For Equal’s Isis King, It’s Vital to Speak up About Transgender Representation

HBO Max’s Equal tells the story of lesser-known LGBTQ+ activists. E! News caught up with Isis King, who plays a composite of transgender and non-confirming people.

By Jonathan Borge Nov 09, 2020 9:25 PMTags
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If you're a sucker for a period piece, HBO Max's four-part docuseries Equal should definitely be your next binge.

Narrated by Emmy-winning actor Billy Porter, the now-streaming series tells the story of lesser-known activists who paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States. Sound a little sleepy? Well, Porter's animated voice and colorful dramatizations actually make history fun. Plus, Equal will quite simply make you feel woke—and a proud member or ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

How so, you ask? Not only is the cast stellar—it also stars Samira Wiley, Anthony Rapp and Shannon Purser among others—but the series offers an important and inspiring reminder: New York City's 1969 Stonewall Riots weren't the only event that led to the gay liberation movement as we know it.

Yes, the six-day protest against police brutality and for equal rights has popularized the names of activists like Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Storme DaLarverie. However, there are a number of unsung heroes that arose out of earlier demonstrations, such as the Compton's Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Black Cat riot in 1967. It's those groups that are so well highlighted in Equal. 

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And thanks to episode two, transgender people in particular get the spotlight they deserve. When They See Us alum Isis King—best known as the first-ever transgender contestant on America's Next Top Model—plays Alexis, a narrator-style composite of the transgender and non-confirming people who fought at the Compton's Cafeteria protests in San Francisco. Her appearance comes as viewers get to revisit the stories of Christine Jorgensen (Jamie Clayton), Jack Starr (Theo Germaine) and Lucky Hicks Anderson (Alexandra Grey).

For King, the project served as an opportunity to acknowledge her own LGBTQ+ history. "This is definitely a reminder of what our ancestors had to go through," she exclusively tells E! News. "Some of them were even groped and checked by the police to make sure they were the gender they were presenting as. Everything we're going through, it's so much pressure and so intense, but then you think back at how much worse it was. I want people to know it's always been a fight."

That fight is exactly what drives King in her own work—and why she'll never stop fighting for trans representation in Hollywood. Scroll down for more from King as she discusses Equal, her previous roles and why LGBTQ+ storylines matter. 

E! News: Equal offers so many history lessons in a way that isn't boring. When did you first learn about the Compton's Cafeteria riot? 

Isis King: I learned about it on this project, which I was a little bit shocked about. It's kind of like Black history, right? We talk about the same notable figures every year. And then you hear about a new figure and you're just like, "Well, hey, I never knew about this person." I had that same feeling. I was like, "Oh, wait, this is happening everywhere." We just hear about one big moment which did start the Pride movement, but there were so many other things happening around the country. This was a big moment in history when the queens were tired.

E!: Episode two profiles three historic trans individuals. Who is your trans hero?

IK: I always like to tell the story of Octavia Saint Laurent. I saw Paris Is Burning when I was 19. And that was the first time I saw someone trans outside of the stereotypical episodes of Jerry Springer and Maury. That was the first time I saw someone on my TV screen who was articulate, confident, powerful, she knew what she wanted, she knew who she was. And I was just like, "Oh my gosh, it's possible, I'm going to be just like her." I thought, this is how I'm going to navigate transitioning. I have to move to the big city of New York and there's gonna be a group of people who are going to help me navigate it in a safe way. And I literally did that. That was all because of Octavia Saint Laurent.

E!: What do you love so much about the name Isis?

IK: Isis was the most powerful and most recognized goddess of Ancient Egypt. Her name means queen or mother of the throne. My 21st birthday was the second time I went out and presented myself as Isis. I was going to the club and I remember thinking, "this is the name." It's a powerful name and I feel like I was born to be a powerful person with a good heart who can make a difference. I wanted something that I could try to live up to. I didn't know what was ahead of me but I wanted to make Octavia proud, and the goddess proud.  


E!: LGBTQ+ actors often have to double as activists and role models while promoting their work. Do you ever just want to discuss your success in an interview? 

IK: I feel like I'm not at the point to lavish at the fruits of my labor, to be honest. It's been an uphill battle for me throughout my career and I feel like it's just now that opportunities are starting to happen, considering I came out in the era where there were really none. 

I'm constantly having to prove myself, which is okay because I still have the hunger for it. And the passion for it. Sometimes it can be a lot of pressure to speak up, but it's vital that I do. There are other trans women who do speak up and who are so articulate and I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm not like that." Each one of us have different voices and, although you can hear from all of us, people are gonna gravitate toward different people. That's why it's important for me to speak up and help people just like me. 

E!: That's a big responsibility.

IK: It would be nice to just talk about a role. But I'm still fighting for that role. It's about finding your niche and getting what you can at the moment. There are so many trans actors that I know who are on the frontlines and they do this 24/7. I think those people should also be highlighted more. 

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E!: What are some of the biggest hurdles you've faced as a trans woman in entertainment?

IK: Earlier on, when I did go to these auditions, it was usually for a sex worker role or something with little to no lines. A lot of the times they told me, "You're too petite, your voice is too light, you don't look trans enough." It's important to realize there are so many different types of trans people out there—some who are passable, those who aren't, some are non-binary. Take the time to educate yourself on that before you cast these roles.

We don't want to be a diversity hire. We have so many amazing stories to tell. And we have so much history in our survival that a lot of us can really harness and bring that out into whatever role we play. It's important to give the opportunity, but also know that if we're not even given the chance to audition for these roles, how will you know if we're good enough for the role or not? 

E!: You're considered one of the early pioneers of trans representation in Hollywood, especially with ANTM. Where do you want your career to go from here?

IK: Well, thank you for that question. I would love to be a series regular on a show that I love. And to be a part of a family aspect like that. And I feel like more recently, in the last few years, it has become more of a possibility. I would love to do something kickass, like an action movie. I'm excited for what the future holds.