Small-screen sound-off: “When We Rise”

When We Rise
Courtesy of ABC
“When We Rise” shows past LGBTQ rights struggles, but could also provide inspiration for activism right now.


Cleve Jones. Roma Guy. Ken Jones. These are names you probably don’t know. But after watching ABC’s miniseries “When We Rise,” they will become names you won’t forget.

The miniseries, created by LGBTQ rights activist Dustin Lance Black who won an Academy Award for his 2008 film “Milk,” shows the evolution of the LGBTQ rights movement through the eyes of several pivotal figures fighting for equal rights. The show, which aired on ABC on Feb. 27 and continued through March 3, begins just after the monumental Stonewall Riots. It is a reminder of how far the movement has come as the show slowly progresses to modern times.

While the show’s theme of strength in unity may seem cliché, it is the show’s ability to tell a true story, one audiences may not be familiar with, that makes the series so fresh.

In a time where gay marriage is legal across the country, the show’s violent and heartbreaking depictions of the many setbacks throughout the gay rights movement are shocking. The character’s emotions of anger and fear throughout the early years of the movement will generate anger and fear in the viewers themselves.

The show depicts the aggressive attitudes from both politicians and citizens in the 1970s and 80s toward LGBTQ people. For certain people, these attitudes will seem outdated and left in the past. But the scenes where gay people from the 70s deal with the same issues gay people deal with today are a reminder that there is still work to be done.

It is disheartening to watch a young Cleve Jones, who is at the center of the series, come out as gay to his father, only for his father to suggest ways to fix him, even offering electroshock therapy to make his son “normal.” It is frustrating to see Roma Guy, a lesbian who wants to start a family with her partner, struggle to have a child and raise her in a world that is uncomfortable with LGBT people. It is horrifying to watch Ken Jones, a black, gay man who pushed for inclusion for black people in the LGBTQ movement, to watch his partner suffer from AIDS.

These issues are still relevant now.

But the show is not all depressing. At times, the series is a celebration of the hard work that LGBTQ activists have done for decades. It is inspiring when Jones finally gets President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton to visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington D.C. It is fulfilling when Guy’s daughter tells her parents that their love has been an inspiration in her life. And, after seeing the horrors the LGBTQ community faced in the 70s and 80s, it is powerful to watch the Supreme Court rule in favor of legalizing gay marriage across the country.

Early in the series, Jones is inspired by Harvey Milk (the same man depicted in Black’s film “Milk”) who encouraged gay people to come out. By coming out, people would see the gay people in their lives, and Milk hoped that once they saw them, they would support the movement.

In the same way, the miniseries seems like an attempt to get people to join the fight for equality by teaching them about the gay rights movement. By watching “When We Rise,” people can learn about an important movement that is still pushing forward, all while enjoying the rollercoaster of emotions that any good drama should provide.

Check out this series. You will learn a lot, and you might be inspired to continue the fight.

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