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


Night II

When We Rise

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.

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