‘When We Rise’ is a Vital Snapshot of America’s Uphill Battle for Equality

Update: We posted this play by play review of ‘When We Rise’ last February when it originally aired on ABC. You can now view the entire four-part miniseries on ABC Go, Hulu, and Amazon. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing it again with a special nod to the women of the second wave feminist movement who fought for gender equality and lesbian rights. #LavenderMenace 

When We Rise, a mini docu-series cataloging the history of the gay and lesbian community’s fight for equality from 1972 until the present day, aired in four parts in 2017 on ABC. Every second of this miniseries is confrontational, uncomfortable, and vital to comprehending the chronicling of gay rights liberation, a war that continues to be fought today by brave individuals who sacrifice their own lives and well being for the freedoms of the next generation.

Night I

The series kicks off in 1972 with an introduction to the characters we will be following through time and struggle. A young man in Phoenix whose father is a psychiatrist who advocates for lobotomy and electroshock therapy to “treat” the “illness” that so many believe is homosexuality. Two young Navy men hide their relationship so they are allowed to continue to serve their country. Two women serving in the Peace Corps are forced to separate when one of them decides to become an activist as part of the movement for women’s equality.

Cleave waits until he’s 18 years old before coming out to his parents so his father cannot force him into treatment, and upon coming out of the closet he takes off to San Francisco, a city he’s heard is an accepting, gay haven. When Cleve arrives, he discovers that San Francisco is not the equality utopia he had hoped, learning that the gay community has been brutally attacked and confined to hiding their identities and forced to fight for their lives on a daily basis.

Ken and his partner Michael execute a mission in Vietnam that fails, resulting in the death of Michael and the reassignment of Ken to an anti-racial discrimination division in Treasure Island. During his readjustment to the states and the journey of mourning his partner, Ken is forced to face is own identity as a gay man and his place in San Francisco.

Roma, who travels to Boston only to be informed that the National Organization for Women refuses to support lesbians, also lands in San Francisco to join a movement of women made up of lesbians and allies. This group of women is planning a rally for equal rights and against violence against women, and collaborates with Cleve’s circle of gay men who eventually join them. Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, and several other prominent faces appear as members of the women’s group, both delivering powerful presences and monologues regarding equality. Cleve and Roma both meet Ken at a local club that serves as a safe haven for members of the gay community when Ken begins frequenting the place after he discovers it while visiting the church the military chaplain has recommended.

As these characters navigate their individual battles, we see them merge together from vastly different backgrounds. This convergence serves as a reminder that will nudge us again and again throughout When We Rise, that when we have the goal of human rights in common, the differences are minuscule. Serving as a parallel companion to these character introductions, snippets of speeches given by Dr. Charles Socarides are played alongside these journeys, cataloging his opinion that the “happy homosexual” is, if anything, an oxymoron. While the unfolding of the events in the first night of the series implies that it might in fact be a daily uphill struggle for happiness, the obstacle standing in the way is not homosexuality, but rather hate and intolerance.

Night II

As part two opens, we catch up with our core characters in the year 1977, as the tide of the political climate in San Francisco begins to shift at a glacial pace, but still one more rapid than the rest of the country. Harvey Milk is about to become the first openly gay person to be elected in public office in the state of California. New life and energy is injected into the gay and lesbian community as they converge around a leader who aims to bridge gaps that exist even between lesbians and gay men. Eventually, the lesbians shift their support from their own candidate to Harvey Milk in order to unify the votes.

However, the fleeting sweet taste of victory felt by Harvey Milk’s election swiftly turns sour, when Milk is assassinated just twenty days after the election. Riots and protests ensue after Harvey Milk’s death, and Ken, Roman, Cleve, along with their friends and family, work together to get back on their feet to start the fight all over again. Ken finds love with Richard, a closeted CPS worker who remains married to his wife for logistical safety. Roma lands herself in a triangle at the intersection of new love and old love, and Cleve focuses on deepening his bonds with the family he has made for himself and digs his heels in further into the political battle for equality in the wake of his mentor’s death.

Just as the dust begins to settle, it’s kicked up into a tornado as the AIDS crisis explodes throughout the gay community, mysteriously and brutally eviscerating everyone in its path. Dubbed the ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ or GRID as it was known at the time when it was stigmatized as a gay man’s disease, the deadly HIV virus spread ruthlessly. Gay men were quarantined in hospitals and rejected from schools and places of business. It soon became evident that AIDS was just the excuse hate groups needed to stomp out gay rights once and for all, and with no knowledge of how it was transmitted and no cure, it became both a physical and social plague.

Part two of these miniseries is the most emotionally demanding and the most vital chapter, particularly for the millennial generation to see. As a 29-year-old bisexual woman, I was ashamed while watching this of how uninformed and uneducated I was on the level of horror AIDS brought with it, and the extent to which it leveled the gay community and fueled the fire of hatred among those who were against gay rights. I’ve heard the statistics before, but numbers mean little when you don’t force yourself to stop and see the faces of those who suffered and died, and those who lost their loved ones.

Admittedly, I avoided the uncomfortable experience of watching those numbers come to life on a screen for years, and I can honestly say that this two hours of television changed my life. To witness so many men just decimated by a disease no one cared to acknowledge until it impacted the lives of children and straight people is something that cannot and should not ever be forgotten. The generation I’m part of was born after the height of the AIDS outbreak, and this heartbreaking portrayal of its destructive path needs to be required viewing for those who didn’t live it themselves, or those who lived it but weren’t surrounded by the sacrifices the community has made.

Night III

When We Rise, in addition to being divided into four parts, is further split into two distinct halves. In part three of the series, we leap forward a decade to the year 1992. This half of the miniseries focuses on the fight that finally forms against AIDS and the continuous political struggle for the human rights of members of the LGBT community. Ken and his partner Richard are both HIV positive, along with Cleve and his partner Ricardo. Roma and Diane have formed a family together after Diane gave birth to a little girl as the result of an anonymous sperm donation.

Although the community is now aware of how AIDS is transmitted and is working on ways to live with the disease, an infection has already run rampant through a massive majority of gay men, particularly in San Francisco. Both Ken and Cleve finally begin receiving cutting-edge medication that keeps the symptoms at bay, but not before their partners are snatched away from them.

Roma and Diane are approached by Diane’s daughter Annie about the identity of her biological father, who turns out to be rising political star Tom Ammiano. Thus begins a series of awkward family moments as Annie decides to create and maintain a relationship with her father. The spitfire attitude Annie exudes here never dissipates, and she proves to be quite the handful, not to be diluted by the fact that her “nontraditional” two mother family and the level of intolerance toward lesbians and gays makes her an outcast everywhere she goes.

As we watch these characters continue to balance activism with navigating adulthood, additional eyeopening struggles are highlighted during the never-ending battle for equality. Ken’s partner Richard passes away, resulting in the legal eviction of Ken from their home because of his lack or rights over Richard’s property. Cleve loses his partner to AIDS and as he’s grieving, ends up fostering his neighbor’s infant under the legal radar, only to lose the baby due to Cleve’s AIDS diagnosis once the father is evicted from his home.

On a side note, those who are part of the LGBT community and are terrified of the current political climate and what the future could bring are often criticized and mocked. Pleas with family members and friends not to cast their 2016 votes for a candidate who has surrounded himself by powerful politicians who oppose gay rights for fear that we’ll be rolled back to times when children can be snatched from our arms and partners can be kicked out of our homes –  are often responded to with scoffs and eye rolls. How lovely it must be to be able to quickly forget how recent these injustices occurred.

Night IV

Speaking of injustices, part four brings us to the 2008 election of President Obama, along with the passage of Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal in the state of California. The outrage sparked by Prop 8 caused a rumble in the millennial generation, who for the first time was confronted with the reality of being treated like a second-class citizen. With a ripple that swiftly grows into a wave, Baby Boomers and Millennials finally join together to rise up against the hatred and inequality, deciding to take marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, after being smacked down so many times, some people have decided to sacrifice who they are simply to survive. We find Ken being baptized at a church that took him in on the contingency that he work toward “recovery” from his homosexuality. Struggling with smothering who he really is and who he loves, Ken finds himself drawn to the City of Refuge church, made up of a group of accepting spiritual activists.

Cleve finds himself picking up his megaphone once again and joining forces with the new generation to give a voice to the fight against Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which was signed by President Clinton in 1996. After years of touring and displaying the quilt he masterminded that catalogs the names of every person in the community who has died of AIDS, Cleve switches gears and takes the fight straight to the courts. Roma and Dione, who previously looked at marriage with disdain as a tradition only adopted by straight couples, find themselves yearning for the passage of marriage equality so that their rights as a lesbian couple and a family can finally become legal.

As the culmination of these events builds up the delivery of the Supreme Court decisions, striking down DOMA and Proposition 8, angst reaches a fever pitch. Keeping in mind how many decades When We Rise has spanned alongside the amount of progress that’s been made, a case can be made both for how far we’ve come and how little we’ve actually managed to close the gap between the divisiveness that still exists like a dark cloud over the concept of civil rights and equality.

As I rewatched the ending of this series today and witnessed the mass marriage ceremonies that occurred in the wake of the Supreme Court’s devision, I thought both about how much we’ve achieved, but also about what we still have to do in 2017 to reach equal rights for everyone. A push notification reached my phone, announcing the Gavin Grimm’s case has to return to the federal appeals court as a result of Trump striking protections for transgender students in public schools. We’re still not all equal. We aren’t there quite yet.

The closing of When We Rise features text that serves as a reminder that discrimination against sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, is still all discrimination, and that we all are fighting the same fight together. One fight. One human race. We will continue to rise together. As Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”