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


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.”

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