When the ABC mini-series “When We Rise” premiered on February 27, TV fans everywhere knew they were getting a thought-provoking look at some of the most important civil rights issues of the past 40 years, with a special focus on the hard-fought battle for full LGBT rights.
Without a doubt, the highly talented cast of “When We Rise” – including Austin P. McKenzie as the young Cleve Jones, Guy Pearce as the older Cleve Jones, Mary-Louise Parker (as Roma Guy), Rachel Griffiths (as Diane Jones) and Michael Kenneth Williams (as Ken Jones) – helps to shed some light on some important issues.
Most importantly, “When We Rise” explores the evolution of LGBTQ rights from the period of the Stonewall riots at the end of the 1960s to the modern era. It’s based on the memoir by Cleve Jones, “When We Rise,” which tells the story of this legendary LGBT activist.
All told, the series covers the lives and stories of 23 different LGBT pioneers. We meet so many of the gay, lesbian, transgender and queer activists who have made recent achievements like same-sex marriage a reality and get a better understanding at why this movement occurred at its unique historical moment in time.
Forty years ago, at the peak of the Stonewall riots in 1969, few could have predicted that same-sex marriage would later become a reality. In the ABC mini-series, we learn how the initial ideas and conceptions for the marriage equality movement took root in a series of rallies, marches and actions. We also learn how marriage equality was at times a fringe concern of the LGBT movement, and at other times, a core concern of the movement’s organizers.
The relationship between lesbians and gay men
Looking back at this pioneering LGBT movement, it’s easy to assume that lesbians and gay men have always had the same interests in moving forward their part of the U.S. civil rights movement. But as “When We Rise” makes clear, the movement of lesbians and gay men has only sometimes intersected. The liberation of gay men was the first issue that took hold, but it’s hard to say that the interests of the two groups have really ever been divergent.
One key scene is when the young Cleve first meets the young Roma (played by Emily Skeggs). Roma is organizing for a rally to stop violence against women, and asks Cleve if he would like to get involved. At first, however, she is hesitant – as she tells Cleve, men usually don’t show up for these rallies. Moreover, women don’t want them there. As if to cement that point, that first meeting between Cleve and Roma ends with Roma’s female companion giving a disapproving look at Cleve.
The racial tensions within the LGBT movement
Similar to the divide between lesbians and gay men, there’s also a tension between white and black people in the LGBT community. Cleve Jones, of course, is a white gay man. But then there’s also Ken Jones, an HIV-positive gay black man. We learn how gayness is viewed within the black community, with gay black men sometimes excluded both from the black community and the straight community. Masculinity has traditionally been such an important part of the black community, such that gayness among black men has not always been tolerated.
Moreover, there’s sometimes a sense that the LGBT movement was trying to appropriate the U.S. civil rights movement for its own purpose, trading on the struggles and challenges that the nation’s African-American population had to experience before they were treated as equal citizens. In that way, some members of the African-American population were always somewhat skeptical about the true ambitions of the LGBT movement, especially when it comes to controversial ideas like lesbian separatism (which advocates for the rejection of heterosexuality).
The AIDS crisis of the 1990s
The sweeping range and scope of “When We Rise” also exposes us to one of the most important periods in the LGBT movement — the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. We learn how some of the practices and ideas that were commonplace in the 1970s were now leading to a massive health epidemic. Since it was primarily gay men who were getting AIDS, there was a very real risk that being HIV-positive would become a literal death sentence for living a certain lifestyle.
We also learn how many of the young gay men of the 1970s and early 1980s faced major decisions of how to lead their lives later. Would they need to go back into the closet in order to get ahead in the corporate world? What happens when other fields – not just the arts – begin to embrace the LGBT community?
Equality in America today
“When We Rise” is certainly an ambitious gay rights drama. And, as many reviewers have pointed out, it may try too hard to show every issue, every key figure of the LGBT movement, and every key event that led to full LGBTQ rights. It doesn’t help, of course, that four different directors – Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, Thomas Schlamme and Dustin Black (who is also the creator and writer of the mini-series) – were involved in the 8 hours of filming.
Yet, each of them brings a new and unique perspective on the LGBT civil rights movement, and that’s important for shining a light on the most important issues. Flash forward to the current period, and it’s unclear what the Trump administration has planned for the LGBTQ community. Despite promises and assurances that rights will be respected, the push for “state’s rights” when it comes to determining issues could be used as a wedge to rollback same-sex marriages in some states. We’ve already seen a foreshadowing of this legal strategy with the whole debate over transgender bathrooms, in which the Trump administration is looking to get involved in the debate over rights for transgender people.
That’s why all the characters who make their presence felt in “When We Rise” – the gay men, the lesbian women, the transgender activists, and the drag queens – are all important in showing how rich and diverse are the experiences, interests and ideas of these people.
But what they all have in common is a hope for a future where everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can be treated as an equal and their rights respected. If that future ever happens in America, we can all look back and thank the early pioneers like Cleve Jones.