HBO Max series ‘Equal’ takes 4-part look at queer pioneers

HBO Max series Equal

In 1961, José Sarria (seen in this undated photo) became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — 16 years before Harvey Milk. He is also remembered as a beloved and inspiring drag performer at San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar. Photo: Joe Castel-Emperor Norton Productions

Cheyenne Jackson, Anthony Rapp, Shannon Purser, Heather Matarazzo, Jamie Clayton, Isis King, Samira Wiley, Gale Harold are among the cast portraying trailblazing LGBTQ activists in the four-part  HBO Max docuseries “Equal,” the streaming channel announced Tuesday.

These queer outlaws fought an unrelenting fight for justice and equality in the United States after World War II and before the Stonewall uprising.

“Equal” will premiere in a binge drop in October during LGBT History Month.

  • Part one explores the rise of early organizations, The Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco.
  • Part two chronicles the 20th century transgender experience, bookended by the 1966 Compton Cafeteria riots in San Francisco.
  • Part three examines the contributions from the Black community on the growing LGBTQ civil rights movement
  • Part four ties in the decades long struggles with the culminated Stonewall Uprising.

Filmmaker-producer Stephen Kijak (“Sid & Judy”) is the showrunner and director of episodes one, three, and four.

Ground-breaking trans director Kimberly Reed (“Prodigal Sons”) directs episode two.

Here are descriptions of each “Equal” episode, per HBO Max press materials.

Episode One

  • Dale Jennings (Cheyenne Jackson) was a gay rights activist, playwright, and author. He was one of the founding members of the Mattachine Society in the early 1950s, one of the earliest gay rights groups in the United States. Following his entrapment and arrest for allegedly soliciting a police officer in a public restroom, Jennings fought back in a successful court case that became a landmark moment for the movement. He was also one of the founders of One Magazine, the first pro-gay publication in the U.S. 
  • Harry Hay (Anthoy Rapp) was a founding member of The Mattachine Society. Rudi Gernreich, Hay’s boyfriend, also helped co-found the group. Hay’s manifesto, “The Call,” written feverishly one night in 1948, called for the protection and improvement of rights for homosexuals. It also was the foundation on which The Mattachine Society was built.
  • Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (Shannon Purser & Heather Matarazzo) were a longtime lesbian couple who founded the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. They also published The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. Active in both gay and feminist politics their whole lives, they were the first same-sex couple to legally wed in California. Martin and Lyon were together for 56 years until Martin’s death in 2008
  • “J.M.” (Sara Gilbert) is an “anonymous reader” of The Ladder, representing the isolated lesbians of the 1950s who found a lifeline in the pages of the magazine, but who were forced to live closeted lives for fear of losing jobs, friends, and family. 
  • The FBI Agent (Anne Ramsay) is a composite character. The FBI kept active files on the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, among numerous others, and often linked them to communism in an attempt to discredit the groups. The FBI also considered The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis to be dangerous subversives. 
HBO Max Equal

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (pictured in an undated photo) were a longtime lesbian couple who founded the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States. Photo: Smith College-Kendra Mon

Episode Two

  • Lucy Hicks Anderson (Alexandra Grey) was a socialite, chef, and Prohibition-era entrepreneur — and one of the first documented Black transgender people in the U.S. She also was one of the most prominent citizens of Oxnard, a Los Angeles suburb. But in 1945, a syphilis outbreak at her brothel outed her to the community. 
  • Jack Starr (Theo Germaine) is a little-known character in the history of folks who probably would have self-identified as trans. He was a prominent local outcast at the turn of the 20th century in Montana. He was in and out of jail and in and out of the local headlines for refusing to wear clothes that conformed to the sex Starr was assigned to at birth. A Jack-of-all-trades and teller of tall tales, Starr (aka Jacques Moret) is an enigmatic early figure who pushed the boundaries of gender expression. 
  • Christine Jorgensen (Jamie Clayton) is widely known as the world’s first transgender celebrity. Jorgensen became an internationally known figure following the publicity surrounding her sex confirmation surgery in the early 1950s. She became a popular nightclub entertainer, author, and lecturer and used her celebrity to advance the cause of transgender rights. 
  • “Alexis” (Isis King) is a composite character, the spirit of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966, one of the first known instances of trans and queer folk rising up against police harassment – three years before the Stonewall Riots. 

Episode Three

  • Writer of the landmark play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry (Samira Wiley) was the first Black female author to have a play performed on Broadway. She was a radical and forceful voice within the Civil Rights Movement, who died far too young at age 34 of pancreatic cancer. While closeted during her lifetime, she wrote extensively in plays, stories, and letters under a variety of pseudonyms that discussed her lesbianism and the oppression of gay people in society. 
  • Bayard Rustin (Keiynan Lonsdale) was an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. He was a mentor and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the chief architects of the March on Washington. In 1953, Rustin was arrested and convicted of “vagrancy” for violating a morality law that often was used to discriminate and criminalize LGBTQ and black communities. Rustin was pardoned this year by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Rustin’s sexuality was often weaponized against him and the movement, but he remained a tireless advocate for social justice his entire life  — and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013. 
  • In 1961, José Sarria became the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — 16 years before Harvey Milk. He is also remembered as a beloved and inspiring drag performer at San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar. He raised the spirits and political consciousness of the bar’s gay male patrons with his rousing anthem “God Save Us Nelly Queens”! A lifelong advocate and activist, Sarria founded the Imperial Court System, one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ organizations in the world.

Episode Four

  • Sylvia Rivera (Hailie Sahar) was a Latina-American gay liberation and transgender rights activist. Prominent as an activist and community worker in New York, Rivera, along with close friend Marsha P. Johnson, co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in 1970, a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. Whether true or a bit of self myth-making, Rivera placed herself at the center of the Stonewall Uprising. Her perspective on the riots and its aftermath are a part of the oral history of Stonewall.
  • Craig Rodwell (Scott Turner)  was a gay rights activist and founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967, the first bookstore devoted to gay and lesbian authors. A witness and participant in the Stonewall Uprising, he was one of the prime movers in the creation of the first New York City Pride demonstration.
  • Mark Segal (Cole Doman) is a journalist and prominent gay rights activist. He participated in the Stonewall Uprising and was one of the original founders of the Gay Liberation Front where he created its Gay Youth program.
  • Stormé DeLarverie (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow) was a lesbian civil rights icon and entertainer whose scuffle with police was, according to many eyewitnesses, the spark that ignited the Stonewall riots, spurring the crowd to action. She worked for much of her life as a singer; bouncer; bodyguard; and volunteer street patrol worker, the “guardian of lesbians in the Village.” 
  • Howard Smith (Gale Harold) was an Oscar-winning film director, producer, journalist, screenwriter, actor, and radio broadcaster. At the peak of the historic Stonewall Uprising in New York City in 1969, he managed to get inside the now famous bar with his Village Voice reporter’s police credentials. He was the only journalist who reported about the siege from that vantage point. 
  • Dick Leitsch (Sam Pancake) was a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and president of the Mattachine Society in the 1960s. He is also known for being the first gay reporter to publish an account of the Stonewall Uprising, which appeared in a special edition of the Mattachine Newsletter the day after he witnessed the first night of the uprising.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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