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When We Rise: A Love Letter to LGBT Activism

When We Rise

“Toward the end, even though I experienced a lot of trauma and violence, I was able to reconcile with my family,” Chung says. “And that really made a big difference in my life. I know I have my family to support me no matter what decision I make. On top of that, my mom actually supported me on my gender reassignment surgery and gave me the funds I needed to fly to Bangkok to have my surgery. It’s hard to describe the joy and gratitude I have. That helped me make that commitment that I really want to do whatever I can to support … others who may be experiencing similar challenges as I did. And to really help them find hope.”

Jones has hope, too, but he recognizes that while things have gotten better, the struggle isn’t over. Racism is alive in our community. “I feel it every single time I’m in the Castro. And I can tell you, I’ve been called a nigger on every street in the Castro, but I’ve also been called a faggot on every street in the Castro.”

He worries about the younger generation. “I think black lives are in trouble right now,” he explains. “And I say that because I meet so many young people who are living their lives with the absence of hope. Can you imagine, not having hope? That the shitty f’d up life you have today is the one you’re going to have tomorrow — and the day after, and the day after. And African-American men have it especially hard, because it’s an hourly occurrence. If you step into an elevator, you see a woman change her purse to another arm. You know that dwells on you; you feel unwelcome. If you cross the street and you hear that ‘tick tick’ sound of doors locking just because you’re crossing the street. It beats you up.”

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Above: Michael K. Williams and Ivory Aquino, as Ken Jones and Cecilia Chung, offer two of the most moving performances in the ABC miniseries.

Actor Michael K. Williams is one of the famous faces in When We Rise; he’s most recognized for his award-winning turn as Omar, the Robin Hood-style gay criminal on The Wire. Williams, who plays Ken Jones in the series, says the older man has become like a big brother to him.

Having Ken Jones on set, Williams says, “was like having a cheat sheet. I could go right to the source. He’s a very kind and beautiful human being … and he opened his life up to me. These are very painful parts of his life that he probably hasn’t thought about for a long time now. I think it was very hard for him. It’s like he relived it with me again in my performance.”

 “I look at his life as someone who is a real American hero,” Williams adds. “This is a man who has been on the front lines for our country. He’s a dark-skinned black man that was in the Navy at a time when it was probably not that easy to get in the Navy. He hid his homosexuality while doing all of that, and then to have all that taken from him ... by the tidal wave and the front lines of HIV and AIDS.”

Williams lost many of his own friends, he says, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. And it’s one reason he felt so strongly about being involved in When We Rise. “It was an honor to tell these stories — I would have done this for free. I have two nephews that are both deceased now. They had complications from AIDS. Michael Frederick Williams, Eric Williams.  They were two gay men that I love to death. I felt this was my chance to use the performance as a love letter. To my family first, my two nephews, and to everybody else who suffered from this disease.”

Williams says Jones has fought four battles — for civil rights, for gay rights, against HIV, and in Vietnam. “To have all that history behind his eyes, and to be in that presence it’s really humbling.”

What he calls an “American story of people pulling together and fighting for what they believe in” is a reminder, too, that there’s still work to do.

“We’re expecting an onslaught of backlashes and rolling back of some of our wins we have experienced in the last eight years,” acknowledges Chung. “But I think this TV series shows that we are very resilient.  Hopefully people will get the message that we have done this before and, with a little organizing, we can do this again.”

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