Column: 'When We Rise' Doesn't

User Rating: 5 / 5

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Photo: ABC.

It’s almost always a good thing to see stories of LGBT lives and history appear in mainstream media. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when presenting politically-charged historical narratives in the mainstream, especially to majority straight audiences, the writer’s own biases are often easy to detect. 

Such is the case with “When We Rise”, a four-part miniseries ostensibly on the history of the LGBT community from the 1960’s to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage which ran recently on ABC.

Very early on, the series falls into an all too familiar trap which it never really escapes from. While supposedly about the entire LGBT community, virtually the entire focus of the series is on gays and lesbians exclusively. Trans people do pop up from time to time, but with only a few minor exceptions in support of the gay and lesbian characters. 

Only one truly trans-relevant issue is even touched upon during the entire series, when the family of a trans woman killed in a car accident who still considers her a man is confronted by members of the church where her funeral is being held and told they would refer to her as “she” because that’s how she lived her life. It’s a poignant moment, but one that fills just a minute or two of screen time. 

In addition to trans people and issues being relegated to minor supporting status, bisexuals, as we’ve all come to expect from these kinds of “LGBT” histories, are completely invisible throughout.

The missed opportunities are endless. The Human Rights Campaign under then-President Elizabeth Birch is presented as an organization chiefly concerned with scoring big-name celebrities like President Clinton to keynote their galas rather than serious activism. The series does take note of bigotry against women and blacks within the gay rights movement, but apparently author Dustin Lance Black didn’t feel it relevant to include HRC’s staunch opposition to including trans people in federal anti-discrimination legislation which Birch had firmly and publicly supported.

In later episodes, federal anti-discrimination legislation is mentioned and discussed, but without a word about the protests taking place nationwide over HRC’s support for leaving trans people excluded from those protections in order to make the legislation easier to pass to protect gays and lesbians exclusively.

It seems that Dustin Lance Black did indeed learn a lesson from the tepid and disdainful reception of the movie “Stonewall” from the community for its whitewashing and ciswashing of that moment in LGBT history but he didn’t learn it quite well enough. 

Trans characters do appear, and thankfully are actually played by trans actors, but only rarely do they impact the story in significant ways. People of color have a much more key role in “When We Rise” than in “Stonewall”, and it’s perhaps notable and certainly surprising that every trans character in the series is a person of color. 

There’s no acknowledgement of the trans community at all in “When We Rise”, not even at points when an accurate retelling of LGBT history would seem to demand it. Trans people are only presented individually, in ways that directly support the stories of gays and lesbians, never as a community unto itself, fighting collectively for our own social and political agenda.

For all its failings, “When We Rise” is certainly well-written and well-acted for what it is, with parts which will bring you to tears unless you’re made of stone. At the same time, however, if you’re looking for a real dramatic retelling of LGBT history, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Like “Stonewall” and so many others claiming the “LGBT” label, this series is really only about the history of gays and lesbians, with a few trans people thrown in mainly for PC and cultural seasoning and nary a bisexual to be found anywhere within it.

Even though I knew going in that there would be trans people included in “When We Rise”, I found myself sorely disappointed. This series broke no new ground, casting gays and lesbians front and center with trans people presented in ways that mostly seem like afterthoughts, in much the same way we were presented in mainstream media 10 or even 20 years ago.

It’s my hope that someday we’ll see a real history of the LGBT community in the mainstream, not just yet another history of gays and lesbians with the LGBT label slapped on in the hope of gaining undeserved PC cred. It’s time that all of our communities had their stories told and told properly. “When We Rise” isn’t it. It’s just one more in a long string of narrowly-focused gay and lesbian histories that tries to pretend it’s more than it really is.

Worth watching? Sure, as long as you understand what you’re watching and don’t get your hopes up.


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