The fourth installment of the inspirational HBO Max documentary series, “Equal,” focuses on the Stonewall riots and the birth of the Gay Rights Movement. Narrated by Billy Porter, the episode provides a context for the time — June, 1969 — when it was dangerous to be openly gay. Cops often raided gay bars; moreover, getting arrested could destroy a person’s livelihood if not their life.
In “Equal,” the history of the Stonewall riots, which lasted several days and had repercussions long after, is retold through the eyewitness accounts including Sylvia Rivera (Hailie Sahar of “POSE”), Craig Rodwell (Scott Turner Schofield) and PGN publisher Mark Segal (Cole Doman of “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”).
Playing the 18 year-old Segal, Doman debunks the myth that the riots were started because Judy Garland was being buried that day. He talks enthusiastically about being inside the bar, describing the people who were there when the cops walked in and started kicking people out. Additional scenes describe the fighting that took place over the subsequent nights as well as the unity that formed as a result of the riots.
In a recent phone interview, Doman, who was born in Philadelphia, chatted with PGN about playing Segal and making “Equal.”
What research did you do to learn about the history of Stonewall and Mark’s participation during that time?
Mark and I talked on the phone about his experiences, his history, and his feelings the night of Stonewall. I wanted to capture the joy and excitement. He was proud of it. Everyone was so riled up, and angry, and rebellious. There is violence with revolution to achieve a reaction and be seen. They were bursting out and not taking no for an answer; they were not going to be pushed aside or into the closet. I read his book, and I am familiar with what happened that night. I have read tons of LGBT literature, so I was jazzed and ready to go.
What are the challenges of playing a real person in a documentary? You don’t “mimic” Mark, rather you interpret him as an individual. Can you discuss your approach to the role?
It was important for me to hear Mark’s voice. We weren’t able to meet in person, but it was his spirit and vocabulary and how he describes things. He has a ferocity about him, but he’s so jovial. I wanted that to come through in my performance. I didn’t know his physical mannerisms, so it was more about capturing his spirit and how Mark made me feel talking with him. That exuberance. He’s very funny and made me laugh a lot when we spoke.
What can you say about creating Mark with the costumes you wore?
I loved the style, and the 1960s. I was excited to see what they came up with. I felt I locked into something with the black leather jacket and ¾-length baseball shirt. Mark knew how to look to fit in with a social crowd. I loved the denim I wore, and I made that clear, so I got to keep the pants after the shoot.
“Equal” features some never-before seen footage of actual events. What did you learn about Stonewall and the Gay Rights Movement from making the series?
I know they worked diligently with consulting producers, including LGBT historian Jenni Olson. They did their homework. It’s a time period that is endlessly fascinating to me as a gay man, because its pre-AIDS. The country itself was going through revolution as well. Because the country was radicalizing, people in urban environments could really display their colors. They felt they had nothing to lose.
In 1969, there were so few rights for LGBT people. Activism and radicalism were critical and helped gain the rights that we enjoy today. I never thought I’d see gay marriage. What observations do you have as a young man who has largely benefitted from the work that people like Mark and Sylvia Rivera and others did?
I think we took a lot of steps forward through the work of Sylvia and Mark who paved the way. I’m incredibly grateful. But the pendulum has swung, and there’s less of a desire to jump into a heteronormative society now. We have the privilege to decide, and we wouldn’t be able to get there without the work that has been done. But now we are looking at society and what we want it to look like as a member of the LGBT community. Do we believe in the sanctity of marriage? My friends believe in love and partnership, but not the structure of marriage. The traditional marriage roles perpetuate capitalism. My generation is so anti-institution. That’s what my generation wants to know — why do you have to be in a marriage to get health care or tax breaks? The institutions are supposed to take care of us. There’s a bigger issue here.
Do you think you would have been brave enough to come out and been visible at the time of Stonewall, which was risky for Mark and others?
Yes. It was never not an option to be an out gay person. Back then, I would have done what Mark did and move to New York City at 18. Living in Bushwick in 2020, I don’t feel unsafe. There are more marginalized people than me. I don’t feel brave [being out]. I think it’s weird that it’s considered brave in my industry to be who you are. Identity politics in 2020 are not important. They are getting in the way of important issues, like the world is melting. There’s so much more at stake.
The series ends on a positive note with a discussion of the first gay pride parade. Have you ever attended or marched in a pride parade? Can you describe that experience?
I went to my first pride parade when I was 15 or 16 in Philly with my sister and friends. It was scary that people were so public and flamboyant. I was bottled up and sensitive at the time, quite reserved. I haven’t marched in every Pride parade since then, but I do believe in a celebration of identity and coming together. Pride is the most important thing. But I also think Pride has been stained and commodified by Nike and American Airlines who wave a rainbow flag in June. It puts a bad taste in my mouth.
“Equal” premieres on HBO Max on October 22.