The Dangerous Fights for Gay Rights Nobody Talks About

Kevin Fallon
·7-min read
HBO Max
HBO Max

It’s great that, finally, so many people know about Stonewall. It’s infuriating and, for the American LGBT+ community, dehumanizing that it took 50 years for the galvanizing events of those riots to be recognized and celebrated on a mass cultural scale. But it’s great that now, in 2020, more people know what happened in the streets of the West Village outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969, and that it set off what we think of as the U.S. LGBT+ equal rights movement.

Only it didn’t.

It was a major turning point, yes—though not even in terms of mainstream attention. The papers and media at the time famously either didn’t acknowledge it, or shrouded its limited coverage in homophobia. In truth, decades before Stonewall there were LGBT+ trailblazers fighting against oppression, stigma, police stings, ostracization, and risking their lives to publicly exist. They were even, in some cases, more organized and antagonistic to government agencies and law enforcement than some of the movements that sprouted after Stonewall.

But the work those figures did and the progress they won, let alone who they were, are not well known. That’s what Equal, the inventive new HBO Max docuseries, sets to rectify. Says narrator Billy Porter: “You may not know all their names, but these are their stories. And this is our history.”

The series, which launched last week, is part documentary, part stylized reenactments. Where archival footage of the characters is sparse or doesn’t exist, publicly out and successful LGBT+-identifying actors from today restage the scenes.

The casting choices are a testament to the impact of the work of the people documented in the series. “We are standing on the shoulders of all of these incredible pioneers that came before us, and we have made ourselves a part of the legacy by being out ourselves and living openly and agitating for equality,” Anthony Rapp, who currently is on Star Trek: Discovery and stars in the premiere episode of Equal, tells The Daily Beast.

Shannon Purser (Stranger Things) and Heather Matarazzo (The Princess Diaries) play Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the U.S., and distributed The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication. Decades later, they would become the first same-sex couple to legally wed.

Sara Gilbert (Roseanne) plays a stand-in for the anonymous readers of The Ladder in isolated areas around the country who, for the first time, felt seen and moved into activism. Alexandra Grey (Transparent) is Lucy Hicks Anderson, one of the first documented Black transgender people in the U.S., who was outed in 1945. Isis King (America’s Next Top Model) is a composite character representing the trans and queer activists at the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, an uprising against police violence three years before Stonewall. Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale) is trailblazing writer Lorraine Hannsberry.

The premiere episode focuses on the work Harry Hay, “the fairy godfather of the gay rights movement,” and unsung hero Dale Jennings did as founding members of the Mattachine Society in 1950, one of the first organizations with tactical goals to protect and improve the rights of gay men. Rapp plays Hay and American Horror Story star Cheyenne Jackson is Jennings. Like Rapp, it’s not lost on Jackson that it’s a cast of out actors portraying these heroes whose lives were at risk because of the work they did as gay men.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Cheyenne Jackson as Dale Jennings</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">HBO Max</div>

Cheyenne Jackson as Dale Jennings

HBO Max

“I started acting when I was 27, and I'm 45 now,” says Jackson. “Just in my time as a professional actor I’ve watched things change. And really the last like four years, I’d say, it really changed, to where the dialogue has changed and younger people are coming out and coming out way earlier in their career. It’s just less of a thing. I think just the fact that we are all working actors creating art and providing for our families, and being gay is like the ninth most interesting thing about me, that’s the progress.”

Jackson didn’t know who Dale Jennings was before this project. That became his biggest motivator to be a part of it. He fancies himself, like many of us, someone who is fairly schooled on his LGBT+ history, yet he was surprised to learn how dim the spotlight is on the work of people like Jennings, though it happened decades before Stonewall or the work of Harvey Milk.

The Mattachine Society was founded almost 20 years before the Stonewall Riots. “We've all been taught that story about Stonewall,” he says. “That's just what we heard. It ain't our fault. But that's why Equal and stories like this are so important.”

One of the things that struck both Rapp and Jackson about that time was the reality and the severity of what’s known as “the Lavender Scare,” a witch hunt launched by the federal government to identify and fire gays and lesbians, who were thought to be security threats.

The moral panic trickled down. Gay bars and hangouts were raided. Police entrapment was rampant, with stings in place to “catch” gay men. Perpetrators were thrown in jail and had their names published in papers, a public shaming that often led to the men being fired from their jobs and excommunicated from their communities.

It led Hay to write “The Call,” a manifesto to organize homosexuals against the entrapment operations and discrimination, which later became a rallying document for the Mattachine Society. Jennings was a target of a police sting and, after seeking Hay’s advice, became one of the first homosexual men to fight the charges instead of merely pleading guilty to avoid the scrutiny of trial. He also became one of the first men to admit to being homosexual in court, which in turn ignited more gay men around the country around the Society’s cause.

The stings didn’t stop, however, which led Jennings and the Society to start One: The Homosexual Magazine, the first publication of its kind. When Jennings got a tip that the FBI was building a legal case against One, he retaliated by publishing an article in it about J. Edgar Hoover being rumored to be romantically involved with Clyde Colson.

“I've always been pretty driven myself to be out, and I was certainly out at a time when there were almost no other actors who were,” says Rapp, whose breakout role was in the original 1996 Broadway cast of Rent. “What animated me was being around [playwright and AIDS activist] Larry Kramer. I got to work with him on a reading and be around his energy. What’s fascinating to me is that Harry didn't have a role model like that. He just was driven to it. He didn’t have anyone else to look to to say, ‘This is what it can be like.’ He was the one saying, ‘This is what it can and must be like.’”

Things like this can never be planned, especially in today’s hurricane-wind news cycle, but it’s certainly auspicious that Equal, which hit HBO Max last Thursday, is coming out when Amy Coney Barrett was being considered, and now confirmed, for the Supreme Court. It’s a prudent time to direct focus on the courageous, undersung work of these LGBT+ trailblazers and the lasting impact of those who are unafraid to fight when the path of least resistance seems the safest.

Legal scholars and political pundits almost unanimously agree that, with Barrett’s addition to the bench, equal rights and protections hard-won by the LGBT+ community are at risk. “It’s a reminder that it’s always precarious, and that we need to be incredibly vigilant and active to preserve what we have, let alone expand what we have,” Rapp says.

One thing that’s been learned is how powerful an awareness of history can be as a motivator for new and continuing movements. An awareness of Stonewall, for example, has activated a young generation to be more civically engaged in support of their communities than ever before. But there’s also the risk that an illusion of progress can lull younger people into complacency. Equal aims to put in perspective just what a privilege complacency is.

“It behooves us to know the stories of the people on whose shoulders we sit,” Jackson says. “I wouldn’t be sitting in my home that I purchased in California with my husband and my two kids were it not for the sacrifices that folks had made before. I think it is really important for the younger generation to know that there is more to gay history and gay culture than RuPaul’s Drag Race. Which I love! But there’s more to it.”

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