"When We Rise" is a four-part-miniseries from Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, premiering Monday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. The scripted show, loosely based on real-life events, highlights the ongoing gay rights movement. The series takes viewers on a journey that begins in 1972 and ends in 2013, weaving the tales of three primary characters who all come to live in San Francisco, all portraits of real people who fought for gay equality.
Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors plays young Ken, and Michael Kenneth Williams plays older Ken) is an African-American Navy officer who falls in love with fellow shipman Michael (Charlie Carver), right before being reassigned to the Bay Area.
Women's rights activist Roma Guy (with Emily Skeggs as young Roma and Mary-Louise Parker as older Roma) fell in love with a fellow Peace Corps worker Diane (Fiona Dourif plays young Diane, with Rachel Griffiths as older Diane) before moving to Boston to join the National Organization for Women (NOW). When NOW rejected her because of her sexual preference, Roma packed up and headed West.
Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie as a young Jones, Guy Pearce as older Cleve) -- no relation to Ken -- fled his hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, for San Francisco after telling his father that he was gay.
Their journeys overlap and intersect through the eight-hour series. At times they are fighting together, and at other times they drift apart. All of their stories, however, paint pictures of the joy of finding love and community alongside the pain of being ostracized for being different.
"When We Rise" is beautiful in that it showcases a history not often told. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, our history has to be pursued often outside of the regularly scheduled education curriculum. Interspersed within the journeys of Ken, Roma and Cleve are references to other historical figures. Harvey Milk is in the background, as is Del Martin (Rosie O'Donnell), who founded Daughters of Bilitis, the first political lesbian organization, with her partner, Phyllis Lyon. Cleve has a conversation with Larry Kramer (Ken Godmere), who founded the AIDS advocacy organization ACT UP.
The series takes a handful of those stories and brings them to a larger platform than a dusty book on the fifth floor of my college library. In that sense, it is revolutionary. The series does not shy away from the difficulties of being an LGBTQ American. During the third episode, I found myself sobbing, not because I knew what it was like in the 1980s and 1990s to watch whole communities disappear because of the AIDS epidemic but because sometimes the weight of being different is simply too much to ignore.
Even though there is more LGBTQ representation on television than ever, watching same-sex intimacy is still a revolutionary act. With every touch and kiss in "When We Rise," the show does the important cultural work of humanizing same-sex couples at a time when the political climate has caused many members of the LGBTQ community to question the longevity of the rights fought for over the past 40 years.
It is important, however, to acknowledge the limited scope of this miniseries and recognize it for what it is and, frankly, for what it isn't. "When We Rise" is a portrait of gay rights, not of queer liberation. Trans people are mostly absent from the story and, even when included, are ancillary characters that forward the storylines of cisgender gay characters. When Stonewall is described during the series, it is with no mention of the drag queens and trans women of color who led the riots. At a time when trans people are among the most targeted in the LGBTQ community, this erasure reads as particularly tone-deaf.
And yet, there were moments of real critique of the movement's evolution, the most obvious of which came in a showdown between Cleve and the Human Rights Campaign during Bill Clinton's first term in the mid 1990s. The name of the organization is never uttered, but the highly recognizable equal sign hangs in the background. Cleve's primary issue is the corporatizing of the gay rights movement. His criticism is biting and necessary, still ringing true amid the sea of equal signs and rainbow #LoveWins stickers that have become trendy decor for laptops and bumpers.
In all, the series takes viewers through the cycles of progress and regression, then of achievement and backlash. However, the question "When We Rise" seems to pose most poignantly is: What will we do next?