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For Heather Matarazzo, ‘Equal’ is still a cause worth fighting for

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Heather Matarazzo (R) with Shannon Purser in ‘Equal.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

NEW YORK – The HBO Max docuseries, “Equal,” which debuts this week, is designed to shore up our education by profiling various pioneers in a movement for LGBTQ equality that might never have happened if not for their refusal to stay invisible. It’s “infotainment” in the best sense of that term, blending real-life archival footage with newly filmed “re-enactments” to deliver a concise overview of pre-Stonewall history.

That means in addition to giving us a queer history lesson, “Equal” also gives us a host of queer actors paying homage to their forebears by standing in for them in the newly filmed sequences. There’s a long list: Cheyenne Jackson and Anthony Rapp (Dale Jennings and Harry Hay), Jamie Clayton (Christine Jorgensen), Samira Wiley (Lorraine Hansberry), and Hailie Sahar of “Pose” (Sylvia Rivera) are some of the better known – but among these familiar faces is also someone who is something of an icon in her own right.

Heather Matarazzo’s breakthrough performance at 13 as middle school outcast Dawn Weiner in Todd Solondz’s 1995 counter-culture classic, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” made her a touchstone for a whole generation of traumatized teenagers. Later, she won a new flock of fans as BFF Lilly in “The Princess Diaries” movies, as well. 

Now, she is appearing in “Equal” as Phyllis Lyon – who with partner Del Martin (played by Shannon Purser) co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. The pair went on to become the first LGBTQ couple married in San Francisco in 2008.

 Playing Lyon seems a natural fit for Matarazzo, given her own history as a vocal advocate for feminist and LGBTQ social justice issues, which were still very much on her mind as she spoke with the Blade last week about her participation in “Equal.”

Our conversation is below.

BLADE: How did you feel about playing Phyllis? Was there a sense of personal connection?


HEATHER MATARAZZO: It’s such an interesting question, right? Because history is history is history and so on, and so it goes. I got to feel safe enough to come out thanks to those who came before me, and put their bodies and their reputations on the line, in order for me to say, “Yes, I’m a lesbian,” and be able to say that publicly. I mean, really, I came out because I clearly didn’t have any other choice. It was so spontaneous, and it was so honest, and it was in the moment – and yet, within that, I get to look at those that came before me, in one way or another, and I get to see how their bravery allows me to be brave, too.

BLADE: And now you get to be that for others.


MATARAZZO: I do my best to receive any praise that I’m given, especially by those who say that my coming out helped enable them to come out – especially people that are younger than me, that knew me from “Princess Diaries” and whatnot, and then were like, “Oh my god, Lilly’s a LESBIAN?” I receive it as best as I can, because at the end of the day – and I say this in the most grounded of ways – we really, truly are all lights for each other.

BLADE: Like links in a chain.


MATARAZZO: Yeah, exactly. It’s a collective.

BLADE: What was your takeaway from playing Phyllis?


MATARAZZO: I think both she and Del were wonderful women who really stuck their necks out in order to build a safe community of lesbians. I was just talking about this with my wife the other night, about pre-Stonewall, and the risks that were continually taken in order for us, as members of the LGBTQ community, to be able to organize and meet with each other, in order to have a semblance of “normalcy.”

That’s what I love about Phyllis and Del, their ability, seemingly, to exhibit defiant joy. There’s a lot of joy that I see in their interviews together, about their story, how they met, the sneaking around… it almost becomes like a “Great Muppet Caper.” You know? Where it’s “We’re gonna do whatever it is we have to do to get to wherever it is we desire to be.” And I’m grateful that they both got to have that full experience before they passed, unlike so many that didn’t get it, or haven’t gotten it yet.

BLADE: Do you think it’s important to tell their stories for a generation that maybe doesn’t have it as hard?


MATARAZZO: The older I’ve gotten, on one hand it doesn’t seem like being out is that big of a deal anymore – and yet, even as I say that, we are looking at the fucking clown show that is this Supreme Court nomination process.

Let’s be clear, the United States is abysmal in its human rights practices. That’s not something that went away when we got marriage equality. I mean, look at all of the Black trans women that have been murdered here, this year alone? And I don’t think that we can talk about sexual orientation without also talking about race, without also talking about gender – there are so many different intersections, because when you talk about one, you can’t NOT talk about the other.

We all desire to be seen, and held, in our humanity. And we shouldn’t have to spend so much time fighting for our humanity and our fucking right to exist. Every single person deserves to feel safe, and not fear for their lives simply based upon one’s sexual orientation, or the color of one’s skin, or one’s religion, or one’s gender identity, or one’s – there are so many things. So, for me, it’s all so connected, it’s a microcosmic experience of something much larger. 

BLADE: That ties in with your first-hand experience with sexism in Hollywood. You spoke up in support of Rose Byrne when she helped bring #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein scandal into the spotlight. What would you say about that subject now?


MATARAZZO: I’m glad Weinstein’s in jail. I hope he stays there, and I hope he rots. 

Here’s the thing, we still have a long way to go. Because again, MeToo was pretty much cis-gender, hetero white ladies speaking out about it, and so, you know, it’s synonymous now with cis-gender, hetero fucking white ladies – when the movement was founded by fucking Tarana Burke. And when you have 63 percent of white women voting for a fucking person who literally said, “I grab women by their pussies?” I mean, I think that white women just need to shut the fuck up, and finally listen to black women, for once.

Right now, the truth is that we are living in precarious times – we always have been, to one degree or another, depending on where you are in the disparity that is this American caste system.

BLADE: Do you hope that the current resurgence of the equality movement will help bring about change in those who oppose it?


MATARAZZO: Sure. Or, we could just leave them by the wayside.

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Movies

‘Pray Away’ exposes horrors of ‘conversion therapy’

The fraud is still out there, actively claiming victims

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A scene from ‘Pray Away.’ (Image courtesy Netflix)

LOS ANGELES – It’s fitting that Blumhouse Productions should be among the array of associated companies behind the new documentary “Pray Away,” which debuted on Netflix Aug. 3.

Now a major Hollywood player, Blumhouse Productions spent a decade building its success on creepy horror movies like “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge.” The horrors revealed in “Pray Away” are every bit as disturbing as anything in those movies; the difference is that these are horrors that take place in real life, and that makes them even more chilling.

As its title suggests, the Kristine Stolakis-directed documentary dives into the world of “conversion therapy,” specifically in the form of the Christian “Ex-Gay” movement, and unspools its history from its beginnings in the 1970s. That was when five men, struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church, started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” They quickly received more than 25,000 letters from people asking for help and formalized as Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world.

After decades of spreading anti-LGBTQ propaganda and touting methods based on discredited and pseudoscientific practices, the company was rocked when a multitude of former “success stories” began to come forward and renounce their claims of having become heterosexual. Faced with public outcry and an inescapable recognition of the untold harm they had perpetrated, Exodus officially ended its operations in 2013.

“Pray Away” is not really about Exodus, though, nor is it about scandal – at least not the salacious kind. It’s about the real human pain underneath all of that, and it follows the stories of several men and women who were once connected with Exodus. Once among the leaders and high-profile representatives of the organization, these are individuals who spent years as “Christian superstars” in the religious right before coming out as LGBTQ and disavowing the very movement they helped to start. Through the stories they tell of their personal journeys, and the resolve with which they dedicate themselves to debunking the notion that being queer is something that should or even can be “cured,” they underscore the depth of the influence that conversion therapy – and its proponents – exerts not just on its participants but on LGBTQ society as a whole.

There’s Mike Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus, who ultimately became one of the first high-profile members to denounce the group and come out as gay; John Paulk, another former Exodus leader, who along with his “ex-lesbian” wife was the face of the movement through appearances on television and magazine covers until being caught in a gay bar and exposed in the press; and Yvette Cantu, who became a highly visible spokesperson for conversion therapy and even served as a “policy analyst” for the Family Research Council – a virulently anti-LGBTQ organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – before crippling anxiety forced her to confront her feelings of guilt over the harm she was helping to inflict.

These narratives, interwoven throughout to form a bigger picture, bear witness to the personal damage caused by conversion therapy, but many of them also cast light on the even more ominous nature of the movement’s machinations behind the scenes, as it aligns itself with politicians to gain the power necessary for turning its anti-LGBTQ stance into legislative and judicial policy.

Randy Thomas, the former Exodus vice president who disassociated from the group shortly before it disbanded, relates how the movement allied itself with conservative politicians eager to stir up their constituents with a “moral” issue and facilitated the passing of Proposition 8, the California referendum that effectively banned same-sex marriage before being struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015. The implication – that a well-organized minority can gain enough political traction to impose its extreme views on a whole society – is something of which most viewers will already be keenly aware, given the shape of the last few years, but it serves as an chilling reminder of the very real and widespread harm that has been perpetrated by fundamentalist bigots acting in the name of religion.

Of course, “Pray Away” is also a story of triumph; the subjects who share their stories are shown clearly to have moved beyond the lies of conversion therapy to live much happier, fulfilled lives; one, Julie Rodgers, who was once groomed as the poster child for an Exodus-affiliated “ex-gay” ministry, is even in the process of planning a wedding with her girlfriend – perhaps the most appropriate “happy ending” of all, considering the circumstances.

Still, though, the disquieting realities exposed by Stolakis’ documentary are never quite erased by these positive outcomes. Outdated notions that are perennially used to sex-shame queer people and frame their identity as a dysfunction – the parents are to blame, masturbation is bad, gay people are child molesters, girls become lesbians through fear of men, and other such infuriating tropes – keep turning up in the discourse throughout; a procession of pious, white male faces (some belonging to disgraced former “moral leaders” like Jerry Falwell) decry homosexuality as sinful in archival media clips; and in perhaps the most unsettling sequence, we see footage of a notorious “reparative therapy” psychologist – the late Joseph Nicolosi – manipulating a patient (or rather, a victim) through psychological torture.

Most horrifying of all, perhaps, is another narrative that is woven among the others. The film begins with Jeffrey McCall, a Christian activist who was once a transgender woman but claims to have renounced his trans identity for Jesus. We watch as he works to organize a misleadingly named “Freedom March” for “ex-trans” awareness, guides a mother over the phone toward rejecting her child’s trans identity, and participates in a ritualistic “warrior” chant with a group of other former trans people – all without a trace of joy in his face, his voice, or his manner.

It’s that last sequence in which “Pray Away” becomes most reminiscent of one of Blumhouse’s horror films; in the feverish, histrionic abandonment to which they give themselves in their chant, these struggling people evoke the unnatural fervor of a possessed congregation at a cult. Watching the spectacle, it’s easy to see them as deluded and dehumanized. Even so, one can’t help but sense that the tears in their eyes are real; they draw our compassion, and they remind us that the fraud of conversion therapy is still out there, actively claiming victims.

The evil of Exodus may have been vanquished in “Pray Away,” but like any good horror film, it makes sure we know there’s still plenty of room for a sequel.

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Books

Leontyne Price book will inspire you to embrace opera

A dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, and poetry

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‘The Monster I am Today’
By Kevin Simmonds
c.2021, TriQuarterly Books
$20/160 pages

Years ago, my boss, who had the flu, insisted that I use her ticket to hear Pavarotti give a recital at Lincoln Center. I knew nothing about opera, but was thrilled by this opportunity. After the performance, I ended up in a receiving line to meet the famous tenor. When I shook his hand, he put me at ease about my ignorance of opera. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “I listen to Waylon Jennings.”

I tell you this not to name drop, but because “The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse” by San Francisco-based writer, poet, and musician Kevin Simmonds makes me want to do nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe opera.

Between the pandemic and other problems of life, it’s easy to become desensitized to poetry, other people’s pain – even beauty.

As you read “The Monster I am Today,” Simmonds, who grew up Black and gay in New Orleans, will awaken your deadened senses.

Through a dazzling hybrid of memoir, prose, quotations, song lyrics and poetry, Simmonds brings Price, the first African-American to achieve international acclaim in the opera world, to life.

Price, 94, was born in Laurel, Miss. In 1955, Price was the first Black singer to appear in an opera on TV when she sang the title role in “Tosca.”

She performed in major opera houses from the Metropolitan Opera to the San Francisco Opera to La Scala. Price has received many honors. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Yet, though she’s so renowned, even some of her most ardent fans might not know much about her life.

Price, Simmonds says, didn’t believe in talking about herself too personally or complaining about her struggles publicly.

“Have I talked too much,” Price says, “You know, talking a lot isn’t good for a singer.”

It’s ironic that Simmonds puts this quote from Price right after one of several (fictitious) FBI files of her in the book.

As Simmonds notes in the endnotes, the FBI files in the volume aren’t official FBI files, but the content in them is factual.

The faux FBI file notes that Price attended a production of “The Dutchman” by “Negro agitator Leroi Jones, who is married to agitator Hettie Jones, a Jew.”

“The play is insolent filth and undisciplined rage toward the white race,” the file added, “Price endorsed the performance from her seat in the audience by shouting, ‘Right on!’”

You can’t help but wonder: Does Price mean that talking too much would hurt her singing voice? Or is she also thinking: talking too much wouldn’t be good given white society’s racial prejudice?

“The Monster I am Today” isn’t a bio of Price. Yet, through taut, incisive poems and prose fragments, Simmonds makes her up close and personal.

“Dear, this wasn’t no Chitlin’ Circuit/not Ella’s or Lena’s crowd,” Simmonds writes in a poem in Price’s voice, “This was box seats passed/from one generation/of Vanderbilts Carnegies Astors and Guggenheims to the next.”

Price is the life in the title of the book. But you soon realize that Simmonds is remembering — riffing — on his life.  Price is the monster (in the sense of marvel) etched in Simmonds’ DNA.

Opera, music, and high school chorus saved his life when Simmonds was a young queer kid.

“Opera: Italian for ‘a work, a labor’:the feminine Latin root op: ‘to work, produce in abundance,” writes Simmonds of his young self, “Feminine work of abundance – that’s what I sought to behold and become.”

Simmonds studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina.  He is the author of two poetry collections, “Mad for Meat” and “Bend to It.”

Because “Monster” is structured as overture, performance, and postlude, reading it is like being at the opera.

Its beauty and heartbreak will tear your heart out.

“The steady, anesthetizing racism of the campus police, professors and classmates poisoned and debilitated me,” Simmonds writes of his time at Vanderbilt, “I thought I’d lost my voice.”

A standing ovation for “The Monster I am Today.”  It’s a monster of a book.

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a&e features

Everything you need to know about WorldPride 2021

Party in Scandinavia with the happiest people on Earth

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Confetti rained down in New York’s Times Square at Stonewall 50 WorldPride New York’s closing ceremony two years ago. (Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

By Mikey Rox| NEW YORK – It’s been two years since Stonewall 50 – WorldPride NYC 2019 became the largest international Pride celebration in history, but the “bye” year of 2020 wasn’t due to the pandemic. 

The global celebration has been held every odd-numbered year since 2017 given its massive logistical undertaking (with sporadic celebrations in 2006, 2012 and 2014 before then), and WorldPride Copenhagen – Malmö 2021 couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Hundreds of thousands of cooped-up queer revelers and allies will flock to the twin host cities in Denmark and Sweden, respectively, from Aug. 12-22, to party with the happiest people on the planet, a delightful distinction provided to the Scandinavian countries by the United Nations’ famous World Happiness Report. (The United States ranked No. 19 in the most recent report, FYI.) 

So what’s in store for this year’s all-out progressive-flag-flying festival? Read on for more.

Two LGBTQ anniversaries in Denmark

If you can believe it, it’s been 70 years since Danish doctors in 1951 performed the world’s first successful genital reconstruction surgery, a medical marvel that provided hope to transgender people the world over. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Gay Liberation Front’s Danish chapter, which has been instrumental in blazing trails toward equality for the country. Look how far it’s come.

Opening ceremonies kick off in Copenhagen

In conjunction with Copenhagen Pride, WorldPride will officially start late afternoon on Aug. 13, but in adherence with COVID-19 protocols the opening ceremony won’t be held in WorldPride Square (at least not as of press time; things could – and probably will – change). That potential snafu notwithstanding, Denmark welcomes vaccinated U.S. travelers, and if any testing is needed, both PCR and antigen tests will be available free to everyone, including tourists, 24/7. Copenhagen is OPENhagen again.

WorldPride Square will be open for the rest of the fest

WorldPride Square, a makeshift village of sorts (similar to the Olympics) located within Copenhagen’s main square, will provide a gathering place for all attendees that have traveled far and wide. LGBTQ+ and non-governmental organizations spanning the globe will set up shop in the square to greet pedestrians, provide information, and invite folks to get involved. Art exhibits also will be a centerpiece of the village, alongside a street-food market and bars with plenty of space to relax. 

EuroGames will be held simultaneously

If you enjoy watching athletes compete in variety of sports that range from boxing and badminton to dancing and dodgeball, add the spectator-friendly EuroGames to your list of to-dos while you’re in Copenhagen. If you want to get hands-on, consider signing up to become a volunteer at the games, to be held Aug. 18-20; EuroGames’ website is currently accepting those applications. 

Spread out and explore other WorldPride villages

While WorldPride Square will serve as the jump-off for the 10 days of festivities, other available villages will allow crowds to spread out and explore their individual interests. In addition to Sports Village for EuroGames athletes and fans, other villages will focus on kids and families, youth, women, and the queer community, among others. Programs and content of these villages will be target-audience specific but open to everyone.

You might have a brush with royalty

Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, Countess of Monpezat, is patron of Copenhagen 2021, making her the first-ever royal to serve in the role for a major LGBTQ+ event. Say hi if you spot her; she knows a queen when she sees one.

Despite pandemic protocol, the show will go on

Organizers have said in an official statement that despite some COVID-19 restrictions, they’re “continuing to plan for full delivery of all Copenhagen 2021 events taking into account the guidance and recommendations” of government agencies. Doubling down, organizers have promised they will not cancel or postpone events. 

Now there’s only one thing left to do: Let’s go!

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBT lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels)

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