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HBO Max's Equal Tells Queer History with a Fierce Urgency

The unsung stories of LGBTQ+ pioneers are told via archive footage and dramatic recreations.
  • Equal (HBO Max)
    Equal (HBO Max)

    American history is not American history, at least not the way it's taught in schools. The history of Black people, Latinx, Native Americans, queer people, and all other nonwhite minority populations have all been minimized, downplayed, or erased. This is a truth that more and more of us are becoming aware of, and it's something that many people are working to correct, from the New York Times' 1619 project on down. It's a truth that boils hot beneath the surface of HBO Max's new docudrama Equal as it sets out to tell the story of LGBTQ+ liberation in America; a rich, volatile, and ongoing struggle full of victories, defeats, and a great many heroes that most of us have never heard of.

    From documentarian Stephan Kijak and a team of executive producers that includes Greg Berlanti and Jim Parsons, Equal is a fiery and urgent four-part historical document hrough a mix of archival footage, uncovered audio recordings, and recreations starring some of our best queer and trans artists and activists, Coming at a time when changes on the Supreme Court have cast an ill omen for gay and trans rights, Equal also happens to be incredibly timely.

    Television and movies have a tendency to narrow the stories of our history, especially when it comes to underrepresented groups. To any outside observer, the history of queer liberation in the United States might simply be boiled down to Harvey Milk (a role Sean Penn took all the way to the Oscar stage in Milk) and the Stonewall riots (portrayed less successfully in the 2015 film Stonewall), followed a great many years later by the legalization of gay marriage. In recent years, we've finally started to hear the stories of heroes like Marsha P. Johnson, whose position at the forefront of Stonewall had previously gone unsung. The audacity of Equal is that it takes Stonewall — the 1969 uprising where patrons of a New York City gay bar fought back against the police harassment they'd endured for years, commonly cited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement — as the endpoint of its story, told in the fourth of four 40-minute episodes. Stonewall was the powderkeg exploding; the story that Equal tells reaches all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, laying the combustible foundation for that fire.

    Narrated by Billy Porter — employing an attitude-heavy, often righteously angry delivery worthy of his Emmy-winning portrayal on Pose — the series moves methodically through its alt queer history, telling a handful of stories in each episode, grouped by theme, all leading up to Stonewall. In the first, we get the story behind the founding of two secret societies that formed the bedrock of much of the gay rights movement: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. "Before celebration," Porter intones, "we needed organization," and this first episode delves into these early groups. Combining archive materials and dramatic reenactments (Cheyenne Jackson and Anthony Rapp play Mattachine founders Dale Jennings and Harry Hay), we see the Mattachines organize and band together to defend gay men who were being harrassed and prosecuted by predatory vice cops. Meanwhile, Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (Shannon Purser and Heather Matarazzo) build a lesbian organization out of clandestine gatherings, ultimately publishing The Ladder and bringing hope to closeted gay women throughout the country. The reenactments (and the project's queer-forward cast) have been a rather compelling pre-release hook for Equal, but in practice they play out as complementary to the documentary footage, often used for first-person narration rather than dramatic scenes.

    The second episode focuses on trans and gender-nonconforming history, centering on a trio of figures: Lucy Hicks Anderson (portrayed by Alexandra Grey), who was a pillar of the Oxnard, CA, community until her brothel was raided and she was charged with "impersonating" a woman; Jack Starr (played by Theo Germaine) whose refusal to conform to mandated gender expression stood out mightily in 1920s Montana; and Christine Jorgensen (portrayed by Jamie Clayton), who became a celebrity in the 1960s after undergoing gender affirmation surgery. Equal does a rather fantastic job of not only telling these people's stories but also tracking the ways in which straight society and local governments would crack down on them, from masquerade laws to vice squads to the "three article rule" mandating just how much gender-conforming clothing a person was required to wear. This is all placed in the context of the 1966 uprising at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, when trans people and drag queens fought back against police harassment, three years prior to Stonewall.

    For a series that seems to understand the fact that the bulk of its audience will be fellow queer people, Equal isn't interested in preaching to a choir. At nearly every turn, the show challenges the cisgender white male power structure within the gay community and pushes against it, reminding its audience that even within our own subculture, the stories of our Black and brown and trans and lesbian and homeless and nelly brethren have been pushed to the margins. Episode three focuses on the integration of LGBTQ+ liberation with the liberation of communities of color, when Bayard Rustin (Keiynan Lonsdale) — whose queerness both informed and was sometimes an impediment to his pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s when he worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. — organized the March on Washington.

    By its final episode, it's clear the events of Stonewall were an inevitable boiling point, the result of decades of progress and struggle and solidarity and frustration and rage. The heroes of Stonewall are myriad, including Stormé DeLarverie (Elizabeth Ludlow), and their work is the work of generations. There is triumph in this uprising, but we also see how history has left some behind. Sylvia Rivera, who founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and agitated right alongside Marsha P. Johnson, is portrayed by Pose's Hailie Sahar and also shown in archival footage as a voice screaming into the wind as the burgeoning gay rights movement moved away from her.

    In the end, it's Porter's raucous narration that leaves us with a call to action, as Equal ties this century-plus of gay rights activism and agitation to our current cultural and political moment, where the lives of black trans people are being fought for in the streets, and where solidarity with all members of the queer rainbow is the only way forward. "For decades, they've been coming for us," Porter declares, and it's hard not to see that reflected in the current political reality of an Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation. Equal tells a story of queer history that is still alive and vital and deeply applicable to right now.

    Equal drops on HBO Max October 22nd.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Equal, HBO Max, Alexandra Grey, Anthony Rapp, Billy Porter, Cheyenne Jackson, Elizabeth Ludlow, Greg Berlanti, Hailie Sahar, Jamie Clayton, Jim Parsons, Keiynan Lonsdale, Theo Germaine