On Thursday, October 22nd, HBO’s new four-part docuseries Equal will premiere on HBO Max. The show focuses on the lives of the queer community’s unsung heroes who paved the way for equality long before the Stonewall riots of 1969.
It brings history to life by combining never-seen-before archival footage, audio recordings, and historical artifacts with a live-action narrative starring some of the queer community’s biggest stars. Actors who appear in the show include Sara Gilbert, Anthony Rapp, Jamie Clayton, Samira Wiley, and Shannon Purser, among many others, all portraying queer trailblazers from our past. The series is also narrated by none other than Billy Porter himself.
The show was created after a visit to the ONE Archives in Los Angeles (the largest collection of LGBTQ artifacts in America). The production company behind Equal, Scout Productions, also makes Queer Eye. Joel Chiodi, the head of Scout’s documentary division, said that he had to visit the archives to get some material for an episode of Queer Eye, and once there, he saw the immense history of the queer community that he didn’t even know existed.
“I realized that most people probably know about Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and yes, those are key events that happened and led to the level of acceptance we all have now, but there were so many more steps that came before,” Chiodi said. ” And those first, very dangerous steps out of the closet were so incredibly important, and yet hardly anyone knows who these people are. So we really wanted to showcase the beginning of the movement and give a voice to people that many in society don’t know about. We had also heard that Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) was working on a similar project so we decided to combine our works to form Equal.”
Some of the stories told throughout the show include the lives of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the couple who formed the Daughters of Bilitis and the lesbian publican The Ladder; socialite and Madame, Lucy Hicks Anderson; Christine Jorgensen, the “world’s first trans celebrity”; and drag legend José Sarria, among numerous others.
The series also takes a bold direction in storytelling. The final product isn’t your typical documentary, it’s action-based. It’s inspiring, and it’s filled with life and color. Stephen Kijak, the series showrunner and director of numerous episodes, said that this was intentional.
“When Scout came to me with the series, they already knew they wanted it to have the vibe of a cinematic thriller,” Stephen said, “and I thought that was awesome. There’s something exciting about seeing how these people worked in the shadows to really change the way the world was. When reading about their lives, there was such a thrill to the chase, it’s kind of like an action film when you think about it.”
This cinematic storytelling was then combined with the flamboyant and joyous narration of Billy Porter, which provides a great contrast that keeps the show upbeat and fast-paced while retaining an air of sleek tension.
The show’s characters aren’t the only diverse group in the show either. The creators, crew, and musical talent are also a group of people from all walks of the LGBTQ spectrum and their allies. Episode 2 of the show, which focuses on the lives of trailblazing transpeople, was directed by acclaimed trans filmmaker Kimberly Reed. The show’s theme song, “So Lucky,” is performed by Shea Diamond, a black trans musical artist (who also provided the theme to HBO’s We’re Here). And many of the producers themselves, including Kijak and Chiodi, identify as gay.
This series about diversity (and created by diversity) couldn’t come at a more pressing time. The current landscape of the world is pushing minority communities to the brink. With the rise of “LGBT free” zones in Poland, to the alarming rates of trans women who are murdered around the globe, it’s clear that now is an important time to remind the LGBTQ community that, unfortunately, civil rights had to be fought for, they weren’t just granted.
Sarah Schechter, from Berlanti Productions, one of the production companies that helped Scout bring Equal to life, shared her thoughts, saying, “The people we feature in the show are the ones responsible for creating the world we live in now. They’re the ones who helped bring us the rights that we have, which, sadly, are now under threat. As an example, this show is coming out as Amy Coney Barret is being nominated to the Supreme Court. So a lot of the rights that we have as women, LGBTQ people, and people of color, could all be under threat very soon. We’re still living in times when people think they have a right to legislate the rights of others. And I think being reminded of the beginnings of our movement is incredibly important, not just to remind people where they come from, but to also inspire them to keep fighting for justice.”
Whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, a current ally, or someone looking to learn more about a community you don’t fully understand, Equal is a riveting docuseries like no other. It not only reveals the lives of the brave, ingenious people who created the LGBTQ rights movement, but it does so in such a convincing and thrilling way that you’ll be forced to binge the whole series at once.
Equal premieres on HBO Max Thursday, October 22nd.