BY Stephen Vider ON March 13, 2017
When We Rise, ABC’s ambitious miniseries on the history of the LGBT rights movement, is nothing if not self-conscious. Originally aired over four nights (interrupted only by Trump’s address to Congress), the eight-hour docudrama winds from gay liberation to marriage equality, with lesbian feminism, military discrimination, religious oppression, and AIDS activism along the way. The series was conceived and largely written by Dustin Lance Black, best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 2008 film Milk, and it repeatedly nods to key moments of LGBT visibility as media forebears. Early in the first episode, the three young protagonists, divided across continents, all discover gay liberation in the pages of Life magazine’s 1970 year-in-review issue—much as Black might hope young LGBT viewers today will discover the miniseries and with it, a history they did not know was theirs to claim. Yet as Black explained to Slate‘s June Thomas, he also developed the series with a broader audience in mind: “I wrote this show for my family. Most of my family lives in the South, from Texas to Arkansas to Louisiana. They’re mostly conservative, religious, and I grew up in a military home. I thought doing this kind of show on ABC, was an opportunity to finally introduce my LGBT family to my birth family, and to speak that common language.” The result can feel old-fashioned, especially in the era of HBO and Amazon Prime: the series never shakes a certain network TV staginess. When We Rise is, in the end, a heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama—often moving, frequently manipulative, and decidedly earnest.
Yet the series has its surprises, too. Each episode interweaves the stories of its three main characters, an unlikely trio of San Francisco activists played by pairs of younger and older actors—Harvey Milk disciple Cleve Jones (Austin McKenzie and Guy Pearce), feminist activist Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs and Mary Louise Parker), and African-American veteran Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams). There are many more famous figures who might have been chosen—and indeed, many other historical figures, both well and under-known, make appearances along way: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, José Sarria, Sylvester, Sally Gearheart, Charles and Richard Socarides, Larry Kramer, among many others. The conspicuously careful choice of Cleve, Roma, and Ken, however, opens up the story to unexpected intersections: in the final episode, while Cleve works alongside lawyers to defeat Prop 8 in court, Roma works towards universal health care in San Francisco, reminding those around her that 1980s AIDS activism was not only an LGBT fight, but a fight for medical access. And while Cleve Jones quickly emerges as a professional gay activist, both Roma and Ken engage in LGBT activism and community somewhat reluctantly. The history of LGBT rights, the series suggests, is not only about organized politics and protests but also the smaller moments of awakening, injustice, loss, and sometimes ambivalence that turn ordinary individuals into activists.
Outhistory asked four scholars to share their reflections on the series—how it frames (and distorts) the history of the LGBT movement, and what it means for academics, activists, and other TV watchers and creators today.
Wrestling with San Francisco’s Past
All things considered, I have to give When We Rise a thumbs-up, and think it did a serviceable job of presenting a complex queer history to a straight mass audience. I had bones to pick, but many of the things that stuck in my craw were things that I noticed because of my closeness to and intimate familiarity with some of the events and people being represented. In spite of my specialist nitpicking, in spite of the mini-series getting only a fair-to-middling grade on my perpetual personal litmus test for all mass media—“How did it do on trans issues?”—by the time the last episode of When We Rise concluded, I actually felt moved, and proud to have played my own little role in the sprawling tale it told.
Of course there are compressions and conflations and little white lies that script-writers find necessary for creating character-driven story lines from a messy tangle of the past. Of course stereotypes make it easier to telegraph complicated histories whose careful exposition would bog down the story-telling. Of course little details that shatter the willingness to suspend disbelief for someone who is in the know will pass unnoticed by those less attuned to the specificities and actualities of how a particular event transpired in a particular place.
Many things of this nature for me revolved around the scenes where the Ken Jones character was in North Beach, first at the African-American church, and then at the Black Cat Café. North Beach was not a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and the kind of storefront church being represented would have been more typical of the Fillmore, Western Addition, Mission, or Bayview neighborhoods. And by the early 1970s, North Beach was not a predominantly gay neighborhood either. By that time, a new wave of straight-oriented topless bars and soft-core sex shows had pushed out most of the gay nightlight that had been a characteristic of the entertainment district for decades. The Black Cat was indeed a famous bohemian bar with a noticeable gay presence, but it really wasn’t strictly speaking a gay bar, and it could be considered a North Beach establishment only if we grant that neighborhood very large and loose boundaries. Besides, it had closed in the mid-1960s.
More substantive, less antiquarian gripes pertained to how the Black Cat scenes represented the relationship of trans issues to lesbian and gay life and the city’s bohemian subculture. When Jones walks out of the church and sees a regal black queen in a beaded and sequined ankle length gown strutting down the sidewalk and entering the Black Cat, I wanted to scream “No, girl, no! That is not what you would be wearing on the street relatively early in the evening on your way to a bar—that’s what you’d wear to the big once-a-year drag ball where you planned to walk the Glamor Queen category.” Once Jones is in the bar, he encounters José Sarria, who did famously hold court at the Black Cat during Sunday brunches at which he staged mock operas in drag, but in real life José was a gay man who did cross-dressed theatrical performance, and who developed a fascinating and historically significant drag persona known as the Widow Norton. But he was never the “Mama José” we see in When We Rise, legendary mother of the oppressed trans women who rose up at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin in 1966 (which gets a welcome shout-out as an uprising that predated the better-known Stonewall). The folks who fought back against police violence at Compton’s would not have been allowed to walk through the door of the Black Cat, and José had nothing to do with them. The Black Cat, along with other members of the Tavern Guild—an important early gay-business association—had policies against admitting “drags” out of fear that such overt displays of “deviance” would bring down the wrath of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. What José did was risqué entertainment with a political twist, confined to a performance space; what street queens did, which was walk in the world 24/7 as the persons they knew themselves to be, was disallowed in gay-friendly bars (which is why they congregated in cafeterias and coffee shops that had no liquor licenses to lose).
Watching how trans people were represented in the show left me feeling like I was observing a distant galaxy, in which vast numbers of entire solar systems appear as a single small point of light. The complexity and variety of various trans and drag communities and subcultures was boiled down to a jumbled grab-bag of clichés. It made me feel weary to think how much work remains to be done to give the trans dimensions of the sexual liberation, gay liberation, and feminist movements their due, and to give full attention to struggles that were waged specifically by trans people, about trans-specific issues. That is a story that intersects with but is not contained by the history of cisgender gay and lesbian life.
What made When We Rise enjoyable—I’d even say uplifting—for me is that being trans, and being an historian of trans and queer culture in San Francisco, do not define the totality of my life. I am part of broader communities. I have personal connections to many of the people profiled in the film, and was glad to see them get their moment in the spotlight (special shout-out to the amazing vocal talent of Prado Gomez!). I, along with partners past and present, have had significant involvement in the lesbian parenting movement that formed a significant narrative thread in the series. I have held in my own hands the bloodstained, bullet-riddled clothes taken from the body of the murdered Harvey Milk, for an exhibit I curated at the GLBT Historical Society. I knew people whose names are now panels on the AIDS quilt, and early in my career did work to collect and preserve the history of the epidemic in California. My world might be trans-centric, but it is not not exclusively trans. And I saw much of that larger world being held up in instructive ways and celebratory (if sometimes didactic) ways for a mass audience that was previously unfamiliar with it.
I had the privilege of seeing the entirety of When We Rise at a special invitation-only screening at the Castro Theater, and it was powerful indeed to be in an iconic building, in an historically queer neighborhood, packed to the rafters with thousands of people who had made the history being represented on screen. There was a palpable sense of pride in the collective accomplishments being semi-fictionalized for our infotainment, as well as a sense of defiance and resistance to the current national political nightmare we are all now living through. It felt like a moment of reckoning: Yes, we have accomplished many things. Yes, we have lost much and persisted through much, against the odds. Yes, we know what it’s like to suffer devastating setbacks, as well as to win. Yes, this historical consciousness is a needed resource in the precarious present. Yes, we have indeed risen—and we will continue to rise, over and over again, like the Phoenix that is the symbol of the still-remarkable city of San Francisco we all still call our home, until we can rise no more.
Susan Stryker is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, and former Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society. She co-directed the Emmy-winning film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.
I happened to give a talk at San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum on the first night of When We Rise. Many of those attending were activists I had interviewed for my book on the 1970s and 1980s gay and lesbian left, and when I opened my talk, I thanked everyone for being present rather than staying home to watch LGBTQ history on screen. At that point, my audience knew little other than that the series was based on Cleve Jones’ memoir – but with only that to go on, they grumbled, booed, and hissed at the mention of When We Rise
Antipathy towards Cleve Jones is widespread among many LGBTQ activists of his generation and in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I did not research Jones or his work, my interviewees occasionally brought him up, citing political differences or criticizing what they termed a self-aggrandizing activist style. Since I heard more than a few personal beefs in my interviews, I tried to take criticisms of Jones with a grain of salt. I was glad to read his memoir, also titled When We Rise – and really appreciated the first half of the book, which depicts his coming of age in radical 1970s San Francisco. But I couldn’t help but notice that, after about 1978, the memoir loses nuance and increasingly represents Jones’s contributions in outsize terms.
Dustin Lance Black, ABC, and the other miniseries creators package their show as more than one person’s memoir – they define it as the story of the LGBT movement, period. In the first nights of the series (Parts I and II), I found myself moved by the ground the show attempted to cover, even though I noticed a number of gaps and missteps. But I was shocked by the markedly limited scope of Parts III and IV, which are framed decisively through Jones’s perspective. In this latter half of the series, the show’s harsh dismissal of ACT UP in favor of Jones’s AIDS Memorial Quilt; the screen time given to Jones berating younger activists; and the last episode’s myopic focus on marriage equality all combine to misrepresent Jones as both a gay everyman and a defining source of LGBT political strategy.
Reading the show carefully, especially in combination with Jones’s book, shows how the logic of Cleve-as-hero structures the series’ account of the LGBT movement even from early on. On screen, the series’ other protagonists represent distinct themes: lesbian feminism and parenting for Roma Guy and Diane Jones, and military service, religious faith, racial identity, addiction and recovery for Ken Jones. But these characters, already burdened with representing blackness (Ken Jones) and womanhood (Roma and Diane), are woven together principally through their friendships with Cleve. (Likewise, other characters are either Cleve’s close friends, such as Marvin Feldman, or well-known figures encountered through hubs linked to Cleve: Sylvester and Jose Sarría; Cecilia Chung and Bobbi Jean Baker; Sally Gearhart and Tom Ammiano).
The focus on Roma, Diane, and Ken also represent a break from the book, since while Cleve mentions Roma Guy and Ken Jones in his memoir, he does not discuss them at any length. It’s also notable that the miniseries backdates Cleve and Ken’s friendship in ways that serve Cleve’s character development as Harvey Milk’s successor. In his memoir Cleve states that he first met Ken “in 1979 when we worked with the Gay Freedom Day Committee. He was a few years older and had traveled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, which impressed me” (201). He adds that by the mid-1980s the two briefly collaborated in AIDS prevention outreach. But on screen (Part I), Cleve and Ken meet around 1976 in the Black Cat bar, in a scene where anti-war Cleve grudgingly accepts Ken’s veteran status and Roma asks Jose Sarría for advice on challenging the police. Though I appreciated this conscious, if clunky, effort to trace genealogies of queer resistance, I was struck by how the first scene functioned to set up another fictive encounter in 1978. In a scene from Part II, Cleve tells Ken about an idea from Harvey Milk: for people to carry signs with their names and hometowns at protests against Prop 6. Ken initially resists the idea, but on Gay Freedom Day, he repeats Cleve’s arguments and holds up a sign reading “I am Ken Jones from New Jersey.” The problem here is not that it’s unlikely Ken could have held such a sign, but that the exchange inverts Ken’s possible mentorship (“He was a few years older and… impressed me”) in favor of Cleve’s influence as a transmitter of vision from Milk.
Cleve Jones’s guiding role in the narrative, if not always in history, is also apparent through Part I’s portrayal of the Inez Garcia campaign. Cleve is shown taking part in a protest for Inez Garcia that occurred in San Francisco in February 1975 and in which a small number of radical gay men did participate. Having researched the Garcia campaign extensively, I have found no evidence that Cleve was there; I also did not find any mention of the case in his memoir. So while I was delighted to see the case mentioned, I again had to wonder why history was bent to include him. To a degree – in spirit if not in truth – his presence suggests alliances that were then emerging between lesbian feminists and radical gay men. Yet the series does not portray such relationships as existing beyond Cleve Jones. While he consistently asks lesbians to accept him as a supporter, lesbian feminists themselves embrace a cartoonish version of separatism, and that portrait affirms Cleve as the problem-solver who teaches others the necessity of coalition. Notably, this problem also becomes interwoven with the series’ weak representation of Latinx activists: among other gaps, the many queer Latina women who led the San Francisco Women’s Building are nowhere to be seen.
Ultimately, the miniseries When We Rise underscored my interviewees’ criticisms of Jones – criticisms I had earlier sought to be cautious about, even to set aside. When one person becomes the lens through which the entire story of LGBT activism is told, we are left with disturbing misrepresentations of queer politics, culture, and life. Jones’s memoir appears to have been far too easily bent to a universalist purpose, leaving the miniseries a sadly narrow account of when Cleve rose.
My thanks to Felicia T. Perez for her input, including the hashtag #WhenCleveRose.
Emily K. Hobson is an Assistant Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her first book is Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016).
“Write Their Names”
While watching When We Rise I was surprised by the appearance of Bobbi Campbell, the first person to come out publically as a Person with AIDS shortly after his diagnosis in 1981. He’s first seen in Episode 2 standing outside the iconic Castro Theatre, which is screening the film Fame. He’s looking up at the marquee while Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays in the background. He is introduced without context. Moments later, Cleve Jones appears and the two begin to talk about queer representation in Hollywood. They also talk about sex. At this point, I had no idea who this figure was meant to represent other than as Cleve’s “friend from Seattle.” Initially he seemed to be only another young gay man in San Francisco. I knew he would need to be someone significant since the actor Kevin McHale, a Glee alumni, was cast in the role. The figure next appears in a scene with Cleve and a group of friends at a bathhouse, naked except for the towels covering their waists. He’s the person who notices a spot on another man’s body. He says nothing in this scene, or in the following scenes, but, if you know your history of early AIDS activism, it becomes clear by the end of the episode that he is Bobbi Campbell.
When Bobbi Campbell was first diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, he chose to go public with his diagnosis and advocate for people with AIDS. He was the first AIDS activist in history. His interventions were various and ongoing. When We Rise honors some of these actions, mainly those performed through visual means. In one of his first actions, Bobbi Campbell posted photographs of his KS lesions on the window of the Star Pharmacy (now a Walgreens) in the heart of the Castro. These were the first AIDS posters ever. Campbell wanted to alert other gay men about KS and used his own lesions to illustrate the problem. Bobbi’s poster helped publicize the emerging health crisis in San Francisco and began a process of (what he called) “demystifying” “GRID” (Gay Related Immune Deficiency, as AIDS was then known).
Campbell also began identifying himself as the “KS Poster Boy” and later “AIDS Poster Boy” refusing the stigma of AIDS and offering his own body as a means to educate others about KS and AIDS. With the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (he was Sister Florence Nightmare, RN) he helped draft San Francisco’s first safe sex pamphlet, “Play Fair.” He was the most visible person with AIDS in San Francisco and was among the city’s most effective advocates for AIDS awareness. He refused the status of AIDS victim and promoted the idea of surviving AIDS. In 1983, with twelve other gay men with AIDS, he founded the National Association of People with AIDS at a National Lesbian and Gay health conference in Denver. One of their main achievements was the “Denver Principles,” a manifesto for the rights for People with AIDS.
I mention this brief history of Bobbi Campbell to flesh out his representation in the series. He appears only in the second episode. I was thrilled to see him introduced in the sequence that represented the early AIDS years. His presence serves two main points. First, he provides an alternative image to the then dominant representations of a person with AIDS (or AIDS “victim”) incapacitated in a hospital bed and without individual agency. In fact, the episode includes these actual representations, as it should since it was often the case. But it wasn’t the only case. Bobbi Campbell is always seen in community and always standing up.
When we do see his lesions–in a second bathhouse scene—it’s because the management rips off his robe to expose his diagnosis. The moment displays the overt harassment and discrimination of people with AIDS. His friends are horrified of his treatment and while not necessarily “rising up” in demonstration, voice their disapproval. Second, Bobbi Campbell’s presence in the series also counters the narrative associated with Cleve Jones and the Names Project, which by design is experienced as a massive community-based memorialization of those lost to AIDS. Bobbi Campbell’s presence affirms that already in the very early 1980s, there were direct and deliberate public actions advocating for more AIDS research and visibility. It’s important to see a person with AIDS actively in community in the shared public sphere. Bobbi Campbell’s representation serves that point. Moreover, his presence begins to account for the emergent People with AIDS self-empowerment movement, how gay men with AIDS in the earliest days of the AIDS crisis fought for their rights and dignity.
The final moment we see Bobbi Campbell is during the episode’s conclusion. Night 2 of When We Rise culminates at the November 1985 Harvey Milk/George Moscone Memorial March. At the public memorial, Cleve Jones invites participants to write on placards the names of loved ones lost to the growing AIDS epidemic. At the march’s end, organizers tape the placards to the San Francisco Federal Building. (A little over a year later, Jones launched the Names Project, or what is more generally known as the AIDS Quilt.) Campbell, fully visible in his “AIDS Poster Boy” T-shirt, stands in an embrace with one of his many friends. Bobbi Campbell died in 1984, a year before the actual event took place. I didn’t really care that it was impossible for Campbell to attend the 1985 rally given he had died the year before. I was moved by the choice made by Dustin Lance Black, the creative head of the series, to include Campbell in this huge public outpouring of San Francisco’s AIDS community, a community he helped build in the final years of his short life. (Campbell was 34 when he died.) Black’s strategy to include ancillary historical figures in When We Rise helped open up the limited representational politics of Cleve Jones’s memoir, the source material for the series. Of course, this strategy had its limits. But for Episode 2, the inclusion of Bobbi Campbell’s story, however short its duration, made a significant impact. The episode ends with Cleve Jones encouraging the crowd at the Federal Building to “write their names, we must make their names known.” Bobbi Campbell. 1952-1984. KS Poster Boy. Sister Florence Nightmare, RN. Early AIDS Activist.
David Román is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California. He has been writing about AIDS and the arts since the early 1990s.
Finding a “Home” in the Bay
Growing up, I adored watching historical dramatic mini-series on network television. Back when the networks held a monopoly over the distribution of political news and cultural phenomenon, they would occasionally take on the tasks of high school social studies teacher and edutain the public about American Slavery (via Roots) or Camelot (via The Kennedys). My favorite of these was The Jacksons: An American Dream, which featured Angela Bassett’s version of Katherine Jackson in a portrayal whose high camp moments (go to bed, Joseph!) still managed to feel earned.
On one level then, I appreciated When We Rise as a nostalgia piece about nostalgia for a more radical queer history. To the credit of Dustin Lance Black and Cleve Jones, this is the first real effort to tell this story on screen (let’s forget that 2015’s Stonewall ever happened) and it would have been impossible to appease all possible LGBTQIA audiences, let alone the more skeptical portions of the public. My own nostalgia for sweeping historical TV drama had me tickled pink to see Whoopi Goldberg, Michael K. Williams, Rosie O’Donnell and David Hyde Pierce play off image as much as character. And many of the series’ best moments came in its first two episodes, when Gus Van Sant and Dee Rees allowed their actors to dance across the thin border between the righteous passion and silliness of 1970s Bay Area radicalism.
And about that. More than I realized going in, When We Rise is less about “the Movement,” (and thank heavens since none of the historical actors then or now can offer a clear elucidation of what that phrase means) and much more about “The Bay;” or more specifically, about the idea of “The Bay” as home-base for Carl Wittman’s gay refugees. And in that sense, the films best moments emerge when it reveals that “The Bay” and “the Castro” were and remain racially and economically uneven queer imaginaries. We see those inequities play out in the divergent lives of the primary protagonists, Roma Guy, Cleve Jones and Ken Jones. Even in the form of homophobic police officers, “The Bay” recognizes Roma as “a dyke” before she can; and offers her access to a building that makes it possible for her to engage other lesbian feminists over what kind of “a space for women” they would create.
By contrast, Ken Jones’ arc is a long meditation on queer urban life on the verge of displacement. In early episodes, Jonathan Majors plays Jones as constantly expectant of rejection; whether from Castro gay bar patrons who can only imagine him as “Tenderloin” and are baffled at his entry into their territory, or by “the black community” in its recurring role as the nation’s homophobic nadir. We almost never see Jones at rest. And when his long term lover’s family kicks him out of the home that Richard owned, but they shared, When We Rise reveals that even his most serene moments were premises made possible by white property ownership. Michael K. Williams’ heartbreaking portrayal of Jones’ futility in the face of capital is a stark reminder that despite the HIV-AIDS epidemic, inner city land retained its investment potential in the 1980s; with family members and speculators alike finding it possible to hold space they once deemed “depraved” if they benefited from the windfall of untimely death.
Indeed, Jones’ initial reticence to resist the homophobia of white nuns who want to displace the black queer congregants at City of Refuge stems from his own very recent acquisition of a bed to sleep on, and a secure roof. From what we can tell, these are not concerns that trouble either Cleve Jones or Roma, even as their politics (as portrayed by the script) continually reference the salience of safety, territory, and “home” to gay liberation.
If the series is at its worst during the final moments of episode 1, where Ken, Cleve, and Roma manage to stumble into Jose Sarria’s Black Cat and join forces as an in-person Sylvester wails in the background—as if to say The Movement was a kind of queer Captain Planet (by our identities combined)—then it is at its best in a small moment towards the end of episode 4 when Cleve reminds Roma about Ken. “Roma, do you remember Ken?” he asks, and then proceeds to fold Jones’ narrative of displacement into an argument for a gay civil rights agenda that exceeds marriage and includes housing and employment protection. By that point, When We Rise has left “The Bay” behind, moving “the action” to the Supreme Court building, and the Oval Office; clean—starkly white—spaces of rational political strategizing. Maybe it was the time limits imposed by the movie-of-the-week format, but in making Ken a useful anecdote, a floating ephemera no less resonant than a tattered rainbow flag, When We Rise gets closest to depicting “The Bay” as the structurally uneven home of modern gay politics.
Kwame Holmes is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado-Boulder. His work has been published in Radical History Review, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, and Occasion.