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When We Rise: A Love Letter to LGBT Activism

When We Rise

Cleve Jones landed in San Francisco too late for the Summer of Love. Fifty years ago, about 100,000 young people from around the country converged on San Francisco. They were flower children and hippies, queers and artists, radicals and draft dodgers. A generation of freethinkers looked to the city for change, with resistance, liberation, and free expression unfurling in every corner. Because of them, the city gave  rise to movements in support of the rights of women, African-Americans, gays, farm workers, Native Americans, animals, and even the planet. Change was everywhere. 

A closeted gay teen living in Arizona, Cleve Jones dreamt of this utopia by the bay, where he imagined being welcomed with open arms. But by the time eager peace activist Jones made it to San Francisco, the Summer of Love had long given way to the winter of discontent. The hippies and tourists had gone back to college leaving San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district rife with homelessness, overcrowding, and drug addiction — issues that continued to plague the neighborhood for years to come. Those who remained in the hood staged a mock funeral for the bygone days of the summer of ’67, and urged others to stay home, take up the revolution in their own streets. 

But the dream was too powerful and those who felt like outsiders in their own hometowns continued to flock to the city like moths to a flame. Men, women, trans people, folks like singer Sylvester who straddled identity lines before their boundaries had even coalesced — they all came to the city with little more than hopes and dreams. 

Roma Guy, a women’s rights activist from Maine, moved there from Africa’s Ivory Coast (a Peace Corps volunteer who met her future wife, Diane, there). Ken Jones (no relation), a black man of both faith and action, served multiple tours in Vietnam, landing in the Castro only to discover just how racially segregated it was. Cecilia Chung showed up in the mid-1980s, an immigrant who battled gender dysphoria and parental estrangement in the city’s Tenderloin, then a hub for street kids, drug users, sex workers, trans folks,  and people of color.

ABC’s groundbreaking miniseries When We Rise introduces us to the lives, loves, and struggles of these activists, covering a 40-year span in  the long battle for LGBT equality. The last time ABC programmed a series this epic was when Roots was broadcast in 1977. Around 100 million people tuned in, making it a sweeping cultural moment that had a direct impact on race relations in America. 

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) watched Roots in his conservative Texas home, sitting in front of the TV night after night, wide-eyed. “It changed me,” Black says now. “It helped me grow.” 

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