March 9, 2017 at 5:15 pm EST | by Brock Thompson
Who was ‘When We Rise’ for, anyway?
When We Rise, gay news, Washington Blade

A scene from ‘When We Rise,’ a new miniseries that dramatizes the lives of key players in the early years of LGBT rights. (Photo by Erike Schroter; courtesy ABC)

Are we all waiting on gay television to mature? To sort of catch up to where we are as a community? It seems, too, that we as a group are still somewhat starved for representations of ourselves on the small screen. When I was a kid, we only had Billy Crystal on “Soap” or maybe Paul Lynde on “Bewitched” reruns. Things slowly began to improve, a gay made-for-TV movie here, a character’s gay brother makes a single-episode appearance there. Then suddenly we were treated to “Will & Grace,” and the troubled “Queer as Folk,” which seemed like “Will & Grace – After Hours.”

After all this, I had high hopes for Dustin Lance Black’s “When We Rise,” ABC’s four-part miniseries documenting the gay and lesbian rights movement. And why not, really? Gus Van Sant stepped in to direct. Mary-Louise Parker was there. So was Guy Pearce. And Black had shown his talents as a writer with “Milk.” But high hopes aside, “When We Rise” fell rather flat.

Though I very much appreciate what “When We Rise” was attempting, I couldn’t see past its problems. Its tone was preachy. Its messages about unity and strength in diversity landed like anvils. I stopped counting the clunky cliched lines like ‘we are stronger together,’ or ‘you don’t know how strong we are,’ or perhaps ‘strength. let’s get some and be strong with it together.’ All this gave way to some melodramatic moments. Beyond that, actors were switched out to play their role’s older counterparts, making the timeline rather confusing.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Friends complained about being bored a mere 30 minutes into the first episode. And viewership declined sharply nationwide after the first night. It could be, given what we’ve been given, that we simply expect less from gay television are are quick to change the channel to the myriad other options out there, gay or not gay. But it could also be that “When We Rise” wasn’t really gay television at all. That is, were we as gays and lesbians really the intended audience? Besides hearing from friends that the program was more or less yawn inducing, so too did I hear of them receiving loving text messages and teary voicemails from parents who had watched the entire series. Watched and learned. And before having done so they apparently had no idea that gay history was even really a thing to begin with, still too they had no real understanding as to just how fraught with peril the movement was up until very recently.

It did take some courage for ABC to show this history to a primetime audience. But are gays really a primetime viewing audience to begin with? What else ABC chooses to broadcast might be a clue there. Would gays be taken in by “Dancing with the Stars?” Even “The Real O’Neals” packages its gay themes into a it-can-happen-to-the-best-of-families box. I’m reminded of what I often heard of “The Cosby Show.” Recent disgusting revelations about Cosby himself aside, critics often called it “black television for white viewers.” Was “When We Rise” gay television for a straight audience? If that’s the case, then so be it. Maybe we need more gay representation on the small screen and not simply for our own sake.

If we were looking for the gay “Roots,” maybe we should keep looking. But if “When We Rise” was gay history for the uninformed, perhaps it did its job.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer who contributes regularly to the Blade.

  • lnm3921

    I wasn’t bored at all! I enjoyed it and was moved by memories it brought back! Since I lived through a lot of it and was a political activist and still am, I can appreciate it. It’s important to understand our history to avoid repeating it!

    This wasn’t just for heterosexuals. I’m sure a lot of gay youth today have no clue what it was like to be GLBT just a few decades ago. I’ve always known gay people that have no interest in politics only in having a good time. We basically carry them on our backs on the road to full freedom and equality.

    After we no longer had to worry about police raids and being put in jail with our pictures in the paper, many became complacent with the status quo. If it had not been for the AIDS crises, we wouldn’t have been shaken out of it!

    I thought it was important to point out that being GLBT was very dangerous once. We did not have support from law enforcement as we do today and they were often antagonistic to us. Our family and friends would often abandon us.

    I think When We Rise did a good job. Not long ago, such a show would receive widespread condemnation and may not have aired in many markets!

  • Paul William

    I actually loved it

  • Michael Broward

    I think the author of this article was overly critical of the series. It was documentary-ish. But the main character was talking to a younger guy.

    When We Rise was aimed at the younger GLBT Community. It was a way to document the highlights of our history. It was the “Eyes on the Prize” of the GLBT Community… as much as it could be.

    It was rushed and complicated at points and anyone that wasn’t already aware of our history might have missed some crucial points. I, for one, enjoyed it and think we are all better off that it was produced.

  • Bob Plank

    As I watched the series, I was reminded of how far we have come. I was reminded of how much we have to lose. Yes, I am aware of our history, but we can always use a reminder.

    Although we have not yet achieved the holy grail of equality under the law in all things, we have achieved a lot. That means there is a lot we could lose, if we are not vigilant, if we are not persistent.

    I for one enjoyed the show. Was the show perfect? Absolutely not. It could have started a decade or two earlier. It could have spent more time on some events.

    Eight hours is not much time to squeeze the entirety of LGBT history into. Decisions had to be made regarding what time period to include and what events to include. At the same time, they had to spend some time developing characters the viewer could connect to. Characters they care about.

    Don’t slam DLB for creating this. Rather, encourage others to create works to filing the gaps.

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