What We Can Learn From The Activism Of “When We Rise”

Emily Skeggs and Austin P. McKenzie as Roma Guy and Cleve Jones in When We Rise. Phil Bray / ABC

When viewers first meet Roma Guy in the ABC miniseries When We Rise, it’s 1972 and she’s gently pushing away her lover, Diane. She can’t have a real relationship with another woman at this point in time, she explains. “There are rights for women we need to fight for now,” Roma (Emily Skeggs) tells Diane (Fiona Dourif). “That’s all I can carry. I can’t carry this, too.”

Feeling like there’s a choice to be made between women’s rights and gay identity might seem foreign to a modern audience, but it was a reality for the real Roma Guy, particularly after National Organization of Women president Betty Friedan called growing lesbian visibility a “lavender menace” that would undermine feminists’ goals. Guy — who’s played by Skeggs as a young woman, then by Mary-Louise Parker when she’s older — told BuzzFeed News that she feels like When We Rise captures the struggle she and many other lesbians faced at the time.

“Was I gonna come out and therefore make that part of my movement work, or was I just going to eat it and say, ‘I won’t have lovers but I’ll work in the women’s movement’?” Guy recalled over the phone. “But as I saw it, it was really part of the struggle. I’m like, OK, fine, civil rights, racism, the women’s movement, and lesbian and gay rights — it has to all come together.”

The early episodes of When We Rise — which aired in four parts this week, the last of which premieres tonight — do an admirable job of encompassing many of these battles within the activism community, though it’d be impossible to touch on every intersection within it. Roma’s friend Cleve Jones (played first by Austin P. McKenzie and later by Guy Pearce) works within the burgeoning gay rights movement, and though he is also an activist for women’s causes, there is distrust among female activists of any man, despite his sexual identity. The third activist When We Rise centers on is Ken Jones (played by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams), who has to find his role as an activist while fighting against his ostracization from the gay community as a black man and challenging the unchecked racism of the burgeoning gay movement.

Of course, these conflicts were not resolved all at once. Cleve Jones recalled in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News that as women’s groups were working to find a place for lesbians within the movement in the 1970s and ’80s, lesbians were deciding whether or not they wanted to take part in another movement that was, at that point, largely white and male.

“There was a segment of the lesbian community that was very much separatist and wanted little to do with men,” said Jones, whose memoir, also titled When We Rise, is the basis for the miniseries.

Guy said some lesbians were uncertain about the role they would have in a male-dominated movement. “I didn’t trust that these white gay men, mostly, were gonna accept lesbians equally, that we weren’t still gonna be the secretaries,” she said.

The fact that these men were largely white was an issue for Guy, who was initially drawn to activism through the civil rights struggle. But it was an even bigger roadblock for Ken Jones, of course. In a phone interview, Jones recalled a meeting at an AIDS activist group where women and people of color were quite literally pushed to the side in favor of one table entirely composed of white men. “The light went off when I looked at that table, the makeup of that table and the dynamics of the table,” he said. “And that’s when I really became invested in doing something different.” In the miniseries, Ken is openly shunned by gay rights leaders and told he’s unwelcome at an all-white gay bar. Later, after he’s diagnosed as HIV-positive, he nearly falls through the cracks of the system, a problem many people of color faced during the AIDS crisis.

Ken (Michael K. Williams) meeting with members of his church. Eike Schroter / ABC

What ABC’s When We Rise gets particularly right, from the perspective of the activists it represents, is the way these groups had to work together, despite their different causes and viewpoints. Although Cleve is largely unwelcome in women’s activism circles on the show, his friendship with Roma earns him an entry point to help out behind the scenes and in larger protests. Roma focuses on activism that combines her advocacy for women and for gay people; she was one of the founders of the Women’s Building, which Guy noted had “lesbians and lesbians of color at the core.” And Ken works to bridge the gap between white and nonwhite communities, including bringing his own voice as a gay black man to black churches.

Jones said he was actually inspired by the women’s movement’s commitment to gender parity, applying the same logic to racial identity. It was a link that made sense to him and spoke to the way these movements, regardless of their distinctive identities, are indelibly linked. The problems, he said, “are all part of the same illness. Where you find racism you will find sexism. It’s all part of the same animal.”

That’s not to say everyone joined hands effortlessly. Guy admitted, for example, that she initially did not support the campaign of openly gay candidate Harvey Milk, whom Cleve Jones worked closely with. “At first I was like, Now we have only white men in the government. Then we’re just gonna get white gay men?” she remembered thinking. “How is that really different racially and around sexism?

What changed Guy’s mind was spending time getting to know Milk and his positions on issues that mattered to her, like senior housing and immigration. In some ways, it was about the greater good — she wanted to support a female candidate, but she also recognized that Milk had a broad and comprehensive perspective that reflected her own activism. Yes, there was compromise, but at no point did she have to abandon her ideals.

Though Milk is not heavily featured in When We Rise, that’s a key element in the series: Particularly in times of crisis — like the early days of the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the gay male community — those who care about social justice band together and fight against a common enemy.

For LGBT people as a whole to come together, Cleve Jones said, “It really takes a fairly significant threat to unite a community that is so obviously diverse in terms of racial background and gender, economic status, and political beliefs. But whenever there’s a concerted attack against us from the right wing, as it happened back in my generation with Anita Bryant and then John Briggs, or what we faced against the epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, these were things that really united us.”

In 2017, of course, these activist movements have further evolved and converged with others. Ken Jones noted that now, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been a hugely influential voice regarding violence against black people and systemic racism, is led by three black lesbians, and there are newer areas of focus as well. Trans rights, which continue to be rolled back by the current administration, have become more central to the LGBT movement. To that end, When We Rise includes the story of trans activist Cecilia Chung, played by Ivory Aquino, but hers is less central than Roma’s, Cleve’s, and Ken’s narratives.

Diane (Rachel Griffiths), Roma (Mary-Louise Parker), Cleve (Guy Pearce), and Ken Jones (Williams). Phil Bray / ABC

Cleve Jones hopes the miniseries will serve as inspiration to many of the freshly minted activists who have emerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. While he believes we’re in “uncharted territory,” Jones also sees this as one of those moments when disparate groups of activists come together to effect great change.

“I know many people are frightened, and I understand that fear, but I’m not frightened. I’m ready to fight,” he said. “I want to fight smart, I want to fight with compassion, I want to reach out to as many different kinds of people as I can possibly reach, and again, look at what we have in common as opposed to what divides us.”

When it comes to the current relationship between women’s rights, gay rights, and racial equality, there’s a lot more overlap and a lot less contention than there was when Guy, Jones, and Jones (no relation) began their activism, with major strides toward inclusion made over the past decades. At the same time, there’s still significant room for improvement.

When it comes to the issue of women’s health, however, Guy is confident about support from her male activist allies going forward. “Gay men, there’s no question now they’re with us,” Guy said. And with President Trump declaring his commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, that support may be more critical than ever.

“I think a great many gay men understand the link between the women’s movement and our own lives,” Cleve Jones echoed. “And I think we stand ready to do whatever is necessary, whether that’s writing letters or voting or contributing money or protesting, engaging in civil disobedience, all of these tactics that could be useful or can be useful depending on the situation. But I know I am not the only gay man in this country who is willing to defend women’s rights.”

Still, Ken Jones is eager to see more white activists stand up for Black Lives Matter, and he continues to spread the word. “I’m just trying to have as many conversations as I can with my friends and family about Black Lives Matter, and how important it is that it not just be black people concerned with black lives,” he said.

Jones is quick to acknowledge that the country as a whole is now facing unprecedented challenges, and it’s time for everyone to band together — but not, as these activists have learned through their early struggles, at the risk of abandoning the causes that motivated them to fight in the first place.

“There’s so many lessons to be learned from that struggle and what we’re going through now, but we’re not each other’s enemy,” Jones said. “What we have to focus on are the things that we have in common. It was always a fragile coalition, which means you work a little bit harder to make everyone feel heard and loved.”

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