“When We Rise” Is What The World Needs Now, Especially You

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.

MARY-LOUISE PARKER, RACHEL GRIFFITHS, LYDIA BOLAND (ABC/Eike Schroter)

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.

Whoopi Goldberg talks with director Dee Rees on the set of “When We Rise”

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.

Rosie O’Donell as Del Martin, When We Rise

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.

I feel like you won’t really realize how terrible these wigs are until you see the show, which is reason enough to tune in, I promise

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.


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Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City and mellowed out in California before returning to Michigan for reasons that are unclear to her now. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2346 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. 1

    I’ll be interested to see this when it eventually finds its way beneath the equator. Much of our Australian story was similar to yours with many of the same faults and losses and wins too. I feel fortunate to have been part of this from the mid sixties but there’s still a long way to go.

  2. 0

    Thank you for writing this! I’ll be honest, I hadn’t even heard of “When We Rise” until I was looking up why last night’s episode of The Bachelor was only an hour long, but damn, I’m glad I had ABC on at 8 pm last night. So many gay people making out on network TV!!! I’m ashamed to say that I knew little to none of this history before watching last night’s episode, and I’m really excited to watch the next 3 episodes. You articulated way better than I ever could why this is so important.

  3. 0

    So real talk, I’ve seen these previews for the last month while watching scandal and had no idea it was about the LGBT movement. I thought it was some broad whitewashed social activism story that maybe had a token gay storyline, so this review is reassuring! Also, that they keep calling it a “television event” just seems weird to me. But now I’ll try to check out…

  4. 2

    I made my mom watch this with me last night! We enjoyed it! I will admit watching the Roma Guy sex scene was a bit awkward with my mom sitting in the room.. kind of like the time I made the unfortunate choice of watching Carol with my mom.. but we liked it all the same!

  5. 0

    I’m interested in this because as a history nerd, it is fascinating to learn about this stuff. It is kind of amazing that LGBTQIA activism doesn’t get more than a footnote in most standard textbooks.

    I took a community college course a while back about activism in the 60’s and 70’s. Queer activism got a bit of a showcase there. But if I didn’t look up the rest on my own, I would have thought by the 70’s, it just stopped. Had no clue about the protests in the 80’s.

    And not to be a jerk, but “Milk” was directed by Gus Van Saint. Who also directed episodes of this series too. Actually there is a whole bunch of queer folks who worked behind the scenes on this series. It is pretty awesome.

    Also a trans character played by a trans actress!!

  6. 1

    I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far…but yeah, its framing of lesbians as juxtaposed to gay men is frustrating. It reminded me of 2014’s Pride…a great movie about gay men and lesbians simultaneously joining forces with potentially bigoted miners without ever compromising their own identities. And yet Pride pokes fun at the lesbians who decide to break off and form their own group to address women’s issues.

    These first two hours of When We Rise felt particularly odd in that respect…since it was very clear about why lesbians would separate from NOW but seemed to assume the answer is to be absorbed into a gay men’s movement.

    • 0

      That’s an interest point. Since from what I’ve read about those first couples year of Gay Liberation, kind of the reverse development happened (at least in New York anyway). The lesbian activist felt estranged from the predominately male Gay Liberation movement FIRST. Than they shifted to challenge anti-gay views within the women movement.

  7. 0

    I just watched it and tbh I found it kind of confusing… I couldn’t follow the timeline or the dialogue a lot of the times, and people seemed to jump directly to major decisions without ever showing the audience how they got there. even just timestamps on the bottom of the screen would be helpful!
    There’s also a bunch of name dropping of people I’ve never heard of before with little explanation of who they are. Like, yeah I’m gonna research that Jim guy and everyone else as soon as I remember their names, but I can’t pause it every five seconds to look up some other person or event they talk about.
    I’m just being nitpicky though! I totally enjoyed watching it and I definitely cried a lot – probably most of all when Ken first walks into the Black Cat and the first words on the screen (bc I use subtitles) were the words from swing low, sweet chariot: “coming for to carry me home”.

  8. 3

    A very nicely written and comprehensive review. It is always strange, though, to see your life events portrayed on TV. In 1971 I was 25 years old. I was living in Canada and very aware of events in the USA. It is truly amazing the changes our society has gone through in the past 46 years.

  9. 8

    I moved to San Francisco toward the end of the 70s and this show is accurate enough that watching it has been both heartwarming and triggering. Reliving AIDS is going to be very hard, I lost dozens of friends and people I knew by name.

    Riese wasn’t wrong about women’s culture. A women’s bookstore, bath, bar/club, and Good Vibrations store all on the same street. The Women’s Building. Lyon-Martin clinic. A handful of women’s bars and clubs in the city. Softball. Women helping each other fix up houses inside and outside the city.

    I hope younger queers watching this take away a few things. When you look at me, don’t see your mom or grandma. San Francisco didn’t welcome us, we made it welcoming. Women are amazing as a community and don’t repeat our mistakes in community building. Show up to do the organizing and volunteering. At the time it’s often drudgery but over time it can be important, even historic.

    Many of us who lived that history are still fighting for all of our rights. Talk to us while you still can in addition to reading books and watching documentaries. And please remember us in your intersectionality work.

    • 0

      I can’t imagine how difficult it will be to watch the HIV/AIDS episode(s) if you’ve lived through that era. I study history of public health and have read enough about early HIV/AIDS activism, medicine, and public health that just thinking about that historical moment overwhelms me with emotion.

      I love this last part of your comment: “Talk to us while you still can in addition to reading books and watching documentaries. And please remember us in your intersectionality work.” Talking to you, our forepeople, is critical to assembling an accurate, robust historical record, to building cross-generational respect and coalition, and for seeing ourselves in the past and ensuring we have a bright future.

  10. 1

    Sooo I’m loving this TV series BUT does anyone else feel icky about the commercials getting played during breaks? E.g., that University of Phoenix one? Like STEP AWAY FROM MY HEART STRINGS, YA CAPITALI$T$!

  11. 0

    I’ve finally sat down to watch the first episode on Hulu and I’m extremely disappointed. Two of the three main characters being white and all of them being cis gays seems like a ridiculously narrow viewpoint. I’m glad to hear there’s at least one trans woman who get more of a spotlight, but pretty much all the characters of color I’ve seen so far (outside of Ken) have only existed as background characters to push white cis gays’ narratives along.
    Which just feels really stale and not actually a revolutionary depiction of the LGBT rights movement.

  12. 0

    I wish my mother and my Uncle Jack were still alive to see this mini-series. In may family, we have had a gay or lesbian in each generation for at least the last four generations. My mom would have enjoyed the story and the history. (She also loved the book Beyond The Pale. In many ways it was the story of my family.) My Uncle Jack lived through it. After serving in the U.S. Navy during WW II, he went to SF to “find himself.” I am not sure that my father ever would have understood it, but with moderate Alzheimer’s I didn’t even suggest it. Hopefully it will be out on DVD soon; I can only keep things on the DVR for so long before needing the space.

  13. 0

    When I first read that Carrie Preston was going to play Sally Gearhart I questioned the casting. There are few butch dyke roles in tv or film so I would have preferred seeing a butch actor play the role. But even past that it seemed an odd choice and I wondered how that was going to play out. Glad Riese commented on it so if I watch it I’ll be prepared for the disappointment.

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