The first time Pose Emmy winner Billy Porter felt a connection to LGBTQ history, he was taking part in it.
In his late teens, Porter joined fellow cast mates from a Montclair State University production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for New York City’s Pride event. He heard shouts of “ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS” as he found himself marching alongside the organization, which continues to combat the AIDS pandemic. Porter didn’t know what the group was at the time. He just knew he needed to be there. “You were in the middle of it. You had to be,” he tells EW. “There was no other way. Folks were dying.”
Today folks are dying in another pandemic, and Porter notes, “You can’t be on the sidelines anymore — nobody can.” That’s why he hopes Equal, a four-part HBO Max docuseries he narrates, can play some part in the current moment. As a member of the Broadway community, it was the nonprofit organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that would teach the young Porter how to be an activist. As he puts it, they “taught me how to show up.” Equal, which chronicles the LGBTQ civil rights movement leading up to the Stonewall Riots, can now serve by further “activating” the public ahead of a presidential election.
Through a mix of archival footage and scripts based on historical documents, and performed by a cast of predominantly LGBTQ actors, Equal illuminates the activism of prominent figures prior to, during, and after Stonewall. Says documentarian Stephen Kijak (Showtime’s Sid & Judy), who spearheads the series, “we’re slipping in and out of strict documentary and impressionistic creative recreations but we wanted to bring the history as close to people and bring it to life in a unique way.”
Kijak was surprised by how many people knew Stonewall but not individuals like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who founded the country’s first social and political group for lesbians and, in 2004, were the first same-sex couple to legally wed. (Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser and The Princess Diaries’ Heather Matarazzo portray them in Equal.) “I do have a straight friend who’s been a lifelong ally and ‘friend of the gays,’” Kijak says. “She said, ‘That’s all new information for me,’ which I thought was unbelievable. You didn’t know who the Daughters of Bilitis were? Are you crazy? … We tried as hard as we could to balance out, especially for the in-the-know queer audience, the kind of top-line history that you all know and love with some kind of revelations and unique presentations of that history.”
The Handmaid’s Tale star Samira Wiley also plays A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry; Star Trek: Discovery’s Anthony Rapp stars as activist Harry Hay; and Sense8’s Jamie Clayton is Christine Jorgensen, recognized as the world’s first transgender celebrity, among other actors in the cast.
Kijak says it was important to cap each episode with “a riot or [act of] civil disobedience or something that shows the pushback against an oppressive society.” The lead up to the first NYC Pride Parade, held one year after Stonewall, was “a moment of militancy and organization.” Those things are important now, Kijak adds, because it’s “all coming back to haunt us. It’s really weird as we were making [Equal], it seemed history felt more and more prescient with each passing day.”
This series, as well as shows like Porter’s Pose, featuring the most trans actors in series regular roles to tell of NYC’s ballroom voguing scene, is a form of the actor’s activism. “Art is activism,” he says. “Artists have always been at the forefront of speaking truth to power when nobody else can, or will. It’s historical. We have the power to reach into the hearts and change the molecular structure of human beings from the inside out. I made the choice a long time ago, to make sure that’s what I was choosing. That is why Pose came into my life, that is why Equal came into my life. I have made a conscious choice and an intention to choose service.”
In an election year marked by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, attacks against journalists and protesters, and a devastating pandemic that’s still left largely unchecked by the federal government, Porter emphasizes the power of voting. Equal — and history, for that matter — acts as a reminder that “the one power we as citizens have [is] to show up and be active and participate,” Porter notes. “That is the issue. If you don’t participate, if you don’t honor what democracy is and means, [progress] will go away.”
This past June, marking 2020’s LGBTQ Pride Month, Porter spoke up for the Black queer community in light of an attack on trans woman Iyanna Dior in Minneapolis during a Black Lives Matter protest. He has since participated in virtual Pride events, appeared during the virtual Democratic National Convention in support of presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential pick Kamala Harris, and he hosted the ACLU’s Bill of Rights Gala.
As we get closer to the November election, Porter turns his attention to “Orangina 45” — his nickname for current President Donald Trump. Everyone in a position of power with the ability to check Trump, from “people in the Senate” all the way back to former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey, Porter says, “chose their whiteness” over holding him accountable. “Y’all thought it was cute, playing with our lives like it’s a chess game. These policies and what’s going on has real effects on human beings and y’all don’t give a f—.”
If there’s any silver lining, Porter sees how the “white allies” in support of people of color “have finally woken up and seen the truth because we’ve been screaming it for centuries,” Porter continues. “Very often our allies are not activated because they don’t believe us. Now, they’re activated. Everybody is activated.” The challenge now, he adds, is “that we must always stay activated.”