Angelica Ross, who starred as Candy Abundance on the groundbreaking FX show Pose, was once kicked out of the United States Navy.
Ross is a black transgender woman. When she came out as gay to her Evangelical Christian mom at age 17, her mom was deeply unsupportive.
‘She told me I should commit suicide or she would, because she couldn’t have someone like me as her child,’ Ross told The Advocate.
It was after this that Ross left home to join the Navy. She lasted only six months before getting discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which was still in full effect at the time.
‘I was discharged from the Navy in such a violent way. Some guys hung me out of a third-story window to try to get me to admit I was gay. My life flashed before my eyes and I immediately knew I had to get out of there as quickly as possible and start living my truth,’ Ross wrote in a personal essay for Wealthsimple.
‘Leaving the military was so bittersweet. I was saving my own life by leaving. But I left feeling so disappointed in this country. I remember thinking to myself that the freedom I was fighting to protect wasn’t meant for me. I’m actually still fighting my discharge in order to get the benefits I rightly deserve.’
After leaving the Navy, Ross moved back to her hometown in Wisconsin. While things were still on edge with her parents, she lived with a drag queen named Traci Ross who became her ‘second mother.’ During this time, Traci Ross mentored her and introduced her to hormones to begin transitioning.
Ross had a tremulous time during her early days of transitioning. When her family in Wisconsin kicked her out, she moved to Virginia and lived with her birth father. She worked at Applebee’s and put herself through cosmetology school.
Soon, she moved to Florida to work on her friend’s escort website. When Ross realized that sex work ‘wasn’t in her lane,’ she also became aware of her computer skills.
‘And in a stroke of serendipity, the woman needed someone to help run her website. So I moved to Florida to be her webmaster. Eventually, I left to create my own adult website. I did that for about six months or so,’ Ross recalls.
From 2001-2006, Ross lived in Boca Raton, Florida with her ex. She made money doing real estate and modeling. She even starred in a foreign language film called Natale a Miami. Translated to Christmas in Miami, Ross describes the film as ‘sort of like Italy’s version of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.’
‘So I was in this random foreign language film that became this blockbuster hit in Italy — it was beating King Kong at the box office at one point — while also selling houses and using that commission to pay for my tuition at Florida Atlantic University, where I was finally able to study theater and creative writing, before ultimately dropping out my junior year. I had to leave school when shit really hit the fan with my relationship.’
Ross’s then-boyfriend wanted her to keep her trans identity a secret, due to living in a conservative state. Ross eventually moved to Chicago and broke things off with him.
In Chicago, Ross worked at the Kit Kat Lounge.
‘It’s a great example of how trans women around the country are being marginalized and oppressed by members of their own community. We are taken advantage of by the gay, usually white, men who own the clubs where trans women, femmes and drag queens perform. Almost none of these places pay. Performers have to work for tips. And if a girl makes it known that she’s not willing to dance solely for tips, the owners will just get a new girl to come in and do it instead. There are only a few places — the Kit Kat Lounge being one of them — where there are a handful of cast positions. And if you’re lucky enough to get on cast it means having somewhat consistent pay to count on week to week. But the pay is under the table. And the boss makes it a point to remind cast members they’re highly replaceable. So it’s like winning the lottery to work in a sweatshop.’
‘The competition for cast positions has gotten worse in the age of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now most girls can’t get a paid gig to save their life unless they’ve been on that show. But even if you manage to secure a steady gig, there’s really no long-term benefit of working at drag bar. You’re not contributing to a 401k. You’re not receiving medical.’
In 2012, Ross began working at the Trans Life Center as an employment coordinator.
‘They had this job readiness program where trans individuals would receive a safety and sanitation license to work in restaurants. It was well intended, but the program was basically ushering people into jobs they didn’t want instead of teaching them skills that afforded them more options.’
‘That was my introduction to the non-profit, social work sector. And it’s where I learned how to steer clear of discriminatory hiring practices. No one knew what I looked or sounded like. All that mattered was my skill set. If I could do the work, the job was mine. And that’s what inspired me to start my own non-profit. In 2014 I launched TransTech Social Enterprises, a talent incubator focused on economically empowering trans careers. I moved to DC, where the Human Rights Campaign heard about my mission and gave me office space at their headquarters completely free of charge.’
Ross’s TransTech Social Enterprises became a huge success.
‘I got to a place where every white person in every white organization in DC started inviting me to their galas and panel discussions and to all these things that put my face — my black trans face — front and center within their spaces. I even made relationships with the White House. And everyone would pretend to think what I was doing at TransTech was brilliant. But the moment I would start talking about fundraising, I cannot tell you how quickly and often people would suddenly be like, “So, explain all of this to me again? I’m not quite getting it.” Isn’t it funny how that works? So you got it when you invited me here, but now that I’m asking for actual help you’re confused?’
Ross’s big acting break came with Her Story, the Emmy-nominated web series she co-starred in alongside Jen Richards.
‘Starring in Her Story was the first time I was able to be openly trans and actually bring my whole experience to the table. It was the first time as an actor I was able to just act and not have my inner dialog running wild, wondering if the cameraman was too close or if my voice was too low. I wasn’t asking myself how I’d play off being found out. My secret wasn’t a secret.’
Ross went on to act in CBS’s Doubt, TNT’s Claws, and most recently, FX’s Pose.
‘Pose was something I didn’t want at first. I was like, “This is not for me.” But I was getting a lot of signs from the universe hinting I would be on this show,’ Ross says.
‘And when Ryan Murphy met me he was like, “I want to write a role specifically for you.” So I signed on and Ryan has been incredible. I didn’t really have a big role to begin with, but he’s a director who gives actors some freedom. He was asking me to ad-lib one day and then he asked Janet Mock to write an entire episode for me the next.’
‘Waitress. Makeup artist. Realtor. Dancer. Web Master. Actor. I’ve worked every kind of job you can think of. So when I talk about my value you can trust I’m worth every penny.’