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Recap: When We Rise - Night 2

Night two of the ABC series “When We Rise” was every bit as gut wrenching as I expected it to be.

It’s 1978 and Cleve is busy campaigning for Harvey Milk to become the first openly gay elected official in California. It seems he has settled in and found a comfortable home in San Francisco. Cleve has helped to establish San Francisco as the central location for the LGBT community to thrive. Castro Street and the gay bays have been established as open and safe spaces for people to come and be themselves. However, despite the community that has been built; there is still harassment and bigotry within the city. Only this time they are fighting back. When a young gay man is being chased down the street by a group of guys in a car, they are met by Cleve and his crew. They quickly surround the guys and show them that they will not be mistreated and are not afraid to fight back.

Roma is still working for women’s rights and is now helping to open The Women’s Building in San Francisco. The Women’s Building provides a space for women to live in fellowship with each other. Roma is just returning from a bike trek through the country, and to my surprise is not in a relationship with Diane. Instead, she is still with Jean but they all seem to be friends.

The Women’s building ends up opening a daycare and Diane goes on her own personal journey of becoming a mother. All of which was controversial back then with all the unwarranted concern about children being around gay people. While Roma and Diane are not officially together, it is pretty clear that they still have a connection. Many of the women have agreed to help Diane raise her child but she wants to raise it with Roma. As the women get closer they rekindle their physical relationship much to the disapproval of Jean. However, it is not until the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis that Diane and Roma finally officially reunite.

Ken is now partnered with Richard, the man he met outside of the bar at the end of night one. Richard works for Child Protective Services and is married to a woman to cover his true sexuality and protect his job. Ken appears to have become very comfortable and aware of who he is. He knows that he is not just a gay man but a gay Black man, and there are certain gay spaces where he is not comfortable and may not be safe. It is the complicated intersectionality that members of multiple minority groups have to deal with.

Success comes in 1978 when Harvey Milk gets elected as City Supervisor in San Francisco. This is a major victory for the community. Harvey is a public figure who doesn’t shy away from being gay. He embraces his sexuality and makes it a focal point of his existence. He fights anti-gay rhetoric and inspires people to come out as a means to change public perceptions. We see Harvey participate in Gay Freedom Day, and we see him on television arguing against the claim that homosexuals are all child molesters. However, in the midst of Harvey Milk’s activism the extremely discriminatory measure Proposition 6 is put on the ballot. If passed California public schools would be able to terminate employees discovered to be gay or advocating for gay people. So basically being gay or an ally and working with children could get you fired. The proposition is of course a tactic to protect children based on the myth that gay people pose a threat to their well-being.

All of the characters are concerned about the bill and the message it would send to America. In a time where homophobes like Anita Bryant are so vocal, they knew they have to fight to defeat the measure.

And defeat it they do. Proposition 6 does not pass in California, and it is a time of celebration for the community. But that celebration is short lived as less than a month later Harvey Milk is assassinated along with the mayor of San Francisco. The perpetrator is fellow City Supervisor Dan White. White had recently resigned and then soon after asked for his job back. The mayor decided to go in a different direction and appoint someone more in line with the district’s growing diversity. On the day of the murders Dan White entered City Hall through a basement window so he could avoid metal detectors. He shot Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk several times, including shots to the head.

During the trial Dan White’s attorneys argue that he had a diminished mental capacity due to his struggles working at City Hall and binging on junk food the night before the murders. This became known in pop culture as the “Twinkie defense.”

The jury consists of predominantly white middle class Catholics living in San Francisco. Gays and racial minorities were excluded from the jury pool. Dan White is acquitted of first degree murder but found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In other words Dan White was given a slap on the wrist for killing two people in cold blood.

News of the verdict didn’t sit well with the community and they did what Harvey Milk had taught them to do. They took it to the streets. Protests erupted and were ultimately confronted by the police. Many urged for peace but violence ensued on both sides. Citizens destroyed property and police stormed gay bars and started beating patrons at random. While watching all of this unfold I couldn’t help but notice how timely and familiar it all is. In the last few years we have witnessed this scenario play out several times. Someone is killed: light punishment, if any at all, for the perpetrator, the community erupts in protest. The point is we have come so far in society yet many things have stayed the same.

The next phase of night two is where it gets really tough. It’s 1981 and we start to see young healthy gay men coming into the hospital with severely compromised immune systems. The CDC has put out a statement and acknowledged that this has been seen in New York and California. Some of the people we have gotten to know start to show signs of the unexplained “gay cancer” that is first called GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. There are a lot of unknowns in the community, and many demand answers. We see men at the bathhouse with lesions starting to appear on their bodies. Men are perfectly fine one day, and then having seizures the next. They realize that this illness may be sexually transmitted and has an incubation period like Hepatitis. The realization that a deadly disease could be spread from such a natural act as sexual intercourse, and on top of that there is not a way to know they have it until they get really sick. To say it caused fear and panic is an understatement.

Many may already be infected and nothing is being done about it. The Reagan administration is not speaking out or providing funding for help. There is just judgment and as Diane said, it’s “homophobia disguised as caution.”

Many of our characters are actively involved in keeping the community healthy and safe. Cleve starts helping with a research study on Kaposi Sarcoma by interviewing gay men in order to get more insight into what may be the cause. Diane is working at the hospital and sees firsthand the toll this is taking on individuals and the community as a whole. She urges the other women to get involved and volunteer but many of them are unwilling because just like mainstream society they are placing the blame on gay men themselves. Those moments are another unfortunate reminder that even in oppressed groups there are sub groups and not everyone feels compelled to support a cause that doesn’t directly affect them.

Ken also recognizes the impact that this illness is having on the community and he sees the potential for it to spread specifically to the Black community. While at a Black Forums meeting in San Francisco he urges Black leaders to pay attention and stop creating environments where Black men feel they have to live closeted lives. He knows that it will lead to the deaths of Black men, their wives, and children. In the process of his speech he declares that he is a proud gay Black man. He is met with extremely harsh words and his plea is virtually ignored. That moment serves as a predictor of the future for the Black community. There was an opportunity to be proactive and get ahead of this epidemic and prejudice stopped that from happening.

By the end of night two, it is 1985 and we are in the midst of a full-on epidemic. This disease is now impacting Haitians, poor people, drug users, and women, and children. The CDC has changed the name from GRID to AIDS. There are a significant number of new cases a day and hundreds have already died. Ken and Richard test positive and vow to fight together. Cleve continues to organize the community and urges people to never forget those who have died. At a rally he encourages everyone to write the names of loved ones lost and put them on the wall. He chants “write their names, write their names, write their names. “ It is during that moment that Cleve looks up at all the names and realizes it should be a quilt. And that is how the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt was born.

Getting through these two hours was particularly tough. I have watched many movies about the HIV/AIDS epidemic but this one felt different. I was able to see this through the eyes of the common, everyday person. This story is portrayed in the midst of everyday life and it was subtle yet powerful. There were no grandiose speeches or major montages. It was just people and the tragedy of real life that was the Eighties. The unknown, the suffering, and the pain of watching people pass away day after day. It is a reminder of why I do the work that I do. For the sake of all those lost and all those still living we must keep going. We can never ever go back to those years. We must keep moving forward. See you next time.