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When We Rise: A Love Letter to LGBT Activism

When We Rise

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Above: Emily Skeggs as young Roma Guy.

Williams agrees. “It’s a good time to tell a story about what people can do when we band together and fight for what we believe in — and at all costs, we don’t give up. No matter what, we don’t give up. It’s been done. It can be done again. We have some history to look back on, to see how things got done.” 

That the actors involved in the project can see themselves in their real life counterparts adds depth to the characters. Ivory Aquino will surely be remembered for her role as Chung. But she almost didn’t get the job.

“I told my casting director that I only wanted to cast trans actors and actresses for the trans roles in When We Rise,” Black recalls. When Aquino’s tape came in, Black says, “I watched it and she’s like, a powerhouse, fantastic actress. I called up my casting directors and I said, ‘How dare you send me this tape? I told you to look [only] into actresses who are trans for this role!’ And they said, ‘Here’s Ivory’s number, you should call her.’ And Ivory came out to me as trans on our phone call.” 

Playing Chung in When We Rise could be a daunting task for a young stage actress like Aquino. Chung is now a senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center. She was the first openly HIV-positive person and first trans woman to chair the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. 

Aquino says the two hit it off. After meeting for dinner in New York, Chung invited the actress to follow her around as she attended a conference. “To have that peek into her life as she’s doing her advocacy work really was very valuable. It really affected me as a person and as a member of the community.” 

The two women are now fans of each other, having bonded over their similarities as trans immigrants (Chung from Hong Kong, Aquino from the Philippines).

Chung says, “I feel that I can’t explain to somebody inner thoughts and experiences. But because we have so many similarities it puts me at ease. I think she understands [me].”

While this miniseries is about the movement, the activists, and their work, it’s also about the relationships they build. The on-and-off-again love affair between Roma Guy and Diane Jones (no relation to either Cleve or Ken) — played by actresses Emily Skeggs and Fiona Dourif, respectively — is a bright point in the series. 

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Above: Rachel Griffiths plays Roma Guy's wife, Diane Jones.

The creator and showrunner says he never thought about taming the sexuality of the characters either. 

“People are having sex. Gay people, straight people, bisexual people, you know, trans people. It ought to be depicted in some way or another, particularly when it’s connected to story. This is a story where people are falling in love. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that desire is a part of that love. Our young Roma and Jean [played by actress Caitlin Gerard] are the cutest two characters and young actresses in the world. Even as a gay man, I was like, we need to see them go at it. I really am frustrated by mainstream depictions of lesbian relationships; it just seems like the sex has been zapped out of it. And one of the things I learned loud and clear in my research on this is that lesbians seem to really dig having sex.” 

The men in the series never tie up their desires, either.

“The great tragedy,” Black says of the time, “is not that people were having sex. The great tragedy was that AIDS happened. And that a government didn’t give a shit. I’m not going to shame a generation of gay men who have been told their whole life that they could not express themselves sexually without being subjected to shock therapy or lobotomy or shame. I’m not going to hide the fact that for the first time they have found liberation and were expressing themselves.”

Just as he wrote Milk for the kid he once was, he created When We Rise for his family “in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas,” folks who “probably voted for Trump.”

“You want change a mind in that America, you’ve got to start with the heart,” Black says. “That means you better tell a personal story. You better tell an emotional story. You better tell a family story. And you better be damned good at telling a story, because that matters. If you can do that, you might change a heart. You change a heart, you can change a mind. You change a mind, you can start to change a community, and maybe build a bridge between our two Americas. I’m hoping the show uses a language that both Americas will understand.” 

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