TV Shows, Pop Culture

“When We Rise” is flawed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important

"When We Rise" is an important show that gets a lot of things right. Still, it has some blind spots we need to talk about.

Towards the end of “When We Rise,” a miniseries chronicling the struggle for queer liberation, lesbian activist Roma makes the case for intersectional alliances.

“I’ve spent my whole life fighting,” she says, looking over pink-tinted glasses. She launches into a list of the causes she has championed—women’s rights, AIDS awareness, and on. Shortly afterwards, she turns to fellow queer activist Cleve and speaks the refrain that carries the series: “One struggle, one fight, right?”

And with that, it all comes full circle.

Critiques of the series are mixed. It hasn’t performed well ratings-wise and it has some glaring blind spots. But “When We Rise” is also an effort at telling queer history—the kind that acknowledges the intersection of queerphobia with racism, misogyny, and class—and it’s unlike virtually anything we’ve ever had before.

When approached about making the series, creator Dustin Lance Black (the gay writer of “Milk”) asked for time to research and do justice to the topic, a process he detailed extensively for Buzzfeed. The goal was to tell the past few decades of queer history, with caveats: they had to be lifelong activists across issues and they had to still be living. He also insisted that all trans characters be played by trans actors, a groundbreaking feat in a world where most trans roles go to straight cis men.

He found three major figures: Ken Jones, Roma Guy, and Cleve Jones. Picking up shortly after the Stonewall riots, the series follows this trio through numerous milestones—the period of violence following Stonewall, the election and assassination of Harvey Milk, AIDS, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the fight for marriage equality.

Black’s prerequisites ensure that a few key tropes are avoided. Our main characters all survive to the end (a rarity), and they are never seen solely through the lens of their queerness. Roma’s feminism is shown as a firm guiding hand throughout her work, and Ken, a veteran and an HIV-positive Black gay man, finds salvation in queer religious activism. Cleve, for his part, begins as an anti-war protester before moving on to AIDS activism.

Intersectional call-outs occur as well. Whether it’s lesbians failing to step up at the dawning of AIDS, or white queer men ejecting queer men of color from their spaces, the point is conveyed—mistakes (terrible, damaging, irreversible mistakes) have been made, by “us” as much as by “them.”

With this in mind, the lessons of “When We Rise” are twofold. Cis, straight audiences need to acquaint themselves with queer history and get used to seeing us onscreen. That’s not up for discussion. But the takeaway here for queer viewers is different. In the Trump era, where queer rights are being eroded (rights that, mind you, we only just gained), we must avoid the mistakes of the past.

Watching the terror inflicted upon queer communities by police should draw parallels to racist police violence in the age of Black Lives Matter. Watching the racism and sexism that plagues queer spaces play out should offer pointed lessons about their contemporary existence, in addition to other prejudices (like trans exclusion.) And watching Dan White, Harvey Milk’s murderer, given a mild manslaughter conviction should hammer home the gaping flaws of a justice system that repeatedly fails the marginalized and rewards our oppressors and killers.

Unfortunately, these points have been obscured by the series’ flaws. While the positioning of Cleve as the central character makes sense (the series is based in part on his autobiography), it’s hard not to read into the choice of a white, cis, gay man as hero, or into other failings. Rosie O’Donnell goes to waste as legendary activist Del Martin, who co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian political organization in the United States. The famed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, is reduced to serving as a stumbling block for Cleve’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Then there’s Roma’s “lavender menace” zap moment—targeting queerphobia within mainstream feminism—which occurs but goes unexplained. Queer racism is acknowledged, as is homophobia within communities of color, but much more could be said. Meanwhile, the brutal misogyny queer male communities exhibit towards women goes almost completely ignored (an issue Autostraddle’s Riese Bernard more fully explored in the site’s extensive review of the series). There is also virtually no mention of bisexuality whatsoever, and transphobia takes a backseat—trans women of color are visible throughout the series (thanks in no small part to trans activist Cecilia Chung), but given how silent the queer community has historically been on trans issues, it seems odd that cis characters aren’t held more accountable.

These flaws are real, but “When We Rise” is still important. While we now live in a world where “Moonlight,” a story of queer Black love, can be named the best film of the year, we in no way live in a world where queer stories are the norm—let alone queer stories about people of color or women or trans and non-binary people.

“When We Rise” doesn’t necessarily turn that on its head (again, our most central character is the height of queer normativity), but it certainly offers up more than what we’ve had. There are failures, but there are victories. The acknowledgement that we contain multitudes, that our struggles transcend and bridge identities, is critical to our liberation, to say nothing of our survival. We deserve more and better, but for now, this is a start.

  • E.A. Crunden

    A journalist and runs a weekly world newsletter, The Blues & the News.