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‘When We Rise’ Highlights the Progress Made by the LGBTQ Community
March 1, 2017  | By David Hinckley

To many Americans outside the LGBTQ movement, “gay rights” blew in like a tornado out of nowhere.

For years, “gays” were people who mostly didn’t talk about it, which was acceptable, because “they” made “the rest of us” slightly uncomfortable when they “flaunted it.”

Then overnight, it seemed, gays became a certified oppressed minority. Their stories were all over television, movies and the stage. They could get married. Whoa! What happened?

When We Rise, ABC’s four-part, eight-hour docudrama on the LGBTQ rights movement (premiering Monday at 9 p.m. ET), makes it clear the “overnight” part is a myth.

The modern movement alone has roots that hit a flashpoint with the New York Stonewall Rebellion of 1969.

In the subsequent half century, LGBTQ people have been bullied, fired, taunted and physically assaulted, sometimes lethally, because of who they are.

They have also made remarkable progress, though, like all other rights movements, this one still isn’t all the way there – a caveat underscored when the president issued an order on transgender bathrooms that was clearly designed as a high-five to opponents of LGBTQ rights.  

When We Rise tells its story by focusing on the lives of three activists whose involvement goes back to the early 1970s.

That includes Roma Guy, played by Ellen Skeggs as a young woman and in later episodes by Mary Louise Parker. Roma’s wife Diane is played by Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths (right, with Parker).

It includes Cleve Jones, played by Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce, who came to San Francisco as a peace activist and found his calling instead in the fledgling gay rights movement.

There’s also Ken Jones, played by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams, a U.S. Navy veteran who becomes a community organizer.

When We Rise illustrates extensively and chillingly the magnitude of the task they undertook. While gay people were often tolerated in direct proportion to how invisible they remained, it eventually became too hard to remain silent when political, law enforcement, and religious leaders wouldn’t stop labeling the LGBTQ community criminals, sinners, and lesser human beings.

The movement grew from that frustration, with a few voices turning into a roar.

When We Rise focuses much of its attention on the internal discussions and dynamics of that movement.   

More than most comparable docudramas about, say, the civil rights movement or the women’s movement, this one examines the intense and continuously shifting debate over how best to achieve the common goal. 

Some lesbian groups wanted no alliances with or even support from men, feeling men were their oppressors. Some factions advocated political action, arguing that long-term change was best secured through legal protection. Others felt the system was too corrupt and compromised to be trusted, which precluded active support even for the now-venerated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Some women’s rights groups feared the radical “gay agenda” would scare away the broader-based mainstream support they were hoping to cultivate.  

Creator/writer Dustin Lance Black clearly feels these debates, endemic to every activist movement, must be detailed to understand how we got from there to here.

Dramatically, it’s a gamble. That focus will resonate deeply with people who were involved with the movement and perhaps less so with the broader audience, who may feel it slows the story down and shifts some of its focus from the broader goals to individual dramas.

When We Rise also, at times, portrays people outside the movie as two-dimensional, and while there’s some ironic satisfaction in dehumanizing those who dehumanized the LGBTQ community, in the end, it makes for better analysis when some nuances are acknowledged.

Still, When We Rise effectively conveys how thousands of people like these individuals endured hostility, abuse, physical violence and the AIDS epidemic to achieve progress few would have thought possible 50 years ago.

It’s also fascinating how all those internal differences, and the seemingly disjointed series of actions and campaigns they spawned, had a remarkably coherent collective impact.

When We Rise doesn’t pick up a story at its beginning and doesn’t leave a story with an ending. What it delivers is a game-changing chunk of the middle.

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