Why ‘When We Rise’ Is Historic
In the middle of the 20th century, to be a homosexual was to be defined in the eyes of the public, the church, the law, the medical profession and all too often in one’s own eyes as a criminal, a sinner and mentally ill. Homosexuals were thus triply condemned and mostly hidden—closeted—lest they draw the wrath and the punishment that was almost invariably administered by family, employers, clergy, physicians and the law. While these oppressive conditions have not entirely disappeared, it cannot be denied that the last few decades have witnessed extraordinary changes.
The “gay revolution” that has drawn so much attention in recent years can be traced back to crucial moments and movements beginning in the second half of the 20th century.
In the wake of the upheavals brought about by the Great Depression and the Second World War, American society underwent a period of rapid change, and among those affected were thousands of lesbians and gay men. Many of those drawn out of their home communities by the draft and the defense industries (think Rosie the Riveter) experienced new opportunities to explore and define their identities, including finding out that they weren’t “the only one” to feel the way they felt.
The discovery that there were others like them with whom they could enjoy authentic lives contributed to a new kind of belonging and a new kind of community. Being with others who shared their sexual identity meant not having to hide and equivocate and lie.
Having experienced this freedom, many of these men and women never went home. Instead, they remained in or moved to big cities and began to build new communities based on their emerging shared identity.
The growing concentrations of gay men and lesbians in the margins of urban areas—the beginnings of what came to be called “gay ghettos”— encouraged the emergence of a new consciousness of a communal identity. In 1951, a closeted gay sociologist writing under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory placed homosexuals within the category of minorities: “We who are homosexual constitute a minority that cannot accept the outlook, customs, and laws of the dominant group. We constitute a minority, and a unique one.”
At nearly the same moment, a gay member of the Communist Party in Los Angeles, Harry Hay, began saying that the sizable number of homosexuals revealed by the recently published Kinsey Reports suggested the dimensions of an organizable minority: “[Homosexuals] were the one group of disenfranchised people who did not even know they were a group because they had never formed as a group. They—we had to get started. It was high time.” And Hay got started, founding the first modern homosexual liberation organization, the Mattachine Society.
Here, in the early 1950s, were the seeds that sprouted over the next few decades, ultimately becoming imbued with the activist take-it-to-the-streets energy of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and leading to an explosion of visibility after the Stonewall riots in June 1969.
By the early 1970s, a hundred flowers of activism were blooming across the United States, and they began to draw the attention of the mass media. When Life magazine devoted pages to “Homosexuality in America” in June 1964, it might have taken a tone of concern over this newly visible social problem, but it was also alerting attentive eyes all over the country. As one man who was a Virginia teenager at the time later put it, “I read it when no one was around. … I hung on every word of it. I thought, I want to go to a big city. I want to find out what this is all about.”
Life repeated the favor in 1972, with another extensive story on homosexuals, once again featuring San Francisco. Among the many young people likely hanging on every word of this story were three who shortly afterward ended up in San Francisco, where they became part of the cast of characters in the extraordinarily dramatic saga that unfolded in the subsequent decades. These three—Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones, all alive and kicking today—are the primary threads out of which the rich tapestry of “When We Rise,” an ABC prime-time miniseries that aired in February, is woven.
The stories of these “immigrants” who found home, family and community in San Francisco, intertwined with the lives and stories of many others with whom they lived, struggled, fought, suffered and triumphed, tell the story of the gay revolution with an accuracy of detail and complexity that has rarely been attempted—or achieved.
One of the key aspects of the story that unfolds in “When We Rise” is the peculiarly American and urban nature of the LGBT struggle. As foreseen by Cory and Hay back in the early 1950s, the road to political, economic and social success of this movement followed the familiar path previously trodden by other American minorities.
The history of ethnic and racial minority success in the America is a history of urban concentrations—ghettos, if you like—that are both concentration camps, bounded by redlining and restrictive covenants, and liberated zones, in which members of oppressed minorities have the benefits of community and solidarity. In the United States these urban ghettos have allowed the gathering of the two resources politicians understand best: votes and money. Despised and rejected minorities move into the American mainstream by leveraging those resources and translating them into political power, beginning at the local level and eventually moving to the state and then national level.
Boston’s Irish can be taken as a prototypical urban minority. They started at the bottom of the social and political ladder, but eventually their numbers and economic concentration elected a congressman and later a mayor, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, whose daughter Rose married a self-made businessman, Joseph Kennedy. Their son John was elected to Congress and the Senate before being elected president of the United States in 1960. Irish political power was built on urban concentrations of money and votes, and so was Italian, Polish, Jewish and African-American political power.
The concentration of lesbian and gay folks in the growing “gay ghettos” of such cities as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago provided the same resources and, ultimately, the same route to the American political system. But there is a difference, because unlike these other minorities, no one is born into a gay community. Gay folks have always been—and, to a large extent, still are—born in enemy territory. Community for gay folks is something that they have had to find, and build, and maintain in the face of resistance and hostility, often from their own birth families.
“When We Rise” dramatically and beautifully tells the story of these struggles to create communities during the key crises and successes of the past five decades, with San Francisco as the case in point. The three central characters—along with others with whom they lived, worked, loved and fought—have had Zelig-like lives that placed them at critical moments and places, and their individual, true stories thus illuminate some of the most dramatic and significant moments in modern American history.
San Francisco was the first city in which the growth of a gay community translated into real political power, and this was most visible in the election of Harvey Milk as the city’s first openly gay elected official, an election made possible by the introduction of electoral districts that created a “gay district” centered in the Castro neighborhood. Milk’s assassination the next year by a homophobic political enemy was a tragedy that further energized the growth of an LGBT political movement, in San Francisco, in California, and across the country, as evidenced by the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1979.
The strength of the growing community was most severely tested by the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 and its subsequent ravaging of the gay population. AIDS revealed that much of the progress achieved in recent years was very fragile, as gay men found themselves rejected and ignored by many medical, social and political institutions and professionals, and often rejected as well by their birth families. In this crisis it was the lesbian and gay communities themselves, and increasingly the LGBT community together, that undertook the crucial tasks of support, of organizing and resistance, of acting up and fighting back.
In the decades since the height of the AIDS epidemic, the contours of LGBT experience in America began to change dramatically, as the community, empowered by its ability to fight and survive a plague, began demanding equality on a scale it previously had not imagined.
Beginning in the 1990s, segments of the LGBT community and movement—not that there ever was a coherent or united community, or movement—began demanding entrance into the most core American institutions: the military and marriage. These were symbolic struggles, given the centrality of these institutions in American culture, and they were also very real struggles for equality. As noted, the gay rights movement in the United States began by adopting the metaphor of an ethnic or racial minority, and gay political achievements have followed the trails blazed by racial and ethnic civil rights movements. Gay rights marchers from Stonewall on have chanted: “Gay, Straight, Black, White, Same Struggle, Same Fight.” In this spirit, LGBT activists in the 1990s turned their attention to the symbolically significant and, for many Americans, economically damaging military policy excluding LGBT service members.
Even more bold—too bold for the mostly cautious leadership of the biggest LGBT organizations—LGBT folks began demanding the right to marry. The effort to achieve marriage equality scared the more established movement leaders, and it offended those holding onto the beliefs of the feminist and gay liberation movements that condemned marriage as an instrument of patriarchy. But the demands were rooted in a very simple conviction, held and expressed by a great many LGBT folks, that equality had to mean full equality, and that included access to an institution that is woven into the fabric of our culture and our laws. In fact, the very resistance to the granting of marriage equality, even by those offering a “marriage lite” substitute of civil unions, demonstrated the symbolic importance of getting the real thing.
The largely unexpected success—in its speed, certainly—of the marriage equality campaign owes a lot to the decades-long building of a community that wields real power, the sort of power legislators, elected officials and even judges pay attention to. But it owes at least as much to a dramatic change in the way the rest of American society thinks about gay people. And here the media have played a significant role.
Through the 1970s—as the growing LGBT movement sought legislative victories at the city and county level and were opposed most visibly by the increasingly politicized religious right—gay people began to make appearances (brief and infrequent) on our culture’s primary stages of television drama and news. However well-intentioned these depictions were—an early example being a 1971 episode of the top-rated “All in the Family” in which conservative Archie Bunker discovers that a former NFL player buddy is gay—they inevitably showed a single gay person introduced into a straight context (family, workplace, etc.) and the dramatic question was always: How will the real (straight) folks react? Never shown, or even intimated, was the existence of a “gay community,” or even a gay couple.
The AIDS epidemic helped end the invisibility of gay folks, particularly as many gay men, including such celebrities as Rock Hudson and Liberace, fell out of their closets and into their coffins. The political organizing of the AIDS era, acting up in the streets and in the halls of power, also broke through the polite evasions of the media, and even unleashed a flurry of ethical questions over the tactic of outing closeted gay politicians and celebrities.
By the 1990s, especially after the election of Bill Clinton and the eruption over the issue of gays in the military, LGBT folks and their issues began to make regular appearances in the pages and on the screens of the news media. But even more important was the sudden emergence of reality television, a new genre that quickly expanded to become one of the most notable segments of our mediated culture, a position it maintains today. The pioneer of reality TV, MTV’s “The Real World,” included gay and lesbian folks from the very first season, and so did most of the subsequent reality programs, such as “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” and so on. For a generation—the millennials—that has grown up consuming a media diet heavily flavored with reality television, the existence of lesbian, gay and now trans folks seems a fact of life, neither remarkable nor controversial.
By the beginning of the present century, the issues pursued by the LGBT movement were easily seen by young people as basic civil rights issues. For young people today, even those from religious and conservative backgrounds, it’s easy to identify with LGBT civil rights issues—issues you support if you’re a good person—because LGBT folks are not alien. They’re among your relatives, neighbors, schoolmates—and they’re asking for the same rights enjoyed by everyone else. This is the sort of change that percolates up through the political system and leads politicians and judges to evolve.
But even before the 2016 election threw out the conventional political playbook, it should have been clear that the successes of the gay revolution were no more secure than any hard-won political gains ever are. Even with a Supreme Court decision declaring equality for the lives of LGBT folks, people in many parts of the country remain threatened by hostility and resistance that do not evaporate with the issuing of an opinion. Just ask African-Americans about racism 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. In addition, the growing visibility and possibilities afforded lesbian and gay folks in recent years led, predictably, to the increasingly independent and self-defining insistence of the “T” part of the acronym “LGBT” to be acknowledged and respected. And, the trans movement has evoked, also predictably, a level of fierce hostility that many lesbian and gay folks remember all too well.
At this moment, the decision of a major U.S. network to commission and then devote a week’s worth of prime-time programming to the story of how the gay revolution came about is especially significant and noteworthy. “When We Rise” could never be the whole story of the LGBT experience and movement of the past half century. No single series could be. But it does capture and tell the complexly intertwined stories of folks who were at the center of many of the key struggles, defeats and victories in one of the most important battlegrounds of LGBT life.
Unlike almost all mass media accounts of LGBT life—and the exceptions are limited to the narrower channels of subscription cable or festival-bound independent films—“When We Rise” is the story of LGBT community, not isolated LGBT individuals in a straight environment. This has never happened before on network television, and certainly not with such prominent placement.
It’s likely that the decision by ABC to devote a week of prime time to the struggles of LGBT folks was made with an eye to the recent wave of successes in the LGBT civil rights battles of our time. As the work began on the series, the tide of the marriage equality fight was turning, the president and other Democratic politicians were evolving in front of the nation, and the calamity of Proposition 8 was turning into the victorious campaign that would end up at the Supreme Court.
What couldn’t have been foreseen was the degree to which these victories, as so often happens, would be threatened by the wave of reaction that broke over the country on Nov. 8, 2016. A prime-time series expected to bask in the glow of national self-congratulation instead aired at a moment of unease and fear over the direction the country was taking. (It’s ironic and somehow appropriate that the prime-time schedule of “When We Rise” was disrupted by the Tuesday night address to the Congress by President Trump.)
There are grounds for calling this an “LGBT ‘Roots,’ ” because it told an important story to audiences not used to seeing such stories. In a real sense, the PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” (1987 and 1990) is more akin to “When We Rise” than “Roots,” as it told the story of the recent civil rights struggles, whereas “Roots” dramatized the experience of African-American slavery in previous centuries. Both “Roots” and “Eyes on the Prize” were cultural watershed moments in the depth and the expanse of their depiction of folks typically absent or relegated to the margins of the American storyline.
Just as “Roots” and “Eyes on the Prize” were empowering messages to African-American viewers who had never seen their like on television, “When We Rise” sent young LGBT folks watching in their living rooms along with their families a message of solidarity and hope. And, just as “Roots” and “Eyes on the Prize” have become standbys of library collections and high school social studies classrooms, it’s easy to imagine—and hope—that “When We Rise” will take its rightful place in the national curriculum as the authoritative account of a central moment in the American narrative.
The experience of having one’s hard-won successes threatened by a shift in the political weather is not unique to LGBT folks. It is familiar to African-Americans and other minorities who have learned that legislative and legal victories are never the end of the struggle for equality, that laurels are not a secure resting place. But it is precisely for this reason that it is vitally important to know and to tell the history of these struggles, as a reminder of what can be achieved and as an inspiration for those who must take up the fight.Wait, before you go…
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