimes we forget our softness because our truth sometimes doesn't warrant our safety. Oftentimes it doesn't warrant our safety. And so being able to have him be a part of my tapestry and also a big part of it, like my first job out of school, a big major way, really enforced and reiterated the meaning of being true to yourself, true to your spirit, true to your space. And I hope that that permeated outside into people's homes. And I think it did. I think we did something.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It sure did in my house, I can tell you that. Because when I first started watching, when it first came on, first of all, it was the talk of everything, right? "Y'all, watch Pose. Pose coming up." I was going to say we waiting for season three, but ... From a fan perspective-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Well, season three is out, but season four is not coming.
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:05:50].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah, we done. But it's not like it was canceled-
Malachi Stewart: It's okay.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... or anything. It was just like I think when you get to a point where you just realize that you made something really, really good and we are done with it.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah. Well, I think the storylines were really-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: For now. Who knows?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... well portrayed, right? And so when you talk about the softness of Damon, I think that really hit home because when you just mentioned about the ... Some time you have to change kind of your outward appearance, right? Because you have to appear more stronger, depending on how you present, right? And so when I heard you say that, I was like, "Huh. That did make sense." And so Damon wasn't the fighter. Well, he tried to raise his voice [inaudible 00:06:32]. Had a little tantrum or two or something.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: At that little graduation scene, a little tantrum.
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:06:37].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Don't put baby in the corner though, ever. Don't ever. Please don't.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: But I love how the writing and even with the energy that you portrayed as Damon of just the community that surrounded and the community in the home, right? And so from when we talk about experience and we talk about the coming out or having a status or what have you, I think it was very powerful to portray Mother as the, "You're not going out there and work no tracks. And you're not going to do this. And I'm going to get you in school," when the biological parents lost sight of this is my son and this is who he is and this is what he wants to do. But she's like, "No, you're going to dance."
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: But I think there's something, and I didn't really realize it in the moment, the power of the radicalization of being normal, being a normal child, having extraordinary circumstances happen to you. Because in the show, you have so many characters that are six inches off the ground. You have people that are literally doing sex work, living with virus, alcoholism, substance abuse, et cetera. But then you have this one particular character who, beyond the composite of what he's been going through, is just this normal little Black boy that just wants to live and just be.
Malachi Stewart: And just be.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And just be.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And just be. How oftentimes do we get the chance to just be? And I'm going to be so honest with you. While I was shooting it, I had imposter syndrome.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: No.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Because I just felt like everybody had this particular color. And I was just like, "Oh, I know exactly what ... Who Pray Tell is. Or I know exactly who Blanca is." But that also speaks to, I guess, the trauma bond that we as Black people have.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello, somebody.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: But we can't see ourselves beyond our circumstances and really just be like there is actual power in normalcy and being normal because all of us are not ... I mean Black folk, I think, I'm not no [inaudible 00:08:33], but I do believe that we are the chosen people. Howsomever, I do believe that in my normalcy, I'm still extraordinary.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And I think that it took me a while for me to really gauge and understand the power of what it means to just see a normal young man, normal Black young man without all the different dramatic instances-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes, labels.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... how powerful that is on television, right?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thankful. Thank you.
Malachi Stewart: And I would add to that, the character really showed that even in the vulnerability, that there's so much strength.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: The irony to you saying that it was hard for you to see yourself, the reason we all saw you was because of the normalcy, was because of the vulnerability.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I appreciate that.
Malachi Stewart: We all remembered the part of ourself before. And we'll get into the character's progression. But it's like before the world happened, before I had to take an account for what my sexuality was, before I had to show up and give an explanation and an apology, I was just a person that wanted to be seen and wanted to dance before somebody told me, "Boys don't do that." Especially for us film Black gay men, it's like before we talk about any of the things that we were exposed to, before that, there was a person. And a lot of us were hardened by life. We didn't have the privilege of walking around.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: You understand why certain characters showed up the way they showed up because you have to. The world wasn't safe. It wasn't a safe place to navigate. And it leads me to the irony. I understood that the parents, that Damon's parents thought they were going to like ... "We're going to cut you off, and that's going to make you do right." And they actually just exposed him to danger.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Right. Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: Next thing you know, you're on the piers.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes, exactly.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Right.
Malachi Stewart: We see you on the piers about to now do things that not only expose you to physical danger, but we're talking about high risk sexual behavior. We're talking about survival sex. We're talking about things that was the reality of queer people, that Alphabet Mafia back then and still very much-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And still now.
Malachi Stewart: ... is today.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: What do you think about that as a person who is an advocate? In the moment, was that something that ... Because I saw Paris Is Burning too, late in life. And that was the first thing I thought about, so many people that was like 12, 13. You were like, "Where is your parents at? Where are y'all ... Why does no one know where their 13-year-old child at?" [inaudible 00:10:42].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: This is my sister. You remember the two boys?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Malachi Stewart: Uh-huh.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: [inaudible 00:10:45]. I think as an advocate, you have to stand in the margins, I think. You have to stand with and in the margins instead of being outside of it. For oftentimes, so oftentime of my queer experience, it was about getting to a goal. But then when I was a part of a bigger conversation and had to truly be kind of coerced in, "Oh, no. Now this is your artivism is your activism," there was this bit of just like, "Wow. I'm really someone's ..." I hate the term role model. One of my friends gave me a better term because role model is stagnant. It was another thing. Anyway. Somebody that was influenced or just had some type of space for folk. This is going to be a little contradictory to what I've just said. Having Damon as the soft young queer Black boy also is not ... That's not a generalization of how we all are.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Right.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And I think that I had to educate myself on the ways how my intersections don't happen in the other part of the Alphabet Mafia. And how do I challenge my ignorance and my own privilege into being more understanding about someone else's reality?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Come on now.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I think that ... Lulu Ferocity in the showplay by Hailie has this beautiful line about, "We all want somebody to make us feel superior, especially in the Alphabet Mafia," right? And so often in that, our trans sisters and brothers are at the bottom of the totem pole.
Malachi Stewart: For sure.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Right? And so there's no agency because that's not my problem. Let me move away from that. Let me not advocate. Let me not show up in the marches. Let me not ... Show up. Be a co-conspirator. I don't believe in allyship. I believe in co-conspiratorship. You're going to be with me right next to me, not on the other side being like, "This is a special curricular activity that I can jump in and jump out of." You have to be with me.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Velcro.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Velcro, honey. Stuck together.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Stuck together.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello, somebody.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Right.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So I think that that really was the challenge for me, first and foremost. And then I accepted the challenge. The thing about advocacy is that the first A of that is awareness. Awareness. Then after that, it's education. After that, it's listening. And then also is just true advocacy, standing in the margins, being ... Having this moment because we come from an apathetic space where because it's not happening to me-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: [inaudible 00:13:18] my business.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... it don't matter.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: But I think that when we talk about true co-conspiratorship, you got to be with me. Pull up, like Rihanna said. Please pull up.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello. What you say? That's what I'm talking about.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Pull up.
Malachi Stewart: Period.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It's the pull up for me.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: That's it. But I think that was what it challenged me to do, was just pull up.
Malachi Stewart: And I wonder how many people struggled to do that because they felt like no one pulled up for them.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. We're sitting in the aftermath of a young queer 28-year-old man being killed for exhibiting his Black joy through dance.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: [inaudible 00:14:00].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Because that type of joy surpasses any hate that we have on this world. So you have to try to contain it, especially in the year of our Lord 2023, is just like this. That's ridiculous. My joy doesn't provide you comfort, and that's not my issue. But you shouldn't be ... What did Rashanda say? She said violent ... Never mind. No, I'm not going to say that one either. [inaudible 00:14:27].
Tei Pearson-Hal...: We're just like, "No, no, no."
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: No, no, no.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Don't do it. Don't do it. Sip that, yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Let me sip my little drink real quick. It's water.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I definitely agree with you. I think that that recent trauma for us has kind of brought a lot of things to the light, yet again, within our own community, within the Alphabet Mafia, as well as just the outward general public who has no eye or understanding, right? And so to have that recent death for no reason, but simply somebody minding somebody else's business, that is basically what it comes-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Minding somebody else's business.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah. That's what it comes down to.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: That's what it seems like it just keeps going to.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: He's minding his business at the pump and you come minding somebody else's business and has something to say so much that it costs someone their life. And not even just the external, not external, the extra trauma, the best friends and the people that was there just buying some candy and all of those different things. And so for me, it's like you say, it's 2023, right? And so when do we stop having these stories of examples?
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. We are the type of tired that sleep can't remedy.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah. Ain't no sleep, ain't no nap-
Malachi Stewart: Amen.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... long enough for this one.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello. We are that type of tired, okay? And I think I'm going to bring Rashanda up because she said violence is always the answer when the question is, can you put your hands on me? First and foremost.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's a good one.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's a good one.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And I think that what has to happen, because there's a call to action, right? There's a call for [inaudible 00:15:58] non-violence. There's a call for that. But then right now, no, because people getting out of hand.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Out of hand.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: But anyway, I'm going to leave that there.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Alabama [inaudible 00:16:07].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. Birmingham, Alabama. I mean Montgomery, Alabama, specifically.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Waterfront.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: A little further away from where I'm from. But it's okay.
Malachi Stewart: We appreciate you saying what we can't always say. We appreciate-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I'm the guest. Let me just-
Malachi Stewart: Yes. Let the guest say it.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Let me just do it.
Malachi Stewart: But y'all heard it.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It wasn't me.
Malachi Stewart: One of the things that I want to talk about, one of the major things that I thought was important to bring up on this show particularly, because it is Positive Voices, and we do particularly cater to everyone, but particularly people living with HIV, a scene where we talk ... We talk a lot about disclosure around here in various ways, disclosure to family, disclosure to friends. Your character developed, went on to date someone who had to share with them that they may have had a potential exposure to HIV. Now, of course, it was a different time, right? But the response might not have been much different than what we hear people say here on the show and anecdotally we experience in the community. What was it like preparing for those scenes in that particular role? Okay. You have to be this person who someone is coming to you and telling you, "I may be positive. I may have exposed you." And we know what the girls give sometimes in those moments. What was it like preparing for that?
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I think that ... I'm going to keep it brief. I think with that particular scene, I kind of tussled with that because that was one point where I was just like, "Ooh, this is ..." There has to be a sliver of real life happening because if it was all Damon, kumbaya, said this, hugged him, made space for him, didn't see the hurt, didn't see the anger, that wouldn't be real life.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: [inaudible 00:17:44].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: But for me, and specifically my team, and specifically Dyllón, who plays Ricky, we talked ad nauseam about the care that we just had in between the takes because that it's real. I know that it's just really, really real. And then the scenes that proceeded after that, the whole argument and the whole announcing somebody's status with them not being there, not right, but again, real life.
Malachi Stewart: Real life.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Real life.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: We just handled that space with a lot of care. And I remember getting the script and just being like, "Oh, we're going there." The particular episode was called Revelations. There was a double entendre happening, right? There was revelations because Damon was graduating from the dance program, but then also, there were revelations happening for every character. You get a piece, you get a piece, you get a piece. Baby was like, "I am done being in the corner. And I'm going to speak up for myself." But then also, in that space of speaking up for myself, it got messy. And I think that on the flip side, as me as the actor, bringing truth to that is my job. Being able to think about how people are going to take it, that's not my job. And so how messy it got, there was back and forth. They wanted to change. They were like, "Do you think Damon should be doing this? People are going to not like that he does this."
Malachi Stewart: Because it's a likable character.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Because I ain't going to lie, I was at home like, "Damon."
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Damn. But damn, Damon. Damn.
Malachi Stewart: "We love you. You acting up." But it's the truth.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: No, because I was waiting for the turn too. I was like, "At some point, the turn is going to come." Because-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. And I fought hard for that because they were just like, "No. Ryan, do you think that this ..." All the producers were like, "Do you ..." I said, "Yes." And it was time. We're seeing an evolution of a character go from not having or not feeling like he has agency for himself to now transitioning into that. That was powerful.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And I think it shows the evolution, right? From we talk about the evolution of the character. But it comes on with at home, mom and dad and real churchy, right? Everything's real churchy. And then to go from this upbringing to, "But this is who I am," and then it's a, "Get out," but you used to coming home to a two-parent household.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: A nuclear family-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Correct.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... as the American trifecta likes to call it.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And now you had to create what a new family looks like that help you, as the character, help Damon thrive. But conversations, as we just kind of brought up, is why we're having this conversation with you of the importance of the status and the conversations that need to happen. Somewhat taboo somewhere. But when we talk about Ricky, right? One of my ... I love Ricky too.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: We love him.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Oh, yeah.
Malachi Stewart: We do.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Because Ricky definitely gave a different persona of what people-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: A nice little fever, yeah.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Gave a different color.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Of what people assume a gay Black boy looks like, right? So he gave a different look to that. But so when we talk about preparedness and we talk about just the conversation of community and positive, moving forward with positive diagnosis, Ricky had ... Was positive. You weren't. But somewhere in there, it was a, "We're in the moment." And so in that moment, it was a lapse of judgment of using protection amidst all of the conversation, of all of the conversation that everyone had to protect Damon. But also, it was so much loving love for Ricky at the same time.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes. Precisely.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And so when you prepared for that, as you reflect in that character, and this is really what I have to do, did you see a fear for your own self in that?
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: No. Naturally, I think, for me, I'm a Pisces, specifically. I come from a non-judgmental space with anything that I do. And I think that's just been a gift that I was given just off the cuff. But what we were setting up in that particular relationship was a serodiscordant relationship where one part of the conglomerate is positive and the other one is not. And I do believe that Damon, in a perfect world, if we could have kept going and could have seen them, the status wasn't the issue. I think it was more so just the lying and the space. But as far as we continue to talk about this, and I think this is a good segue, de-stigmatizing the yes as well, right?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Oh, yes. I'm glad you brought that. Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Being able to ... Because I was thinking about it on my way here. I was just like, "How do we bring this up?" I find that oftentimes when we get to sharing, when folks are living with the virus, or just so happen to be, there's this kind of halt in thinking that people can't live full lives, right? There's this idea of shame and guilt that every time that I bring it up in a relationship or this particular or whatever, that there's going to be a sense of halt, pausing. And I say desensitizing the yes because there's a full life on the other side of that yes.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Come on now.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: There is. There's a full one. Huge one. And I think that when we talk about de-stigmatizing ... And we just celebrated our first Zero Stigma Day, July 21st, the one specifically. And it's just like we talk about stigma and we talk about that. It's like, okay, we've gotten to the point of preventative care. We've talked about that. We were doing the science and everything. But if every time that someone that is living with has to disclose and they have to always feel this sense of shame and guilt, that's not moving in the right direction. What does it look like to be able to de-stigmatize the yes and say, "You know what? Okay. And let's move forward"? How do we normalize that?
In putting the things in together, making sure that you're healthy, making sure that everything is happening, but also taking away not only for the person that's disclosing, but also the person that is also in this partnership, this sense of shame and guilt. It discredits the life that could be lived and shall be lived beyond that, right? It gives this kind of composite of, "Well, I guess now I have to move in this direction or move in this way." But I think the key of all of this de-stigmatization is just being able to still show up for your life.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's it.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And continue to show up for your life.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Unapologetically too.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Unapologetically.
Malachi Stewart: Absolutely. And I think a part of that work is that there does have to be or always is necessary to have people. I don't think that people owe anybody anything.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I don't think so either.
Malachi Stewart: I don't think people owe anybody [inaudible 00:24:57]-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: It's an invitation.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Tell them about their business.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: It's an invitation.
Malachi Stewart: But yet, I'm very public, and I've been for a long time, but I show up that way because, again, the same way I felt like when I saw the character of Damon, like, "Oh my God, there are so many people." I remember just being positive and just how it felt. I didn't see anybody. It was when we were still calling it the monster in Philly. And I remember my friend asking, "You got the monster, child?" And I was like, "Yeah." And how it felt, like the yes was stigmatized. And I felt just really, in the words of Celia, I was ... No, I'm sorry. In the words of Ms. Sofia, I was feeling mighty down and mighty low. And I know what I needed to see. And so as a person who is living a healthy life, who is still [inaudible 00:25:43] out here, a baddie.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello, someone.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Come on.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Come on.
Malachi Stewart: But I feel like people needed to see that. People need to see you. I'm going to say that I'm HIV positive, but that's not the definition. That doesn't define me.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Exactly.
Malachi Stewart: I'm that end. I'm that plus. That exists. And on top of that, I'm still out here dating regular. Y'all ain't got no man. I don't have no man. All the things is the same.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: We out here. The career ain't changed. Nothing has changed for us. And I believe that that's important to have that representation. And then also even in that space, still give people permission to ... And you have agency. And that agency is you get to decide whether your life is that or your life is like, "Mind your business."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: True autonomy.
Malachi Stewart: Period.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes. There it is. There it is.
Malachi Stewart: True autonomy.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: There it is. True autonomy.
Malachi Stewart: True autonomy.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: True autonomy. I want to ask you something because it's something that was on my mind, and it does lend to the topic. We've had people come on the show who are younger, and we talked about how your and Ricky's relationship, the character's and Ricky's relationship progress. Ryan is not Damon. Ryan is not Damon, y'all. Ryan is Ryan Jamaal Swain.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Please say that.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Child.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: They're going to be like, "Ryan."
Malachi Stewart: They're going to be like-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Not Damon.
Malachi Stewart: Damon.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Child.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Damon.
Malachi Stewart: But we talked about how their character progression, so the character ends up with Pray Tell. And there's a lot of reasons why this became an official-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Ricky's character.
Malachi Stewart: Ricky's character-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: ... ends up with Pray Tell.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I was going to say I missed that episode.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah. Ricky's character. Ricky's character.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: No, I thought you were saying Damon was with Pray Tell.
Malachi Stewart: Ricky's character.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I missed that one. That would've been juicy.
Malachi Stewart: That would've been the love triangle, child.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Child. Get in here, get in here, get in here.
Malachi Stewart: Okay. That would've started a writer's strike.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Okay.
Malachi Stewart: Ricky's character being with Pray Tell and facing housing insecurity. So there's sort of this energy of, "I'm a new positive. I need somewhere to stay. Am I in love? Or am I dependent?" That whole thing. I remember when the sex scene started with that. And we really like, "Oh, okay. They serious." It was a lot of mixed emotions. I had a lot of mixed emotions because I always just would see young people who even within themselves didn't know what they were being preyed upon or what this energy was. And I can't lie, I've talked to people who are older, some of my elders with HIV, and they're like, "But young people be on me. But they be wanting somewhere to stay. I feel preyed upon too." I'm just interested in what your thoughts was around that dynamic.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: I think that in that fictional telling of codependency and relationship, because that was a little bit of it, plus there was a sense of care and a sense of space that I just want to help out. But then, again, life is messy, right? And specifically in that ... No, it doesn't have a time period, honey. It's just messy. I think that when oftentimes we're in our pursuit of healing and journeying, that that is a part of it. I think for queer people, for LGBTQIA+ people, nobody gives you a handbook to say that this is how you're supposed to do this. "Hey. Here you go. This is it." Because everything that we've been seeing, the things that we've been fed have been from a heteronormative perspective.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes. [inaudible 00:28:58].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So at the end of the day, the journey-
Malachi Stewart: And we're not hetero.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. No. Hetero. No, no, no. Hello, somebody. Hello, somebody. I think that from that space is just like there is going to be a sense of trial and error. And there is some validity and truth in that telling. And I think that it also spoke to a lot of people's sense of shame and guilt of a whole bunch of things, coming from broken homes, not having a parent in or out of the household, and just codependency. I think that oftentimes with queer relationships, and I'm writing a book specifically or a chapter about this, and just the pursuit of just partnership for queer people, there is this sense of, "I want to be saved. I want to be held," that we have to cross some way, shape, or form. I don't think it's necessarily you jump over that. You have to go through that to see that you don't want that and that's not healthy. Or people stay in whatever situation that they're in, and it works for them. That's just what it is.
Malachi Stewart: True autonomy.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello. True autonomy, honey.
Malachi Stewart: True autonomy.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: There's no handbook.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Right.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So I think, yeah, my personal, just doing this life thing and going through relationships as well, there's a real tether, an emotional tether to trauma when it comes to co-dependency.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: [inaudible 00:30:35].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And I'm in the process of doing that type of shadow work to realize for myself, how does that ... How and why? Where does that show up in my own life? And oftentimes I come to the space of just like ... It always comes back to that shame and guilt word, them words. It comes from not feeling adequate. It comes from a space of just not feeling like you are being seen. And to do that work, to be seen, and to be in the process of seeing other people, and having to be a leader of that march or leader. I'm all about showing the imperfections because none of these leaders are without fault and without flaw. Excuse me, not without fault. So that's how I feel about it. Still learning. I'm still learning. I'm 29, child. I ain't got it all together.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Oh, you look good.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Child, I ain't ... Yes, I do.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello, somebody.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: That's my camera right there. Yeah. But yeah, that's it.
Malachi Stewart: Speaking of leadership, now that we've established that you are not Damon, that you are ... That Ryan Jamaal Swain is a person.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: We love Damon.
Malachi Stewart: Ryan Jamaal Swain is a person.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: We love Damon.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It's not the same person.
Malachi Stewart: It is not the same person.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: It's not the same person.
Malachi Stewart: Talk to us about who you are as an activist and an advocate. And tell us a little about this play One in Two.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. So ever since I was in school at Howard, one of my professors told me-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: HU.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello, somebody.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I had to get it in there.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello. I got to get it in there. Get in there. He said this phrase about being on the front lines of social change. And for me, my life naturally and how I've just been in pursuit of the work that I do on, off stage, on, off the screen has just been in the process of that. I'm really one of those people where I just love to bridge the gap or to close the margins because oftentimes with celebrities, and I think that we're seeing this now with this strike, that ... Or visible people. I hate the word celebrity. I hate that word too. But visible folk bridging the thing of it's obtainable. Your dreams are obtainable. You can have everything that you want if you just make some necessary adjustments, discipline, love, and a little bit of luck, a little bit of faith.
That's pretty much about it, but just true discipline and true autonomy. So for me, that goes into my activism work as well because at the end of the day, I want people to see real folk and real full people. The way that I show up, my social media, the way that I ... The causes that I'm tapped into, whether it's with It Gets Better Foundation, creating this 48-hour love letter to all the young 16 plus kids, just having them see themselves, know that they are wanted out here. We need y'all. From being the first recipient of the Represent Pride Award from TV One-
Malachi Stewart: Congratulations.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... and doing that type of work and doing the work to make sure that queer voices are on that network as well.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Congratulations.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Because that's a Black network. And oftentimes we don't see us in Black networks.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Yes.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello. Say it again.
Malachi Stewart: Hello.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So at the end of the day, it's just trying to make sure that we are always being authentic, kind. Well, in pursuit of just full autonomy of just being seen. I want so badly ... My question for myself is, and for other Black queer people, is what does freedom dreaming look like? What does dreaming ... I'll give you my technology around freedom dreaming. Freedom dreaming is this idea where I'm not bogged down by my circumstances. I can believe and be whoever I want to be because I think that is a radical act for Black people to think that they are in the future and have a future. Even that is a-
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:34:25].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes. Even that is a revelatory act in itself because a Black person's future is unlike anyone that we've seen. So it's just like for me and Black and Brown queer folks specifically, I'm always in the margins of trying to be like, "What does freedom dreaming look like?" Because oftentimes we have had to be so hyper aware of what's going on around us. We have to move in a way, bob and weave, not say this thing, be an overachiever, do this, but what does it mean to actually just be?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, I don't want to get emotional. But yeah. You know what I mean?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah. To be.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: To be.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: As simple as that sounds-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: To be.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... it's a challenge.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: It's such a challenge.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Every time that I ask any of my friends that question, they're just like, "I just want to have a good day at work, child." And I'm like, "Okay. That's your truth today. That's your truth today. That's your truth."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah. When you said it, that's what I was thinking. I'm like, "I can't ..." I don't remember ever a time in my life where I had that, where I felt like I had the permission to just be.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And the idea that it's a privilege is already a problem, is just-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: A privilege word.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And so for me, that's where my activism is tapped into. Just really making sure that we have a future and that we are really holding on to the integrity of the people that have come before us and also making space for what we are giving to the canon.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: What we dropping off.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah, what we dropping off.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So that's it.
Malachi Stewart: I appreciate that. Living in a One in Two area.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, One in Two. Yes, child.
Malachi Stewart: Living in the DMV. I want to touch on that because ... And tell us about the play and why [inaudible 00:36:07].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: So One in Two by Donja R. Love is this play about this particular young man's ... It's semi-autobiographical from the playwright. He's been HIV positive, I think probably for the last 15, 14 years. And this is kind of semi-autobiographical to his story. It's a fictional character called Donte. And we go through him moving through vignettes with his family. There's mom. There's kind of ex-boyfriend. There's [inaudible 00:36:36]. There's a hookup moment.
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:36:38].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And then it's all these things. But the gag is that just imagine that all three of us are the actors, and there's three different tracks, one, two, and three. The audience every night would pick who played that particular character. So that means that all three of us have to know-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Know the parts.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Front, back, and sideways. And it was really a powerful moment to heal some deep wounds in my own life, but also, it gave me the power to really be like, "Oh, I can do anything," especially doing something like that. I think it's one of those pieces where you get to see a very dramatized, fictional portrayal of what it means to live with the virus, live with HIV, but it also gives you some sense of joy. So there's a particular ... No spoiler alert, but there's a attempted suicide at the end of it. But the thing about it is that the person that plays the role decides not to do that. Then there's what a really powerful message is just like, "I'm not going to tell that story again. We need to tell a different story, a different story about not being bogged down by circumstance, but actually having autonomy."
And it was really revelatory for me because what time do you get to have a very nuanced conversation about this? Pose did a marvelous job about showing us that you can be a person who just so happens to have. It's not Philadelphia or The Normal Heart or Angels in America where when we hit the status, it's like, "Ooh, tragedy, drama," whatever. You get to see actual people living life and being in joy, trying to maneuver it, trying to figure it out. And we don't get a lot of that in the canon. We haven't had that in a lot. And so it gave me the space to really have a conversation about the nuanced polylithic aspects of what it means to live a life. Period.
HIV was a part of it, but it's not the fullness of the story. And I think that goes back to what we were saying, right? Having true autonomy, being able to sit in the margins of your own life, showing up for your life, that's your right. That's your birthright. That doesn't stop if something is a part of your journey. And so that show was incredible. It was stressful because we only had three weeks to really tap in with it, like three weeks to rehearse it and then a month to do it.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Ooh. [inaudible 00:39:28].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Versus I saw it when they premiered it in New York. They had a full month to preview it and do all these things. Honey, we had to do that thing and-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: You got the DC [inaudible 00:39:37].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: ... pull that thing together in three weeks.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Just that DC [inaudible 00:39:39].
Malachi Stewart: Talented.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Talent. So it's just like, "I can do anything at this point."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: [inaudible 00:39:40].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: You know what I mean?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's it. Hello.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello.
Malachi Stewart: Talented.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Hello.
Malachi Stewart: As a person who's recognizing that you really are a leader in the community-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, thank you.
Malachi Stewart: ... you've been a part of something that is iconic, which has made you iconic.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: What call to action would you give to the community? Because people are listening to you when it kind of comes to de-stigmatizing that, "Yes, I am HIV positive," moment. What call to action would you leave us with?
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, that's a deep question.
Malachi Stewart: That's heavy.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: That's a heavy ... Well, it's-
Malachi Stewart: But you heavy, so you got it.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yeah. I know, child. I know. I know. I know.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: You can do all things.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Through Christ, who strengthens me.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: And with this water that strengthens me as well. God bless.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Room temperature.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: No. This room temperature water.
Malachi Stewart: Room temperature water.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Your trauma isn't your responsibility, but your healing is. That's number one.
I think about this James Baldwin quote. I'm wearing my little James Baldwin ring right now. But he says, "It took me many years of vomiting up who I was told and half-believed before I walked on this earth as though I belonged here." I do belong here. I have the right. Think that for young queer folk, young people, Black, Brown, purple, green, yellow, orange, whatever, take up your space. Take up space. And for my babies that are ... I sound like Monique, "For my babies." Hi, my baby. Hey, my sweet baby.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello, baby.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Love you, girl. I see you. I'm with you. I cannot wait to meet you. I cannot wait to see you out here doing the work that you are being called to do.
Yeah. Never stop showing up for your life. I don't have anything prolific because I think that all of our experiences are unique to us. I do believe that there is something powerful in knowing that healing is a journey, is not a stop. It is a full life journey that has its many roads, up and down, back and forth, front and back, relapses, this, that, whatever the case may be. But no matter if you're doing the journey, if you're waking up to say, "I want to be better. I'm going to be better," that's enough to keep moving forward. And know that there is a beautiful life waiting, waiting for you to say yes to, knowing that what you're seeking is also seeking you. And at the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you. So yeah, that's what I got.
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:42:38].
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It was ... Hello.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Oh, goodness.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Amen. I don't know what I'm supposed to say after that. Right? Because it was the, "I'm not trying to get deep," but then-
Malachi Stewart: And then got deep.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Deep.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah, right.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Deep.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: But thank you for speaking to me-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Come on, Janette. Deep.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... because I don't know about y'all, but that message, I felt every single bit of it.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Thank you.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: So thank you.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Thank y'all.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Right?
Malachi Stewart: Thank you.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thank you so much-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Thank y'all.
Malachi Stewart: Appreciate you.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... for joining us in a conversation of transfer ... You got to transfer it down.
Malachi Stewart: Oh. [inaudible 00:43:06].
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: You got to transfer it. And I just want to be like ...
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Don't leave me out.
Malachi Stewart: [inaudible 00:43:09].
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And so thank you for coming in just to share some space and share knowledge and opinion, which is so greatly received-
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Thank you.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... and appreciated. What I heard you say, and what I need for them to hear you say, is that true autonomy is important. Know who you are so that you can just be, right? Your trauma isn't your fault, but your healing is. Healing takes time, is what I tell people. So take your time so that you can do it right.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Yes.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Another great episode of Positive Voices, folks. You can head on over to Put in your zip code. Real simple. Put your zip code in, and it'll tell you all of the resources that are around you so that you can get the care that you need because our good brother, Ryan Jamaal Swain, has just told us that healing is on you. So do what you need to do. Head to LinkU. Also, more episodes. You going to be like, "Well, where's Malachi and Tei at? What they talking about?" Head on over to You can find more episodes, more resources, and our social media stuff too. So get with us.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Get found.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Just be.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Be.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's it.
Ryan Jamaal Swain...: Get free. Get free, honey. Get free.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: We'll catch you guys on another episode. Positive Voices. Thank you for tuning in. Bye.

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Additional Episodes

New episodes weekly. Next release: February 6.

LinkU Health and Resources

LinkU is a free and easy-to-use resource to help you find local services, including help with HIVprevention and care. It is DC, Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County’s goal to makesure everyone who lives, works, and plays in the DMV area can access the services they need.

Meet the Guest

Ryan Jamaal Swain

Ryan Jamaal Swain is an award-winning Actor and Activist. Most notably, a breakout star in FX’s award-winning show Pose which has been internationally and critically praised for its authentic and skillful portrayal of queer and trans life on television. In it, he portrays the role of Damon Richards Evangelista, an ambitious dancer who, after being kicked out of his home for being gay, becomes part of a self-selected family in New York City’s 80s-era Queer Ballroom scene. Following the success of Pose, Swain has been seen in the television show The First Lady opposite Viola Davis, on Broadway in Choir Boy, and numerous Off Broadway stages.

As an activist, Swain was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for his LGBTQIA+ advocacy. In addition, he has won numerous awards from the Human Rights Campaign, Howard University, TrevorLive, and TV One, where he made a rousingly moving acceptance speech on his intersections of being Black, Millennial, and Queer. Swain also takes pride in being a Stonewall Inn Ambassador. In his efforts to deepen his charge to protecting and liberating young queer people, he created a national campaign with the It Gets Better Foundation titled #48HoursOfLove sharing uplifting messages of hope, empowerment, and support to LGBTQIA+ students during the stressful back-to-school season all over the country. 

Ryan has also been featured in numerous publications ranging from Vogue, Nylon Germany, GQ, The New York Times, Forbes, and WWD for his fashion advocacy for queer visibility.

Known for his inspiring “rags to riches story” of heading to New York City with only $50 to pursue his dreams, Swain’s passion for performing began at an early age. In his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, Swain started tap lessons at age four and quickly expanded to ballet, jazz, modern, and hip hop. As an actor, he then attended the esteemed Alabama School of Fine Arts. A first-generation college graduate, Swain earned a B.F.A. from Howard University and trained at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, U.K. 

As a writer, Swain wrote and starred in “A Negro Writer,” a one-man show about Langston Hughes and his proverbial and private life. And is currently writing a teen fiction novel loosely based on his coming-of-age story. 

He is also recording his first single, which will be shared later in the year.

Whether sharing a life story that parallels Damon Richards's (Swain was physically and emotionally abused by his stepfather as a child because of his sexual orientation) or inspiring others to boldly pursue their dreams, Ryan Jamaal Swain brings an empowering message of overcoming odds while giving back to others. His keynotes motivate audiences to find their voice, cultivate their “why,” and use what makes them unique as their superpower.

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