Political pressure and a new epidemic turn up the heat

By LaToya Ferguson
March 01, 2017 at 11:00 PM EST
ABC/Phil Bray

What a difference a few years make. The ‘70s are ending, and with them, so are the good times. Young Cleve, Ken, Roma, and Diane are making a difference, but the question is whether they can fight something they can’t even comprehend. “The truth is, we’re not done yet.”

Roma Guy & Diane Jones (no relation to Cleve… or Ken)

As promised (and directed by history), by 1977, Roma and the Women’s Centers ladies have been able to create the first ever women’s building, with Roma cycling all over the country (especially to places where gay rights were becoming major talking points) to raise money for the cause. (Check out that “Roma Rides for the Revolution” shirt. Then eat your heart out, Forrest Gump, you fictional character.) Roma even makes a stop in Maine to visit her family, and it seems that she’s pushed past her dread at being honest with them about her identity.

She and her father verbally spar about the fact that the women’s building is essentially a club only for women, even though Roma points out that the Knights of Columbus, which he is a part of, is an all-male group that excludes women — and the women’s building isn’t anti-men. It’s just not the building’s purpose, though it is part of the appeal for many of the women there. If there’s anything “Part II” makes clear, it’s that the undercurrent of the movement hasn’t really changed. But Roma is still Roma, as she argues that “[her] work is [her] focus, to the exclusion of all other things.” Later on, Roma’s mother asks her point blank if she was happy as a child and if she’s happy “with this life” — and if the latter is even possible. She also tells Roma that she knew her daughter was a lesbian long before she came out, “way before your father suspected.” This is definitely better than Cleve had things.

Roma eventually returns home to San Francisco (probably with amazing leg strength), and while everyone back at the women’s building is happy to have her back, no one’s happier than Jean. As it turns out, after Diane showed up in San Francisco, Roma made the decision to stay with Jean. A bunch of the women (including Diane) are living together in a house, so things are especially awkward when Diane announces that she wants to turn the spare room into a nursery… because she wants to have a “turkey baster baby.” Roma’s immediate response is that she’s not ready to be a mom, and she wants to know why Diane wants this “all of a sudden,” but nobody asked Roma to be a mom, mind you. And that’s fine by Diane, since she knows Jean doesn’t want to be a mom either, and Roma and Jean are a package deal. For all their talk of breaking the mold, Diane says she can’t see anything more “mold breaking” than having a baby without male interference. And just because Roma has trouble when it comes to reading situations doesn’t mean that this is “all of a sudden.” Diane is going to get herself some sperm.

Anyway, all of this will be a moot point if California passes Proposition 6, a byproduct of “failed beauty pageant queen” and anti-gay spokeswoman Anita Bryant’s heavily publicized campaign in Florida. Introduced by State Senator John Briggs, Prop 6 would allow for the legal termination of any public school teacher for being gay, as well as the same punishment for straight allies (such as straight women who associated with the women’s building. For Pat (Whoopi Goldberg), when she came out, the government tried to take her kids away; if Prop 6 passes, things will only get worse from there. So now that Roma sees a cause in all this, she tells Diane she’ll support her baby decision and that they’ll fight for her right to be a mother. Yet again, this requires Roma and the women to work with Cleve and their gay male brothers, which now means supporting Harvey Milk for county supervisor (instead of the female candidate, Rita George, in what Roma originally calls a “patriarchal electoral sham”). Roma offers to help Cleve and Anne (Britt Irvin), Harvey’s campaign manager, with the contacts and space for a statewide fight, and while she sees how this might tear about their women’s movement (because of the aforementioned anti-men “separatists”), Roma admits she doesn’t see any other way for them to move forward.

So come election time Harvey Milk is elected as county supervisor, and the new board of county supervisors are even a diverse bunch (except for former cop Dan White), and things look good for San Francisco with a progressive mayor in the form of George Moscone. But the fight against Prop 6 is still far from over, and now that Roma is allowing men to work in the women’s building to help in this fight, some of the anti-men members head for the hills (in a time when they need unity the most). Aside from some bathroom issues (because one dude is too dumb to just make a new sign), the team-up is working, and they start going door-to-door to small towns in California to get people to listen. And after going door-to-door in Fresno, Roma and Diane rekindle their romance — a decision that leads Jean to propose all three of them embark in a relationship together. Unlike when Sally proposed the same to Roma and Jean in “Part I,” Roma is on board with this. But on a night of celebration as Prop 6 loses the vote, Diane tells Roma that she’s pregnant — and she only wants to raise the baby with Roma, not Roma and Jean. Roma of course makes it all about the mission (“Jean and I. We still have a lot of work to do.”), but Diane explains the obvious: You can work and love, dummy. She doesn’t call her “dummy,” but it’s certainly in the subtext. “I just can’t see myself ever being a mother,” she tells Cleve. “Or having a family.” He attempts to assuage her fears by suggesting that “maybe we’re here for something bigger than ourselves.”

But after the vote, after 20 days feeling like winners for a change, the other shoe drops as Dan White assassinated Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk… and got off on manslaughter thanks to a straight white jury and the “Twinkie defense.” So in the aftermath of the riots, Roma writes to her mother, finally attempting to answer whether or not she’s happy: And the answer is that she still doesn’t know. “Not yet. Not until we have a place to call home. Where we’re safe. And that fight is far from over.”

1981, of course, proves just how far that fight is from over. Diane has her daughter now (Annie), and she’s doing it all by herself, just like she said she would. And that means no more having Roma come over with the rest of the women — because if Diane is going to get over Roma and focus on raising her daughter and working her new job as a nurse at the hospital, she needs Roma not to be around. So Roma gives Diane space, and Diane gets to focus on the important things in her life: like trying to treat the new epidemic that’s plaguing the San Francisco gay community. In a somewhat needless scare for the audience, Diane accidentally pricks herself with a needle that had been inside a “gay cancer” (that’s what they called it) patient, but it sparks her decision to step up in order to try to save the day against “homophobia disguised as caution” (when it comes to the lack of resources and help they currently have with this) and to help “build a San Francisco standard of care.”

Unfortunately, women like Del (Rosie O’Donnell) are initially of no help in this fight, saying it’s no surprise considering the promiscuous gay male lifestyle — and even with Pat mentioning how people are dying, Del fires back that gay men aren’t exactly up in arms about women dying from breast cancer. Luckily, Pat also brings up that women and children are just as likely to suffer if this disease is transmitted sexually. Diane then goes to the women and Roma for help — after Ken snaps at her for the women only being “family” when it’s “politically helpful” — and oh boy. Or oh girl. Time and a little success (and maybe a little bit of Diane’s rejection) has suddenly turned Roma into a pessimist, responding to Diane’s pleas for help (as “every traditional support system has turned its back on these men”) with the epidemic with questions about money. After Diane snaps back at her (sarcastically calling her “Ms. Visionary Roma Guy”), Roma goes to the hospital to yell at Diane for embarrassing her at her work.

The irony is lost on Roma, but she’s too busy assuming that Diane’s problems are all based on unresolved relationship issues rather than the actual matter at hand. (Apparently, Roma sent her version of love letters to Diane post-Togo, and since Diane didn’t respond, that’s why she moved on. But Diane fires back about how the letters were just weird professional updates — “Diane, I had an interview with N.O.W. today. They bought me a Caesar salad!” — which sounds exactly like the Roma we know. Diane eventually gives Roma her journal from the Peace Corps days so she can know what a love letter really looks like.) Roma changes that tune, though, as soon as she sees all of the patients suffering from G.R.I.D., and that gets her and the women helping their brothers again.

After Roma reads Diane’s journal, she realizes what she lost and what she could have had if she’d just realized she could have both the work and the relationship. Again, Diane already knew that (we all already knew that), so she takes Roma back. Again, When We Rise can’t be all sadness, and this is “Part II”’s happy ending.

NEXT: Cleve Jones

In 1977 San Francisco, things aren’t as dire as they were when Cleve first got to town. Gay bashers are still trying to take over, but now the gay men in the Castro won’t be silently taken down — they now have whistles to signal an attack, and Cleve and a few others save the day. As for those terrifying cops, they may not be helping the gays, but they know Cleve by name and they barely chastise him and his friends for fighting back (which includes blowing out tires and plastering the enemy’s car with “Vote For Harvey!” stickers). Things aren’t great, but Cleve makes it known that the Castro belongs to the gays, and if you come to make trouble, you’re going to get trouble right back. It’s a happy beginning to a very sad story.

In the day time, Cleve’s working on the Harvey Milk campaign and he’s still keeping in touch with Scott (he sends him a postcard saying “anything feels possible here now” and asks Scott [Nick Eversman] to come back to get an apartment together), as well as maintaining the best friendship he formed with theater-loving Marvin (Adam DiMarco) at the end of “Part I.” Cleve and Roma are still friends too, as he feels bold enough to show up at the women’s building (which is, of course, women’s only) to try to convince her to hand out Milk flyers. It doesn’t work at first, but it’s certainly an adorable scene. Life is relatively good for Cleve, especially once Scott actually does return to San Francisco (and ends up surprised the city’s no longer “an all-Catholic mess”). Marvin’s immediately enamored by Scott, Scott’s immediately enamored by Sylvester (who’s now just as successful as he promised he’d be), and Cleve is just happy to have his favorite people around.

And for the uninformed, this is the song Sylvester (Justin Sams) sings at the Castro:

Things still aren’t great with Cleve’s father though, and a phone call with Cleve trying to convince his dad to co-sign the lease for himself, Scott, and Marvin’s apartment turns into the usual: “Come back to your real home. Get treatment. I’ll support you.” Luckily, the larger-than-life figure known as Harvey Milk helps them out and gets them to lease. So as Cleve says, “We’re family now.” (There’s a whole bit where Marvin ends up upset because Scott starts hooking up with Sylvester, but Cleve reminds them that it being 1978 means they don’t have to “couple up” like they’re folks did. In case you’re confused about the fact that Cleve’s apparently not romantically interested in Scott at all — remember, he followed the guy to a treehouse in “Part I” — you’re not alone. Their platonic relationship is really a shock here.) And family is all about having fun and living life, which is exactly what Cleve intends to do… until Milk is assassinated and his whole world comes crumbling down.

Hours after the joke of a verdict come in, Cleve leads people in protest. “Take Harvey’s bullhorn. Do what he taught you to do,” Scott tells Cleve. And in doing so, he highlights some of the bigger problems with Cleve’s story here and in “Part I.” When it comes to the Harvey Milk of it all, When We Rise makes the conscious decision to make him more of a fringe character (besides archival footage, they only show him from behind or afar), because Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant already put the spotlight on the man for 2008’s Milk; this mini-series is specifically about the more unsung heroes in the fight for gay rights, so it’s a choice that ultimately makes sense. But because we’re not given much insight into anything about Milk here outside of Cleve’s obvious hero worship of the man, we have no idea what he “taught” him to do, and the line from Scott is far more superficial than it’s intended. It doesn’t help that much of Cleve’s story so far in When We Rise has suffered from clearly having to skip a lot of steps from point A to part B (which Ken’s story also suffers from here in “Part II”).

Cleve’s 1978 doesn’t quite end on a high note, but he does end up making a statement in his protest, going from peaceful to fighting back and smashing up police cars. And then it becomes 1981. And the tonal differences between 1978 and 1981 are staggering, even though they’re not exactly going from a “happier” time to a dark time — they’re simply going from one terrifying but understandable time to a terrifying but truly confusing time. Three years later and Cleve is working for State Assemblyman Art Agnos in Sacramento. But a lot can happen in those three years, and they do. Enter Bobbi Campbell (Kevin McHale), a friend of Cleve’s from Seattle who’s now in San Francisco. Again, there are so many moving pieces and parts of this mini-series, even with the central characters, that it’s hard to feel the same type of connection that was built in “Part I” and moved on in “Part II.” Bobbi is immediately introduced and becomes an important character because of his role as the first one in Cleve’s group to show signs of Kaposi sarcoma (KS), the marker of what they were then calling “gay cancer” and “G.R.I.D.” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). But who is Bobbi? And what emotional connection are we supposed to have for him? We know Scott and Marvin, after all. (And even our knowledge of Scott is mostly based on Cleve just talking about Scott all the time.) A quick Google search can answer these questions, and it’s recommended in order to learn more about what When We Rise is telling the story of… but that’s also a problem when it comes to When We Rise telling a complete story.

Bobbi’s introduction is him complaining about a straight actor playing a gay character in a movie, followed by Cleve teaching him how to pick up guys in San Francisco. Somewhere in between is promiscuous sex and bathhouses, the rest is history… To figure out what’s wrong, Cleve even takes Bobbi to Dr. Marcus Conant (Dylan Walsh), an A.I.D.S. treatment pioneer and another character who gains more of an understanding when you go outside of When We Rise to try to learn about him. But Dr. Conant also asks Cleve for his help finding out what’s causing this so-called G.R.I.D., as a third of the gay males who’ve contracted it have already died; the KS is a sign of a failing immune system, and with Cleve’s political contacts, he should be able to get some information in San Francisco.

Understandably, Cleve and others’ fear is that if sex, specifically, is the problem, they’re all dead. Cleve puts up flyers for symptoms of “gay cancer,” but things don’t really get into action until after he meets Mike Gorman (Mik Byskov), who’s part of a UCFS research study on KS. They interview various members of the community (thanks to Cleve’s heavy influence), and Mike eventually figures out something pretty terrible: The G.R.I.D. infections 100 percent overlap with the gay population of San Francisco. This realization forces them to acknowledge that they deserve the same type of health and protection that straight people would get in this type of situation, especially if it’s possible they all already have the disease. But just because there’s an epidemic on people’s minds, that doesn’t mean that’s now the only threat, and Cleve ends up getting attacked with a knife after trying to pick-up a guy in the Castro (just like he taught Bobbi). When Cleve wakes up at the hospital, Scott tells him the even worse news: Marvin had a seizure (he was just about to finally move to New York with a theater gig) and his immune system was completely gone. (Cleve meets a guy at the hospital too, and again, because of the gaps in the story, they’re apparently a couple by the end of “Part II.”) He’s still alive, but he’s not doing well.

By the time the epidemic spreads to women and newborn babies and the C.D.C. calls it A.I.D.S., the damage had still been done to the gay community with the branding of A.I.D.S. as “that disease that kills fags.” So in the aftermath of Marvin’s death, Cleve leads a survivor’s march, so the government knows all the names of the friends, co-workers, and even lovers people have lost because of this disease and the negligence there’s been. Austin P. McKenzie certainly deserves praise for the work he does here and with Cleve in general, even when the story itself has some pacing problems.

NEXT: Ken Jones

The problem with Ken’s story in “Part II” is the same problem Cleve has had in both parts: There’s just so much material to get through, it feels like When We Rise has to bypass certain events to squeeze everything through. Years have passed since “Part I,” but the Ken who was in turmoil is nearly nonexistent here. Nearly. He’s openly gay in San Francisco and out of the military, and while he wants to be a part of something special, he still knows just how openly racist people at the Castro are. (Sorry, Cleve.) His co-worker Gilbert Baker (Dylan Arnold) invites him to a planning meeting for the Freedom Day Party, to join the “diversity committee,” and Ken is hesitant to join (he tells Gilbert he’d “rather burn Gay Freedom Day to the ground”) because of the party mentality.

Meanwhile, Ken and Richard (Sam Jaeger) are still happily together, and given all the Prop 6 antics (which sadly includes Richard having to make nice with Dan White) that are about to go down, When We Rise smartly shows just how beloved Richard is by all the kids he works with at child protective services. They live together, though the living arrangement also keeps Richard’s wife in the mix — the two of them stay together to keep up appearances. “We just lay low,” Richard tells Ken. “And wait for the world to catch up to us. Nothing can touch us here.” Spoiler alert: Ken does not lay low and even joins the diversity committee for the Freedom Day Party, turning it into a political protest instead of a brain dead soiree (there’s pushback from a racist old white gay guy on the committee, but he’s driven out because of the power of change!). All the while, Ken says it’s not what he wanted — come on, Ken, you just went on about creating a protest — but there he goes, making a political statement again. (And Gilbert’s not just in the background, as he develops the rainbow flag as the symbol of gay pride.)

So when Cleve suggests (because of Harvey) they turn the new and improved Freedom Day into the “largest coming out in history,” Ken balks at the idea, arguing that it’s one thing to come out to friends in the city but another to do it nationwide for the news. But Ken ultimately follows through with his own coming out sign, which is half-powerful as he admits it’s time to stop hiding “no matter the repercussions,” but also half-very selfish to do before Prop 6 can be voted on because of how much of a stake Richard has in this. Again, luckily things worked out in this instance.

But fast-forward to 1981 with “gay cancer” in the air, and even happily ever after Ken and Richard can’t get out of this one unscathed. The reserved Ken who opened up at the end of “Part I” almost wouldn’t recognize himself in 1981. Yes, people change as times change, but gone is his anti-party mentality, at the worst possible time. On the one hand, Ken is in a good place, working with kids at a teen center. Sadly, one of his kids, Daniel, falls victim to the epidemic… even though he’s not gay. He is, unfortunately, a heroin user, and while it’s difficult for Ken to get to the bottom of this, he’s not going to stop. Most of Ken’s 1981 story involves him frustratingly attempting to get Pat to tell him the truth about the epidemic and put her Department of Health power to good use for the community, which is difficult to do when this is her response to the idea of posting public health reports: “I’m not going to say anything until I know that we have a treatment and a cure. But we don’t know how long that’s gonna take.” But Ken refuses to be silent anymore, as their friends are dying. And it’s hard when he can’t determine if this is a gay or black issue, at least not before the A.I.D.S. designation is made.

But once it is, Ken does go to the San Francisco Black Forums at City Hall to propose a mobile needle exchange to dispense condoms and clean needles. Sadly, the man in charge of the forum refuses to believe that this isn’t just a perverted attempt to turn kids gay or into addicts (these kids already are gay or addicts), even when Ken brings up his three tours in Vietnam and how this is just as real a war as any other on foreign soil. Ken says this is a war against the black and gay community, but all he gets back is the “argument” that “there is no gay in a real black man” and “no real black man is a homosexual.” Ken gives a passionate speech about being a “proud gay black man” (and Jonathan Majors nails it), but it falls on deaf ears. That’s a lot to take in, but such is the case for When We Rise so far. Each of these individuals have such sweeping stories that they either don’t get enough focus or they rush things. So before we can fully process 1981, it’s time move on to the next chapter in these people’s lives.

To make matters worse (this is “the other hand” when it comes to the changes in Ken over the years), Ken and Richard’s perfect relationship is also a true product of the time, as the two of them are only “emotionally” monogamous. So Ken is hooking up with strangers from the bathhouse, while Richard is more of a “roller rink Tuesdays” type of guy. The epidemic forces them to be “like a boring old straight couple” and cut that out, but as the end of “Part II” reveals (without truly explaining who Ken is conducting an “interview” with), in 1985, both Ken and Richard are HIV-positive.

“Some people say we’re all gonna die. I say they’re wrong. We’re gonna fight this. Together. And we’re going to live. We are going to live.”

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