The iconic Sandra Bernhard on 'Pose', LGBTQ+ activism and keeping it together in a crisis

Bernhard shares how her new show's storylines brought back memories of her own part in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.

A woman in a glittering evening gown leans toward the camera

It’s been almost three decades since Sandra Bernhard made a huge splash portraying the character of Nancy Barlett Thomas, a queer woman, on the ’90s sitcom, Roseanne. Now, a much-admired role in Pose – another groundbreaking television series – has brought her a new legion of fans.

Even before Roseanne, the actress, comedian, singer, author, and activist, multi-hyphenate and multi-talented Sandra Bernhard had already created an indelible impression with her much-lauded role in Martin Scorsese’s film, The King Of Comedy, not to mention her one-woman shows I’m Your Woman and Without You, I’m Nothing, but the ability of television to reach huge audiences made her impact on the mainstream all the more powerful.

Bernhard now stars in the hugely popular and culturally game-changing Pose as Nurse Judy, a HIV activist and member of ACT UP. The series orbits around the New York ballroom scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but also depicts the struggle during those times for equal rights for the beleaguered trans and gay communities. 

The world has changed dramatically since then, and for Bernhard, who has always been a strong advocate of LGBT+ rights, it’s been “amazing” to portray those times in queer history. “Having been on the ground when it was all happening – the AIDS crisis – in the trenches with friends, some of whom I lost during that time, and performing in New York City and being part of the ACT UP movement, it’s been an incredible experience portraying that time on screen in Pose.

“Trans women were treated so badly at that time. Now, three generations later, there’s all these incredible trans women who are celebrated and fully realised for their talent as actresses and performers on great shows. It’s truly just very inspiring,” she shares. 

While there’s still a long way to go for trans people’s rights around the world, Bernhard remarked that her friends who didn’t live to see what the world is like today would be “blown away.” 

Bernhard will soon reprise her role on season three of the drama, spending four months shooting in New York. Filming for the show had resumed just a week before lockdown began due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is a tentative plan to begin again in October. “I really miss working, but we all just have to sit tight and be patient until we can figure out a way to work safely.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Bernhard and her wife and kids have been spending time outside of New York City in the countryside. “It’s hard to do anything now. We’re all in a holding pattern but considering what everyone else is going through, I’ve got no complaints. As long you’ve got a roof over your head and you’re safe and healthy, that’s kind of all you can look for at this moment.” 

She has been able to continue with some of her work, including her daily radio show, Sandyland on SiriusXM’s Radio Andy channel 102, for which she won a Gracie Award – celebrating programming created for and by women. Speaking of the show, Bernhard laughs, “It keeps me from going completely crazy – so that’s been great!” 

Working on Pose has been a particularly special project that Bernhard is looking forward to resuming because of how it helps educate today’s younger generation on what life was like for gay and trans people in the ’80s and ’90s. “I don’t think people under 30 have the bandwidth to understand how dire that time really was. There were no answers, no relief,” she elaborates. “That said, Ryan Murphy brings such fantasy and beauty to the show that makes it watchable week in and week out. So it’s just fantastic.” 

Filming a show about LGBTQ+ lives is different now in a way actors could only have dreamt of in the ’90s. “The great thing is that now they’re starting to write characters who are multi-dimensional, who might be gay or trans or might be played by gay or trans actors but that doesn’t necessarily have to be all they’re about anymore.” Bernhard adds, “Paralleled with the important Black Lives Matter movement and so many more Black actors and Black stories being told, this is a great and revolutionary creative time at the moment. I feel very hopeful about that.” 

Bernhard is hoping to resume performing live next year if there’s a successful vaccination for COVID-19 and says she would love to add a date in Dublin to her next one-woman comedy show tour. “I terribly miss performing live and I’m a huge fan of the Irish. The work, the writing and performing that are always coming out of Ireland is just so original and fresh. And I just love performing there. There’s a huge sense of fun.” 

Commending the progress this country has made following the Marriage Equality referendum in 2015 and the Gender Recognition Act, Bernhard encouraged Irish LGBTQ+ folk to “pass that along”. 

“Things have been moving so quickly in Ireland and watching things evolve is really inspiring and exciting. All we can do when we get our freedoms is help other people get theirs in other places. We all have to help other LGBTQ+ people achieve what we have in Ireland and elsewhere.” 

That determined outlook continues as Sandra Bernhard imagines life after lockdown. “I’m looking forward to everybody being able to get into their new lives with all the things they’ve learned from this COVID-19 experience. I hope we really take things to another level culturally and build the connection between people in a much deeper way, that’s the greatest thing that will come out of this experience.” 

This interview with Sandra Bernhard originally appeared in GCN magazine issue 364. You can read it here.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

This article was published in the print edition Issue No. ( ). Click here to read it now.

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Queer Utopia

Issue 364

This article was originally published in GCN Issue 364 (October 1, 2020).

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