The second episode of HBO Max’s impactful four-part LGBTQ+ rights docu-series Equal, focuses on stories of trans pioneers and trans resistance. Bookended by the Compton’s Cafteria riot, we’re presented with figures that might already be familiar like Christine Jorgensen as well as names we’re far less likely to have encountered, such as Black trans socialite, entrepreneur and brothel madam Lucy Hicks Anderson, portrayed by Alexandra Grey, and Jack Starr aka Jacques Moret, an enigmatic early figure who pushed the boundaries of gender expression, played by Theo Germaine. In keeping with Equal’s focus on allowing these voices from the past to speak for themselves and LGBTQ+ folks being our own storytellers, there is trans talent behind the camera too, like director of photography Ava Benjamin Shorr and episode two’s director Kimberly Reed. Reed’s 2008 debut documentary feature, Prodigal Sons, about returning to her small Montana hometown for her high school reunion and a reconciliation with her estranged brother, played over 100 festivals. It went on to win fourteen audience and jury awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize and Best Documentary at NewFest, as well as receiving nominations from the likes of GLAAD and GALECA: the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, her still searingly urgent political feature doc thriller Dark Money premiered at Sundance, earning a raft of award nominations, with wins at the Montclair Film Festival and Omaha Film Festival. She also produced, edited and wrote Paul Goodman Changed My Life, and produced The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, and the upcoming HBO documentary Transhood.
Ahead of the launch of Equal on HBO Max this Thursday October 22nd, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Kimberly Reed about the importance of discovering and sharing stories of trans resistance and the history of trans people just living their truths, how the films of Derek Jarman influenced the aesthetics of the series, the emotional connection the cast had to the historical figures they were portraying, and the power of showing trans joy through Christine Jorgensen.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Equal is brilliantly narrated throughout by Billy Porter, and I love that impactful line in episode two where he says ‘trans and gender non conforming people appear in our oldest stories from all over the world but have been consistently erased.’ What do you feel that we can gain by looking back at these stories and unearthing some forgotten and unknown ones too?
Kimberly Reed: “I’m so glad that resonated with you. The aim of the whole series is to talk about some of the unsung heroes of the LGBTQ+ movement. Given that big acronym there’s a tendency to think that our history started at Stonewall, and that we just kind of popped out of nowhere with that. So one of the aims of the overall series was to point out that the history of the movement is much richer and longer than a lot of people realise. I think that’s especially true for trans people. To a certain degree you can turn on and off the extent to which one appears as lesbian or gay, in that you can be out to some people and not out to others. When you’re trans that decision kind of gets made for you, and it’s also because of the way that our society represses trans folks socially, but also legally in many ways so that you’re not just dealing with these sexual mores, you’re also dealing with the fact that being who you are is technically illegal. And so those aren’t stories that we have heard a lot, and those are stories that we wanted to share.”
“We have some great researchers for this series like Jenni Olson who was very involved in the project, and Susan Stryker was our key consultant for the section on Compton’s Cafeteria. Both of them, and with me being a trans person, we were all really curious about these stories of these almost anonymous people who, but for a couple mistakes, would have totally slipped through the cracks of history. There was actually virtually no media coverage of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot when it happened. But I think it is also important to note that when you do hear about some of these folks—as you see from the actual newspaper headlines about Lucy Hicks Anderson, about Jack Starr, and about Christine Jorgensen—the coverage is terribly homophobic and transphobic; they are using misgendering as an insult consistently, they’re mocking those subjects at the centre of the story with pronouns. So to try to weed through all of that horrible coverage of the time to get to the heart of these characters was the main challenge behind this story. For me, it was very rewarding because once you got there you really got a sense of who these people were and how courageous they were to just be themselves at a time when that was very difficult to do. I just found it really inspiring. Even today there are a lot of people who are LGBTQ+, especially trans folks, who are facing the same challenges. Even today for that trans or non-binary or gender non-conforming kid in junior high in middle America who’s afraid to really express their true gender. So I think it’s important for us in the LGBTQ+ community to know that this movement was built by a lot of these anonymous people who may not be the first people to spring to mind, but it was them leading their daily lives that really lay the foundation for the rest of us.”
And I think that’s one reason why it’s so important that this trans focused episode in particular comes right forward to the present day with footage and images of the Brooklyn Liberation Rally for Black trans lives, and the Supreme Court decision on employment rights and the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s a very powerful and moving moment that makes that point of the continuing struggle well. Why do you feel it was important to include that contemporary footage?
“Because it ain’t over. Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination in the Senate will be on October 22nd, the same day that we premiere on HBO Max. That’s a terrible irony. Although she hasn’t voted yet, I think she’s made it pretty clear how she feels about the equality of LGBTQ+ folks, especially trans folks, because we have kind of become the wedge issue. It’s not over till we’re equal, so we’re going to continue fighting. We put that clip of the Brooklyn Liberation rally in a couple of days after it happened, as we did with the Supreme Court decision which, as wonderful as it was, appears like it maybe more fragile than ever given the reconstituted Supreme Court. So it was two steps forward, and one step back. We’re taking a step back with the appointment of Coney Barrett on October 22nd, but hopefully we’re taking two steps forward too.”
Going back to something you mentioned before, we see those newspaper headlines and we hear all of those invasive and inappropriate questions being posed to Christine Jorgensen, but in the sequences where you use actors to bring these trans figures to life we really feel like we’re getting to hear these people speak in their own words. They’re not being talked about, but talking to us directly and I think that’s a very powerful part of the series’ approach. Could giving us an insight into working with the actors and what you wanted to achieve with those sequences?
“Yeah, that really is the key, to let them speak for themselves. What you see in those headlines are just terrible presentations of people who probably would have self-identified as trans. I don’t want to speak for them, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they might well have self-identified as trans. They’re never given a voice, but when you actually read courtroom testimony from somebody like Lucy Hicks Anderson, who gives this very passionate speech about who she is and what her gender is and how important that gender expression is to her, it’s a really undeniable. So I think when you give great actors—and in that case it was Alexandra Grey—an opportunity to connect with that kind of character it’s a powerful process. Each of the actors who are playing these historical trans figures really connected emotionally to them, because we haven’t seen them before. In the case of Jack Starr, nobody’s ever heard that story. That was really plucked out of history by Jenni Olson. But when you start thinking about how many characters there were like that it’s pretty incredible. And we see some of them as Jack Starr kind of leaves through those pages, and those figures we see are also based on this great research by Jenni. I think in some ways it made my job a lot easier as director to get the actors to connect emotionally because it was such a powerful experience to discover a history that you maybe suspected was there, but that you never really knew for sure. If an actor really connects to a character, the fact that there’s something fictional about it just falls away and you just see the truth of it.”
“In my early conversations with the series showrunner Stephen Kijak about the aesthetic of this whole series we knew that we wanted it to be fresh and fun and inviting. In many ways it’s a primer, we’re just whetting people’s appetites to go and discover more, and we’re moving at a pretty good clip through a lot of historical stories. What I talked to Stephen a lot about was how we could give this a queer aesthetic, to tell these queer stories so that we’re not just taking this dominant mode of nonfiction storytelling and trying to sort of fake people out with smoke and mirrors and make them think that they’re actually watching a scene. Instead, let’s just break the fourth wall and let’s present it. We took a lot of inspiration from Derek Jarman, especially his later work, and we use lots of rear screen projections. I’ve done lots of work in theatre and opera with projection. We just wanted to break a lot of rules and develop a clear aesthetic to tell the story. We were breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to camera, and we had sets that were comprised of rear projections that actors were walking onto without any attempt to hide the fact that they’re walking onto a soundstage. But despite all of that I think it makes these true stories, these historical documents that you connect to, even more powerful in the end if you can sort of punch through all of that fakeness of any fictional presentation that we come up with. We wanted to skate back and forth between fiction and nonfiction and to find the most powerful story that we could.”
With the archive that’s used in the series, I was really pleased to see clips of Queens at Heart, a film which Jenni Olson unearthed, in episode two. Could you talk about your use of archive footage and if there was anything you were particularly pleased about incorporating?
“Yeah, I was thrilled to be able to show Queens at Heart, which far too few people have seen. It’s just an amazing document. It is rife with sensationalism and it’s kind of taking trans people and putting them in a menagerie so that they can be inspected. In another piece of archive that we use there’s a trans woman who’s being questioned by these young kids about going to a gay bar. Source where trans people are held up as a curiosity. I made a film called Prodigal Sons that was at Telluride in 2008, which is the dark ages of trans history! With the exposure I had after that film, like being on Oprah, I know what it’s like even 10 or so years ago to be treated like a spectacle. When dealing with the archive it was a somewhat similar challenge to working with those newspaper headlines in that you had to work really hard with archivists and in the editing room to find these pieces and weave them together, to let trans people speak for themselves. So I just have to shout out our editor Natasha Bedu and our story producer Christina Dodson who both did a great job of helping to find that story. The same thing really holds true with Christine Jorgensen’s words and the narration that you’re hearing, much of which is inspired by her autobiography and from some actual documents like a draft of a letter that she wrote to her parents to tell them why she disappeared to Denmark and how she’s coming back. It was really important to just let trans people speak for themselves because that’s the problem, allowing everybody else to do the talking for us.”
One of the things that I was struck by in the sequence about Christine Jorgensen was in that letter to her parents that you mention; the line ‘I’m an extremely happy person.’ There’s a lot of film footage and photographs of her smiling and I thought that was a very powerful thing, essentially to see trans joy, especially in that time period.
“Yeah, and you have to work really hard to find that because all the media coverage is the exact opposite, and still we have a tendency when talking about trans stories to only talk about the medical side of things, or to talk about all of the suffering and torment that trans people go through, and there’s far too little time spent on that trans joy and also on some resistance like we see at Compton’s Cafeteria, like we see with Jack Starr’s persistent, indefatigable demand to be seen as the gender that he is. Same thing with Lucy Hicks Anderson, I mean they’re tossing her in federal prison. So to tell these stories about trans resistance was powerful, stories about people who aren’t supposed to fight back against the system who are fighting back against the system. That’s something we don’t hear enough of.”
Finally, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, play, book, piece of music, artwork, musical, opera or person. Something or someone that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years, and why?
“I’m going mention two things that Stephen Kijak and I discussed when we were finding the aesthetic heart of this series. Derek Jarman being one. With his work, especially Edward II, he had a lot of creative constraints on him and found very beautiful solutions to the aesthetic challenges that he had to deal with and we were doing the same thing with Equal. We were telling a lot of stories so we had move really fast and break a lot of rules, and just knowing that we could really set our own aesthetic and break those rules was really important and Jarman’s work was an inspiration when it came to that. I’d also like to mention the photographers Pierre et Gilles who create these tableaux that are unabashedly queer, that aren’t afraid to turn these queer heroes into icons, which is sort of how their photography works. They’re just beautiful, and they’re very finely wrought and crafted. And I think that we ended up finding with our director of photography Ava Benjamin Shorr very beautiful images frame by frame in a way that let us really celebrate these queer pioneers, these queer heroes, and part of that has to be done visually.”
By James Kleinmann
Kimberly Reed directed episode two of the four-part LGBTQ+ civil rights docu-series Equal, ‘Transgender Pioneers’. The series premieres on HBO Max Thursday October 22nd.
Wednesday October 21st at 6pm ET as part of this year’s NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival there will be a special event celebrating the launch of Equal – PANEL: HBO Max’s EQUAL: An Intergenerational Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons featuring the directors and select cast. For more details head to the official NewFest website.