Over the last few decades Hollywood has made great strides in their efforts to tell more queer stories. We have seen an uptick in both queer supporting characters as well as feature films that tell LGBTQ stories. We can also thank networks like Showtime, HBO, and Lifetime
ABC’s upcoming mini-series will be the first full-length feature about the LGBTQ community to air on one of the major networks. It touts itself as a film that tells the entire story of the struggle for gay rights from the Briggs Initiative of the 70’s all the way through the recent fight for marriage equality. The story is told through the eyes of four LGBTQ activists based in the heart of the movement, San Francisco.
Honestly, the film does an amazing job giving historical context to the 40-year battle for equality. The series centers on a young feminist activist Roma Guy, Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones, Navy man turned activist Ken Jones. It’s hard to believe that their lives were so organically woven into events that so closely drove the movement. However, through great story telling from Milk Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, we can concurrently see how these world events unfolded and how they affected the characters close to home.
Although the series starts this Monday, I was able to catch a special advance screening of the film in the heart of the neighborhood where most of the action takes place at San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theatre.
The story starts with a young organizer named Roma Guy who ends up coming to San Francisco because it was the one place that she could work on women’s liberation without excluding lesbian women. Although she doesn’t yet openly identify as a lesbian she knows that she doesn’t want to be with an organization that excludes them. Despite her best efforts, she ends up working for NOW (National Organization for Women) which still covertly excludes lesbians. She eventually finds a collection of women organizers that is primarily made up of queer women. Although they are leery of her they allow her to join their ranks after she promises to take on the task of organizing their next march. Organizing the march has been a challenge because the male catholic run city and police are against it and in fact have a history of brutalizing women.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Ken is a Navy officer who is sneaking around with his fellow Navy officer/boyfriend. They make love and have dates when they are at Port and able to find places where they won’t be seen. Once they are back with their squad they are sent on a mission that has Ken as navigator and Michael on the assignment. Ken is made to give a dangerous navigational order to Michael from his commanding officer. In the end, Michael doesn’t survive the mission and Ken is devastated. He struggles with both Michael’s loss and the truth of who he is. He is called in by his commanding officer and he things that he is being disciplined for being gay but he is actually transferred to the unit that focuses on eradicating racism in the Navy. That unit is based in San Francisco.
Cleve Jones finds himself in San Francisco after refusing to conform to his father’s wishes that he abandons his queer identity. He comes to the city with little money and shuffles between flop house and friends. His friend Scott leaves and invites him to join him overseas however in the interim period Cleve has gotten involved with the movement as a worker in Harvey Milk’s campaign for City Supervisor. He feels the political climate changing and decides to stay.
In the end of part one each of the main characters have found their way to the same bar having each resolved to stay in the city and work towards equality for LGBTQ people in San Francisco and around the world. I wish that I could say that the series itself achieves the same type of equality.
Anytime I watch a film that is supposed to be about queer history the first thing I do is put my police hat on to see how they treat race and QPOC characters. It’s a necessary evil because we are accustomed to being erased from queer films and narratives. I came out of When We Rise very cognizant that by the end of the film the overall presence of QPOC was very minimal compared to that of white characters. I was aware but I wasn’t angry. A friend asked me how could I NOT be upset about QPOC being left out of this film that was supposed to represent the entirety of our fight for equality. The reason I was not upset points to something that is a whole lot more sinister than QPOC being left out of this narrative.
You must look at the way the narrative was structured to understand why it makes perfect sense that we are left out. We COULDN’T be included. This was not at all a narrative that would include QPOC. I hear you asking, “Carolyn how in the hell is that possible.” Basically, it’s like this. The way that we were left out of the narrative perfectly mirrors the way that the dominant white queer community marches on acting like marriage equality was and is the last bastion of queer social issues. By limiting the scope of the narrative to these four characters you limit the story that is being told. It’s impossible to tell the story of the entire queer community when you have such a monolith of characters. The characters presented represent the very white driven queer organizing communities that make a habit of ignoring the important work done in communities of color, ignoring racism within the queer community or the elevated dangers for queer people of color. If they are never in contact with QPOC then how can you include us in the story?
The best way to describe this to chronicle QPOC appearances in the series. Watching episode one I was so excited! In addition to main character Ken, you had lots of representation of Black and Latino people from all over the community. You had Michael De Lorenzo as a drag performer, you had appearances by legendary disco singer Sylvester and black women organizers that were prominent in the story. However, towards the end of episode 2 the focus shifts to the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s. Despite the way AIDS ravaged the black community you see little evidence of this aside from Ken’s eventual diagnosis alongside his white partner. By the time Ken’s partner passes away at the beginning of episode 3 you have stopped seeing Latino characters all together. After his partner passes way, Ken starts to descend into drugs and alcoholism. With him goes any trace of QPOC visibility. To me it’s indicative of the eyes that the story is told through. If you are telling it through the eyes of organizers and organizations that didn’t then or now “see” the QPOC community or the needs of QPOC as major issues, how are you going to include those stories in this narrative. You can’t. As I succinctly put it to another friend, our organizers didn’t fall from the Harvey Milk tree so that’s not the story that was told. That may sound harsh but it’s the truth.
Do I suggest audiences watch the series? Absolutely. It gives a great basic framework of the decades long struggle of queer people for equality in this country. It is also a very well-produced film with great performances and some real cool cameos. It is for us QPOC storytellers and filmmakers to fill in the gaps and tell our stories. It is my hope that with the amazing Best Picture win for the film Moonlight that we will get more major opportunities to tell these stories.