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Recap: When We Rise – Night 4


On the last night of “When We Rise” we find our characters in the middle of what will go down as one of the most important decisions of our time. It is 2008 and America has just elected the first African-American President. In the midst of that major milestone, California finds itself with a major setback in the Gay Rights Movement. Proposition 8 is passed which eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry. This is a somewhat surprising outcome considering California is one of the most liberal states in the country. This development forces those involved in the movement to take a step back and regroup. The young, up and coming generation is starting to find their purpose and defining how they will leave their mark.

Roma and Diane are still together and living in San Francisco. Their daughter Annie is pregnant and eventually marries her boyfriend and moves back in with her moms. Roma is on the Healthcare Commission and finds herself working to bring universal healthcare to the city. This is presenting a challenge because Mayor Gavin Newsom is preoccupied with marriage equality at the time. But eventually she is able to get his attention and get a plan approved.

Ken has become very committed to his sobriety and faith. He gets baptized and becomes involved with an inclusive church called the City of Refuge. They minister primarily to Black LGBT communities and are in need of money to help pay for meals for this vulnerable community. Ken starts working and advocating and is eventually able to secure funding. His work in the church renews Ken and gives him a sense of purpose again.

The March for Equality in 2009 is a large success and gets many people of all backgrounds involved. This is the beginning of a very coordinated movement. Chad Griffin who at the time was a well-known LGBT activist, and will later become President of the Human Rights Campaign considers taking Proposition 8 to court. He has enlisted the help of Cleve and looks to him for support and guidance. It is suggested to speak to conservative lawyer Ted Olson who supports marriage equality. Olson soon begins researching the case and recruits liberal attorney David Boies to be his co-counsel. The two had previously debated against each other in the Bush v. Gore case. Their partnership presents a powerhouse team and a united nonpartisan front. Eventually the case is heard in California District Court and Proposition 8 is ruled unconstitutional. This is a major success not only for the LGBT community in California, but across the country. It starts a path toward true acceptance and change. President Obama goes on to become the first sitting President to openly support same-sex marriage and do the most to increase LGBT equality and fight HIV/AIDS. The Defense of Marriage Act is repealed and the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015 makes same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

This particular story was told very well. The court scenes were entertaining and stayed true to the actual case. The audience was able to get a sense for how weak the arguments against same-sex marriage were. There is great joy that comes from knowing that your existence is validated, especially when it has been denied for so long. Marriage equality is one of the greatest achievements in the history of the LGBT movement. It affirms everything past generations fought for and it paves the way for younger generations to grow up in a world that is more accepting of who they are. Simply put, it creates a better and stronger America. Each of our characters end in a good place. But as the final moments remind us, the fight is not over. It is just as important to impact hearts and minds as it is to impact laws. Laws can be broken and changed, but when you change a heart you have something much stronger, you have humanity.

At the end of the day “When We Rise” is a solid representation of the Gay Rights Movement. Its portrayal of the late seventies and early eighties was particularly well done. The assassination of Harvey Milk and the AIDS crisis were major defining moments in the struggle for equality. Though not always a safe option for everyone, Harvey Milk helped people to stop hiding who they were and encouraged them to be their authentic selves. He was a leader that brought everyone together even after his death.

The AIDS crisis also brought the community together in a way like never before. Women in the LGBT community worked, volunteered, and supported their brothers who were getting sick, dying, and being treated without humanity. It forced same-sex couples to realize just how many rights and protections they didn’t have, and why marriage mattered more than many originally thought. This time period was captured authentically and honestly. Our younger generation in the LGBT community was able to see what came before them and how people fought for a better reality.

Now there were also some stumbles in the story for me. As I said in a previous recap the initial transition to the new cast didn’t work. Everyone just seemed older than they should have been for that time period. I do think that it got better as we moved into the 2000s. I was also disappointed in the glossing over of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) becoming available in the mid 90s. The 80s and early 90s was such a devastating time and caused so much pain and anger. Most of that anger was due to the fact that effective medication was not available. That was what so many were for fighting for, and to have it just be a mention at the end of night three wasn’t enough to close out that time period. It didn’t do justice to that part of the struggle.

My last major complaint of the miniseries was the complete omission of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011. Considering that the enactment of the policy was highlighted in the series, it doesn’t make sense to not acknowledge the repeal. I was in the military during “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” so I am probably biased. While the policy didn’t have a direct impact on my career, it was responsible for the discharge of over 13,000 servicemen and women. Ken Jones is a veteran, and to not acknowledge the repeal or what it may have meant to him personally was such a missed opportunity.

Overall, “When We Rise” is a story that needed to be told and a series that needs to be seen by those who don’t know this history. The history of the LGBT movement is not required learning in school, so we have to rely on personal accounts and the arts to tell these stories. The ratings were disappointingly low for network primetime television. This could be for a number of reasons. Competing with new episodes of established shows, premieres of new shows, or lack of interest may have all been contributing factors.   The bottom line is if you have people in your life who didn’t watch and don’t know this history, encourage them to do so. In spite of its stumbles, “When We Rise” is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have to go in the fight for equality for all people. The series ends with words that haven’t rang more true in a long time, “One Struggle One Fight.” Remember, when injustice of any kind comes your way, resist.