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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)

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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Travel

Quito and the Galápagos on Celebrity Flora: blog #5

Darwin was right, it is an amazing place.

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Celebrity Flora

The last full day of our Galápagos cruise dawned bright, with clear skies. The weather would change during the day. After breakfast we boarded tenders and were told it would be a dry landing. That meant we didn’t have to get in the water to get off the tender. Instead, we got to a very nice dock on the Island of Santa Cruz, in the middle of a bustling town. We were informed by the naturalist with us the population of the Island was about 25,000. We then boarded a bus for the short ride to the Charles Darwin Station, Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. We were greeted by a life size seated statue of Darwin. It was really interesting and we got to see more giant tortoises, and baby ones as well. The Center was really close to town and they told us we had an hour to walk back to meet our bus for the next part of the day. I am sure the goal of the walk was to have us shop at the various stores along the way. Some were really nice, while some were typical tourist shops. While I rarely buy anything on my travels, as I have learned after many years, whatever I buy often ends up boxed up in a closet. But many did shop, and a couple of my traveling companions bought some really nice silver jewelry.

We had been told where to meet the group, which was back at the dock, for the second part of the day. We again got on busses, and headed to a tortoise preserve in the highlands. On the way we stopped for a Scalesia tree planting activity. It is a restoration project supported by Celebrity. We each got boots to put on, two baby trees, and a trowel. Then were led into the forest to plant our trees. On the way back to our bus, my group was stuck behind a giant tortoise, who was meandering along the same path we were taking. It was fun to watch him, until we could finally walk around him, and be on our way. 

Then back on the bus to the El Manzanillo Ranch and tortoise preserve. There are a lot of tortoises on Santa Cruz Island. At the ranch we had a great buffet lunch, and were treated to entertainment, a wonderful dance program by kids in a folk-dance group. They were fun to watch. The program for the day called for us to then take a walk through the preserve. But during lunch the rains began, and they came down in buckets. So many of us chose to pass on the walk, get back on the busses, and head to the dock in town. We had been told the tenders would be running regularly and that we had up to three hours to stay on the Island and shop. I don’t know anyone who did. It was still drizzling and we all decided to head back to the ship. We heard later from the final group that came back, those who chose to take the walk through the preserve, that they nearly got stuck on the farm. There was so much rain it was washing out roads, and they needed to bring out two by fours to get the bus, and the people, out of the mud. Thankfully they did finally get out of the mud, and back to the ship.

We had a nice relaxed evening on The Flora and were treated to a slide show of pictures, taken by the naturalists, of our group, which they shared with each of us the next morning. Sunday morning The Flora headed back to Baltra Island, and we headed to the airport. It was time to say goodbye to the wonderful crew of The Flora. Of course, Captain Patricio who I have written about. But then the ship wouldn’t be the same without John Flynn, Hotel Director. From the moment we stepped on board, John was everywhere on the ship. He was always smiling and ready to answer any question someone had. He clearly kept things running superbly. He is an amazing guy. Then Boris Peralta, a Maître D. He is a really nice guy and it was incredible how many of our names he remembered, always greeting me by name. He was smiling at 6:00 am when I went for coffee, and again at the door to the dining room for dinner. Then there was Guillermo, one of the dining room staff. He was charming and also was always smiling. Always ready to bring a coffee, or anything else you needed. As I mentioned in a previous blog, there were nine naturalists on the Flora. They were all great. One who stood out to me, and answered any question I would throw at him, was Sebastian.  Clearly the competence and professionalism of the crew on The Flora, made all the difference to our great week on the ship.  

At the airport we all checked in to our chartered flight back to Quito. But there, some of the group, were heading to Peru, and on to Machu Picchu, while many of us would spend another day, or two, in Quito, before heading home. Those of us in Quito had dinner in the hotel, courtesy of Celebrity, and then on Monday, a group of us headed to the botanical gardens. It was a really nice relaxed day. But for me it was an early night, as a group of us were going to meet in the lobby of the hotel at 3:00 am to head to the airport for our 6:00 am flight to Miami, and connection to DC. That will be a separate column as I got bumped from 1st class on the Miami to DC flight, and am still debating the issue with American Airlines. So far, I have spoken to four people and got four different reasons for being bumped. Not a great look for American. But that small issue, couldn’t stop me from thinking, all-in-all, it was an amazing eleven days in Quito and the Galápagos. I got to spend time with good friends, and meet some wonderful new ones.  I would recommend a trip to the Galápagos to anyone. Darwin was right, it is an amazing place.

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Sports

Gay figure skater Colin Grafton shares his story and his dream

Boston native is contestant on British television’s ‘Dancing On Ice’

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Colin Grafton (Photo courtesy of Grafton's Instagram page)

For a second year, Boston native and professional figure skater Colin Grafton is carving up the ice on British television’s “Dancing On Ice,” and now he’s doing it as his authentic self. 

“I told my closest friends. I told the people around me and I eventually told my parents,” Grafton, 32, recalled in an interview with PinkNews, in which he discussed coming out as gay. “I was maybe 24 when all that happened. I know there’s a lot of curiosity about my sexual orientation and my love life, but I never actually came out to the public,” said ITV personality. 

“I guess this is me announcing it to you guys.”

Grafton, who has been skating since he was 7, reflected on how watching Tara Lipinski win an Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games inspired him to pursue this career. But being a male figure skater was “really tough” in the 1990s and 2000s, he told PinkNewsUK.

“I remember feeling so nervous at various points in my childhood,” said Grafton. ”I’d be skating and the hockey players would come and bang on the side of the rink and shout words. That was something all male skaters had to deal with back then. It wasn’t easy but all of it made me stronger because I took it and focused everything on my sport.”

Grafton’s focus catapulted him to competing for Team USA, winning a bronze medal at the Junior U.S. championships in 2012, with his former partner Kylie Duarte. The memory of those who taunted him only fueled him to work harder. 

“When somebody tells you, you can’t do something, or somebody makes fun of you, just prove them wrong.”

Grafton ended his competitive career in 2013 and transitioned to professional skating, leading several European tours, and even becoming a coach. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel very fortunate about the fact that I’ve been able to kind of dabble in so many different areas in the professional world, but tour life is quite hard, all the travel and being away for so long,” he said. “So, when ‘Dancing on Ice’ came up, I jumped on it.” That was in 2023. 

The program is broadcast Sunday nights on ITV’s Channel 3 from studios in Bovingdon, a village in Hertfordshire about an hour northwest of London. During that first season, Grafton made history being paired with “RuPaul Drag Race” star The Vivienne, the first drag performer on the show and the first time “Dancing On Ice” featured a same-sex team. They made it all the way to the finals, finishing in third place.

“Being a part of that representation, being a part of that team, it was just wonderful,” he said. “The support we got from everyone was just fantastic. If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the impact that it would make in the end.”

And at the conclusion of last season, Grafton finally found time to read the many messages of encouragement from fans, as well as from viewers who wrote, “Seeing us helped them and gave them the courage to either come out or be themselves,” he said. “It was truly something.”

And now, as a regular on the show’s 16th season, Grafton has decided he wants everyone to know who he really is, and in doing so, show others they are not alone. 

“If I’m honest, I never really felt the need to announce it before, but the reason I am saying this now, is because I want to show that there is representation in any way I can”, the TV personality explains.

Along the way to self-acceptance, Grafton revealed he had a lot of “small steps and small triumphs” leading him to finally feel comfortable being himself in the public eye. “It was on my own terms,” he said, and feels “blessed” to have found support among friends. 

“It’s been a long journey but now I am proud of myself and I’m proud of my sexual orientation and I want to let other people know that they should be proud of every part of themselves too,” said Grafton, acknowledging he had concerns about coming out publicly. “I was really nervous of doing that to myself. It was like, ‘OK, if I come out as gay then people are going to think I’m this or that,’ when in reality the human sexuality spectrum is so vast and it’s just one small part of the person you are.”

But appearing in primetime on such a popular TV show means that Grafton is the target of speculation about his personal life. He admits to having “lived and breathed skating” until finally getting in a relationship at age 24, around the same time he decided to come out to friends and family.

While that lasted two and a half years, Grafton’s frequent travel commitments and work on the ice left him no other chance for love. “I just didn’t really have an opportunity,” he said. “You might meet someone while you’re on a contract for six months and after that, you’re both off in different directions, so, I wasn’t really able to hold down a relationship because of that.”

But now that London is his home, Grafton told PinkNewsUK he feels ready to settle down. His perfect match? Someone local and appreciative of his business obligations. 

“We live really crazy fast-paced lives as skaters,” he said. “Personally, I want to meet someone who is also fast-paced and able to keep up with that, but they don’t have to be a fellow skater. I just want someone who supports me and I can support them, too.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all just humans doing our thing on this planet and trying to find love.”

Until he does, Grafton said he is excited to keep skating on television.

“I absolutely love ‘Dancing on Ice.’ Every season that I’m asked to do it, I feel like I’m blessed and I feel very lucky to be able to keep doing the show. I would love to continue doing it while I can or while my body allows me to as well,” he said. And when it doesn’t? Grafton imagines he might try his hand at acting. 

“I think that’s what life is all about,” he said. “Learning new things and pushing yourself to do other things.”

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Theater

Tony Thomas brings ‘Tempestuous Elements’ to DC

Ann Julia Cooper play will be at Arena Stage through March 17

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Tony Thomas (Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas)

‘Tempestuous Elements’
Through March 17
Arena Stage 
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56-$95
Arenastage.org

Tony Thomas isn’t shy about his talent. The accomplished choreographer says, “With every show I work on, the artists continue to grow. They leave wanting to keep moving and to expand that part of their artistry.”

Over the years, he’s successfully carved out a niche as a choreographer of plays with music and/or movement. For many of these “playsicals” as he whimsically dubs them, his creative credit reads “choreography consultant.”

Once an actor who danced a lot, he’s now passionate about helping other actors do the same. Currently, he’s serving as choreographer and associate director for the world premiere production of “Tempestuous Elements,” at Arena Stage’s in the round Fichandler space. Penned by Kia Corthron and staged by Psalmayene 24, it’s the true-life story of Ann Julia Cooper (played by Gina Daniels), a Black principal at D.C.’s historic M Street School who, against all odds, fights for her students’ rights to an advanced curriculum. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is this a D.C. story?

TONY THOMAS: In part. It’s more a story of its time. Anna understood she was poised to be somebody, but still feel the pushback. Superintendent white doesn’t approve of the classic curriculum she’s created for Black students. Hers is a turn of 20th century Black middle-class life with high tea and much finery. More importantly, Black people are being seen as human beings. It’s an opportunity to really be someone, but the fight isn’t over. People are boxed in another systemic way.

BLADE: And how does choreography work within a play?

THOMAS: With plays, I need to demonstrate the choreography. The actors want to see it. It’s not like with dancers when we speak the same vocabulary. 

I realize energy is one of my selling points. I’ll be 45 in April and apparently my turns and jumps are still on point.

BLADE Is there a difference between beautiful movement and not just actor movement?

THOMAS: There’s a difference. With “Tempestuous Elements,” I taught them a little ballet, warmed them up and imbued them with the dignity needed for the story they’re about to tell. Some of the cast already move like dancers while others understand tempo. When choreographing plays with movement, you have to trust the actors. 

BLADE: Is that tough for a trained dancer?

THOMAS: No, not really. I have a concert dance background — ballet, modern, jazz — and have studied with Debbie Allen, Shawn Cosby and Mike Malone. I don’t expect that level of training from actors. I like the freedom to move and put their characters into it. They’re not like ten concert dancers who need to look like one person. They are moving as characters — students, different adults.

BLADE: For a decade, you stepped away from showbiz? 

THOMAS: I stopped in my mid-20s. I turned Ailey down twice. Then I went to art school and pursued a degree in interior architecture at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

BLADE: And you returned theater? 

THOMAS: Now I do both theater and interior architecture, but in 2012 friends dared me to come along on an audition for the Broadway “West Side Story.” Well, I did and I booked a national tour. That got me back in the business. Not long after, I played Richie in “A Chorus Line” at Olney Theatre. And around 2015, I did “The Shipment” with Psalm, and ever since I’ve done all of the choreography and movement for his plays.

            BLADE: Tell me how you connect with “Tempestuous Elements”?

THOMAS: Who was your first teacher? We asked the actors to come to this production with that in mind, and to let that warm their hearts as we developed this original piece.

I grew up as a child actor doing TV, film and theater shuttling back and forth from D.C. to New York, and I took that from my mom who was an actor, singer, and dancer. I watched her teach, dress as a clown and put on parties for kids, and there were all sorts of performance-related things that I learned from her.

BLADE: And does that continue? 

THOMAS: Oh yeah. Increasingly, I enjoy being the process. I’ve grown past the point of just coming in and doing my job. I feel more invested. More and more, I want to be part of the creation process.

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