‘When We Rise’ is a Vital Snapshot of America’s Uphill Battle for Equality

Update: We posted this play by play review of ‘When We Rise’ last February when it originally aired on ABC. You can now view the entire four-part miniseries on ABC Go, Hulu, and Amazon. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing it again with a special nod to the women of the second wave feminist movement who fought for gender equality and lesbian rights. #LavenderMenace 

When We Rise, a mini docu-series cataloging the history of the gay and lesbian community’s fight for equality from 1972 until the present day, aired in four parts in 2017 on ABC. Every second of this miniseries is confrontational, uncomfortable, and vital to comprehending the chronicling of gay rights liberation, a war that continues to be fought today by brave individuals who sacrifice their own lives and well being for the freedoms of the next generation.

Night I

When We Rise

The series kicks off in 1972 with an introduction to the characters we will be following through time and struggle. A young man in Phoenix whose father is a psychiatrist who advocates for lobotomy and electroshock therapy to “treat” the “illness” that so many believe is homosexuality. Two young Navy men hide their relationship so they are allowed to continue to serve their country. Two women serving in the Peace Corps are forced to separate when one of them decides to become an activist as part of the movement for women’s equality.

Cleave waits until he’s 18 years old before coming out to his parents so his father cannot force him into treatment, and upon coming out of the closet he takes off to San Francisco, a city he’s heard is an accepting, gay haven. When Cleve arrives, he discovers that San Francisco is not the equality utopia he had hoped, learning that the gay community has been brutally attacked and confined to hiding their identities and forced to fight for their lives on a daily basis.

Ken and his partner Michael execute a mission in Vietnam that fails, resulting in the death of Michael and the reassignment of Ken to an anti-racial discrimination division in Treasure Island. During his readjustment to the states and the journey of mourning his partner, Ken is forced to face is own identity as a gay man and his place in San Francisco.

Roma, who travels to Boston only to be informed that the National Organization for Women refuses to support lesbians, also lands in San Francisco to join a movement of women made up of lesbians and allies. This group of women is planning a rally for equal rights and against violence against women, and collaborates with Cleve’s circle of gay men who eventually join them. Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, and several other prominent faces appear as members of the women’s group, both delivering powerful presences and monologues regarding equality. Cleve and Roma both meet Ken at a local club that serves as a safe haven for members of the gay community when Ken begins frequenting the place after he discovers it while visiting the church the military chaplain has recommended.

As these characters navigate their individual battles, we see them merge together from vastly different backgrounds. This convergence serves as a reminder that will nudge us again and again throughout When We Rise, that when we have the goal of human rights in common, the differences are minuscule. Serving as a parallel companion to these character introductions, snippets of speeches given by Dr. Charles Socarides are played alongside these journeys, cataloging his opinion that the “happy homosexual” is, if anything, an oxymoron. While the unfolding of the events in the first night of the series implies that it might in fact be a daily uphill struggle for happiness, the obstacle standing in the way is not homosexuality, but rather hate and intolerance.