I had to sit in the front row when I saw Milk, because we were late, which means I had lots of legroom but also was craning my neck and experiencing unprecedented intimacy with everybody’s pores and hairlines. There’s a certain kind of masochism in committing to extreme physical discomfort in order to best view a story that is making you sob uncontrollably. Look away! It hurts and you’re crying! But I couldn’t, of course, ’cause I’d never heard this story before. I had to watch it, I had to know everything. Before that movie, I knew exactly one thing about Harvey Milk: there was a high school named after him that I’d read about in New York Magazine. I didn’t even know that Harvey Milk was dead until Dan White shot a fictional Harvey Milk on the movie screen. I was three months away from launching what would become the world’s most popular website for LGBT women and I didn’t know a damn thing about LGBT history. Obviously we didn’t cover any of this in school.
Following the success of Milk, its writer Dustin Lance Black was able to get ABC on board with his proposal for When We Rise, a miniseries notable enough simply for existing, let alone being damn good, too. The history of the LGBT Rights movement, airing in primetime on broadcast network television for four blessed nights? That’s the kind of “sea change” the series itself calls out in a court case staged in its final episode. And I was remembering that ignorant girl who saw Milk when I found myself antsier than expected about an hour in, feeling overwhelmed by expository dialogue and the prodding diligence of humorless activists.
See, I know this story now — I’ve done a lot of reading and documentary-watching and archive-hunting since 2008 — so maybe just hearing it, in and of itself, wasn’t as satisfying as I’d expected it to be? But for most Americans, including most Gay Americans, this sweeping depiction of our untold story, in and of itself, is more than enough. Even in the show’s most ham-fisted moments (most notably an Episode Two conversation about needing a “gay symbol,” which could’ve been re-drawn as a children’s cartoon named How The Rainbow Flag Got Its Stripes), its sense of duty to our history and diversity is thorough and noble.
Although these characters initially feel too palatable, there’s some dirty queer stuff in here too, including some relatively unbridled homosexual make-outs. Those moments — oh, this has been approved for the straights has it!??! — are shocking and delightful, not only ’cause even five years ago this’d never be on TV but also ’cause even now it rarely is, whether it’s Modern Family‘s sanitized same-sex couple or Pretty Little Liars’ parade of overdressed girls who sometimes kiss Emily but never with tongue. Ultimately, the series as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even with uneven character transitions from the younger actors to their middle-aged players.
When We Rise is nothing if not ambitious, charting the LGBT rights movement in San Francisco from immediately post-Stonewall all the way through 2014. It focuses on three main characters based on three real people, chosen for their accomplishments and also for still being alive — Black didn’t want to make another gay movie that ended with a funeral (but there are plenty of funerals therein). We meet Cleve Jones (Austin P. MacKenzie / Guy Pearce) a young Quaker activist who fled Phoenix for San Francisco to meet other homos and join the peace movement; Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors / Michael Kenneth Williams) an African-American member of the United States Navy, who earns a reassignment from Vietnam to San Francisco to work on a desegregation project and Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs / Mary-Louise Parker), who landed in the Bay Area after she returned from a Peace Corps assignment to learn that her local NOW chapter was booting all the lesbians.
Part I largely establishes their stories and the basic struggle in ’70s San Francisco, Part II covers the ’70s and early ’80s including the Harvey Milk campaign and assassination as well as the beginning of HIV, Part III dives into the AIDS-ravaged ’90s and attempts to gain real political power through traditional means and Part IV is very recent history, covering the repeal of DADT and DOMA and the legalization of same-sex marriage. We witness repeated clashes of the personal and the political, as activists see their daily lives legislated away, their private moments shoved underground or cast in unforgiving light. We see families torn apart, hearts broken, violence suffered, lives lost. As a person with a certain investment in this movement, I was most captivated by the conflicts between old guard and new and between one style of organizing and another. We’ve been doing this for so long, y’all, and history tells us that multiple approaches to a single problem is far more effective than seeking a consensus that may never arrive.
When We Rise summons powerful performances from a whip-smart cast, and if Michael Kenneth Williams doesn’t win an Emmy for this, I’m protesting. Ken Jones’s story, and in particular his friendship with Cecelia Chung (played by trans actress Ivory Aquino), is the series’ most compelling arc. Ken’s struggle to find happiness throws into sharp contrast the ease with which white people navigate problems that land doubly-discriminated-against black gay people in far more unforgiving circumstances. When We Rise feels intentionally diverse in a way films like last year’s Stonewall, which centered a white gay male character while erasing the stories of real trans women of color who led the protest, was not, and it was smart to add black lesbian director Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie) to the team for the second and third installments. Still, there were definitely spots where When We Rise could’ve come down harder or went further into racism within the movement, and it really would’ve benefited from more Latinx characters in primary roles.
When We Rise attempts to cover a lot of material — too much, really, I’m unsure how more could’ve been squeezed in. So accept my last and my next critique with that caveat.
When We Rise should have provided deeper context to its oft-depicted refusal of lesbians to collaborate with gay men and lesbians’ proud identification as “man-haters” and separatists. We see a lesbian tell a gay male ally — Cleve Jones — to leave their Violence Against Women Protest, leading Roma to assert “he’s with me” and valiantly protect this innocent well-meaning white man from the angry lesbian feminists. Cleve Jones particularly is portrayed in this manner. I’ve read Jones’ memoir, When We Rise, which this series was based on, and it’s clear that Cleve specifically has enormous respect for and seeks common cause with lesbians, but in When We Rise, his unique approach is portrayed as the rule rather than the exception.
More than once we see lesbians reluctant to support efforts battling what was then known as GRID and is now known as AIDS. “They go out at night, they do tons of drugs, they have sex with strangers, is it any surprise that they catch something?” Del Martin (Rosie O’Donnell) challenges Pat Norman (Whoopi Goldberg), a lesbian San Francisco Department of Public Health official, who wants to hold a forum at the Women’s Center about GRID to “quell the gay men’s hysteria.” Later, we see Ken Jones in the hospital asking Diane, a nurse and Roma Guy’s future wife, “Where are the rest of the women? Or is it just when it’s politically helpful that we act like a family?”
It’s not until Diane forces Roma to tour a hospital ward full of dying men that Roma consents to lending her volunteers to the crisis. It’s true that many lesbians felt gay men brought the “gay cancer” upon themselves and doubted gay men would’ve supported them in a health crisis, but the vast majority felt an uncompromising call to action and the result was unprecedented unity between gay men and lesbians.
When We Rise does portray that effort, accurately positing women at the helm of much HIV/AIDS volunteerism and support. But when considering a film that will likely be screened in schools and accepted as fact, it’s unfortunate that we see so many scenes of lesbian pushback without any scenes illuminating where that pushback originated, such as over a decade of blatantly sexist disempowerment and exclusion within allegedly inclusive gay activist groups. This was a huge missed opportunity on several levels. Instead, we’re forced to rely on stereotype — of course lesbians hate men! They’re lesbians! But the moments of unity between lesbians and gay men, and Cleve’s unabashed hero worship of Del Martin, existed too, and were undeniably touching.
Although When We Rise tightly focused on individual stories and political movements, I also could’ve gone for a little less lesbian child-rearing and a little more lesbian culture. With all the scenes set in gay bars, it would’ve been cool to see a women’s music concert or bookstore — although, to be fair, I was really pleased by the centrality of The Women’s Center to the lesbian universe depicted on screen. When We Rise also made the interesting choice of re-locating and re-populating the Lavender Menace action, which took place in New York in 1970 at the Second Congress to Unite Women, to 1972 in what I think is still supposed to be San Francisco. I’m glad it was included, but I’m curious to see if this overwrites actual history in modern lesbian consciousness.
Also, I really need to talk about the wigs. I haven’t seen wig choices this egregious since 1992, when I dressed my younger brother in a Farrah Fawcett wig and giant aviators for a parody of the Sally Jessie Raphael show I shot on our porch starring my brother in every role. Also Carrie Preston, I love you I love everything you’ve ever done, but you play Sally Gearhart like she’s “Butch Lesbian #1” in an SNL skit.
When We Rise is epic and important and sometimes fails but usually doesn’t. Despite my alleged familiarity with these historical movements, I’d never heard of Roma Guy or Cecelia Chung, or knew their stories, before writing this and watching the show. Most viewers will go into this with much less, and I’m excited for them. This series has heart, and it energizes, juxtaposing political actions (I suggested the alternate title Good Gays and Lesbians Yelling On The Street With Signs About How You Should Be Nicer To Us: 1971-2014) with relatable emotional reckonings between lovers and family members. It’s easy to forget — although less easy, now that Donald Trump is President and, in a fitting twist of fate, forced When We Rise to change its airdates to accommodate his speech on Tuesday night — that things were much harder not that long ago.
The older white gay men we often dismiss as undeniably privileged Castro-condo-dwelling elitists were attacked and arrested regularly in that same neighborhood not too far back, and suffered a plague that wiped out most of their friends, lovers, and chosen family. Our elder lesbian activists sought out separatist communities because gay men and straight women alike refused us access and power, because we lost our children after coming out, because physical and sexual violence against us was swept under the rug, because our identities were questioned and dismissed by families who thought we just hadn’t met the right man yet. It’s important for LGBTQ women to be reminded that straight women once attempted to boot lesbians from the women’s movement and to not do the same to our trans sisters. It’s important to feel a hard pit of disgust in your gut when you witness a black gay man in mourning and in desperate need of community, asked to leave a bar that provides said community but only to white men. We have to think about whether our allegedly communal spaces still bear traces of that racist exclusion, even if it’s not an official policy anymore.
When We Rise isn’t the whole story — nowhere close — but it’s a start and it’s an invitation to do your own research. It’s important to know what we’ve done in the past in order to figure out what to do next. It’s important to cry — for inspirational uprisings, for tragic losses, for heartwarming weddings — our necks always craning for a better look.