Dustin Lance Black's new miniseries tells the story of the LGBT rights movement in San Francisco in the '70s... and beyond

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February 27, 2017 at 11:00 PM EST
ABC/Phil Bray
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As Cleve Jones (Guy Pearce) tells the young man who’s interviewing him in 2006, “Each generation has its own epic confrontation that it must face.” Cleve’s grandparents had stories of World War I, his mother had stories of World War II — and as Cleve’s generation faced issues like the black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and Vietnam, Cleve’s own “epic confrontation” eventually became just as clear. “I knew what I had to do. Not as an individual but as part of my generation,” Cleve tells the interviewer. But he especially makes clear that it wasn’t just about what he had to do — after all, this miniseries is called When We Rise, not When I Rise. So When We Rise “Part I” gets right to things, as a cover of “I’d Love to Change the World” plays over images of raging against the machine (a machine that includes both hate crimes and the president of the United States).

“When did you know you had to rise up? And fight back?” “Oh, pay attention. It wasn’t just me that heard the call. It was all of us.”

Cleve Jones

While 2006 Cleve makes perfectly clear that this story is not all about him, 1972 Cleve (Austin P. McKenzie) is still where this story starts. In Arizona, 17-year-old Cleve is spreading the anti-war message (even on the back of his jacket, which reads, “War is not healthy for children”), promoting a walk-out at his school. That’s when he sees and snags the latest issue of Life magazine, “Life: The Year In Pictures 1971,” which has a feature on the gay liberation movement. Even when he’s having a trysts with a boy at his Quaker church (Cleve’s mother is a Quaker, his father a psychiatrist), all he can think about is what’s happening for the “homosexuals in revolt.” He’s drawn to the gay liberation movement, with organized protesting (just like the peace movement) in places like San Francisco and New York, and he makes plans for them to come out and leave for San Francisco once they’re 18. “No one wants to get old in Phoenix,” after all. Cleve and the other boy are caught by a Quaker clerk, but in a moment of rare acceptance in a less accepting time, the clerk tells Cleve that she has no problem with same-sex love — love is love. She still thinks he should tell his parents, though, because hiding love can’t help anything. Neither can hooking up in a church.

Cleve tries to gauge what his father’s (David Hyde Pierce) eventual response to the truth will be, reading the man’s psychology books to see what the medical response is. In one book, the Manual of Psychiatry, homosexuality is listed right next to bestiality and necrophilia: clearly an intentional grouping instead of inconvenient alphabetizing. The more Cleve looks into things, the more he sees that the psychiatric approach to his sexual orientation is electroshock therapy or a lobotomy — but he still opens up to his father on his 18th birthday. He point-blank tells his father that he’s gay, only for his father to ask why he’s telling him this and declare homosexuality “an illness” that “can be treated.” This is exactly what Cleve was afraid would happen, which is why he waited until he was 18 to say anything; this way, he doesn’t have to deal with what Dr. Jones might do to try to “fix him.” When Cleve asks his father if he would try electroshock to “cure” him, Dr. Jones responds without a shadow of a doubt: “If I thought it would help, yes.”

As he swore he would, young, idealistic Cleve moves to San Francisco after graduation — only the dream of San Francisco is no longer even alive in San Francisco. The city’s mayor blames radicals (all of the “us”-es 2006 Cleve talks about) for the fact that it’s no longer a thriving blue-collar town and claims the only way to get tourism back up is to eliminate them — by any means necessary. The San Francisco Police Department takes that to heart. Cleve has a place to crash for a week when he gets into town, but as he’s told when he gets there, “Your summer of love turned into a winter of heroin a long time ago.” He sees it when he can’t get back into the place where he’s staying at night and has to sleep on a fire escape to avoid a group of men who want to beat him up simply for being gay. And he can see it when he’s walking the streets of San Francisco during the day, too, as two officers stand mere feet from a badly beaten (by them) gay kid. When Cleve tries to get them to help, they reply, “Get out of our city, or you get what he got.”

Cleve moves along and finds himself following another gay man to a tree house in the woods. And no, that’s not a metaphor for anything. Cleve follows a guy named Scott (Nick Eversman) to a tree house, where a couple of other gay guys are living, and for the first time since he got to San Francisco, things seem right to him. He even befriends an up-and-coming disco singer, Sylvester (Justin Sams). However, Scott is saving up to leave for Morocco… then India, then the Middle East. Anywhere he could possibly go to find the “real San Francisco.”

Despite only knowing each other for a short period time, Cleve considers Scott the closest person in his life at this point, and he’s “tired of good things always leaving.” But at least Scott is able to hook Cleve up with a job as a bike messenger for a printing place, which ends up being where Cleve meets Tomi (Julian Works), who helps find him a better place to stay and also brings up the concept of Cleve selling own his body for extra cash. That’s something Cleve quickly chooses to do after a phone call with his mother turns into his father telling him to come back home, where they’ll support and “fix” him. Cleve’s dad even tries to make things better by telling him he too was “worried” he was gay for a whole year when he was 16. But Cleve refuses “to try to fix something that’s not broken.”

NEXT: Cleve gets political

In his attempt to prostitute himself, Cleve meets a decent older man who provides him with food and tells him stories of how he used to work the streets when he first moved out here. He also protested at Stonewall. Cleve is inspired by these stories of protest — inspired both to hook up with this guy and to make a change — so he tells Tomi and his roommates how much he feels like “fighting back” and “getting arrested.” In fact, even though he’s never been arrested before, he “look(s) forward to it.” An opportunity presents itself in the form of a rally set up by his new friend Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs), which is also how he meets a hero of his, Del Martin (Rosie O’Donnell). His connection with Del, especially, allows him to speak in front of gay kids, letting them know they’re neither alone nor “sick.” But that’s not enough for Cleve, and he’s inspired to aim higher when he sees Jim Foster (Denis O’Hare) on TV, “the first openly gay man to ever speak at a Democratic convention.”

Unfortunately, Cleve’s meeting with Foster is disheartening, as Foster can’t see past appearances in this fight. “What have you done except for make some noise and smoke weed?” he asks Cleve, before telling him that it matters what he looks like to the straight, white, rich allies they hope to reach. Foster tells Cleve to get an education and a haircut, and it’s at this moment that Cleve realizes this is all nonsense. When he receives a postcard from Scott about Amsterdam being the new, real San Francisco, Cleve is a moment away from skipping town to join him, until Tomi convinces him there’s still a fight worth having.

Tomi asks if Cleve is registered to vote. Cleve argues that voting in San Francisco is just a “bourgeois affectation,” but Tomi tells him he’s voting for the openly gay Harvey Milk for county supervisor. Milk’s existence coupled with the Watergate Scandal is just the political confluence of events Cleve needs to get passionate again, and he decides to stay in San Francisco to fight and talk about politics with any cute boy at the Black Cat who will listen. The rest is history. Though there’s still a long way to go, as Cleve is attacked by two guys one night after leaving the cafe.

Roma Guy

The Life magazine makes another appearance as Roma and her U.S. Peace Corps colleague (and girlfriend) Diane (Fiona Dourif) give magazines, books, and candy to excited children in Togo, West Africa, a place where Roma and Diane can hold hands in public but still have to sneak kisses in secret. Roma is leaving to go back to America — Boston, specifically — which she believes can’t be that hard to face in the fight for women’s rights after all she’s seen in Africa. Roma promises Diane the Equal Rights Amendment will pass in America, and then it will eventually pass in places like Africa, because it’s just like Martin Luther King said: “The arc of history is long but bends towards justice.” But as for their relationship, Roma explains it has to end; she needs to focus on fighting for the rights of women. “That’s all I can carry,” she tells Diane. “I can’t carry this too.”

At a National Organization for Women (NOW) function in Boston, Roma immediately charms her fellow feminists with her ability to engage people; she tells the story of growing up in a very Catholic family with a mother who encouraged her to be brave, go to college, and make something of herself, and they all love it. However, a problem arises once Roma realizes the women of NOW in Boston didn’t see fit to include all women in their agenda, pushing Rita Mae Brown and others “like her” out for “making the Democratic Party uncomfortable” with “the lesbian thing.” At the realization that the Boston chapter of NOW sees lesbians as “a menace,” Roma decides to move to San Francisco to push for equality for all women at that NOW branch. After all, with just a year to go until the National Women’s Caucus, there’s still so much work to be done.

In San Francisco, Roma is introduced to the women of the up-and-coming San Francisco’s Women’s Centers, whose ideals are far more inclusive towards women of color, lesbians, and women who are the victims of violence — much more in line with Roma’s actual beliefs about women’s rights and far less whitewashed. However, women like Sally Gearhart (Carrie Preston), Pat Norman (Whoopi Goldberg), and Del Martin remind Roma that this isn’t as simple as just hosting a rally to get the message across (in between arguments over whether or not everyone there hates men, of course). In fact, they can’t even get a permit to assemble, especially not in a city full of Catholic cops like San Francisco. One of the women, Jean (Caitlin Gerard), decides to take Roma to the police station to get a rally permit just so she can hear “no” in person and see what they’re up against.

NEXT: A terrible tea

The optimistic Roma is all about the “catching more flies with honey” approach until she realizes she won’t get anything other than sexual harassment and a gay slur thrown her way from a San Francisco cop. And despite what she says, Roma still has Diane on her mind — she finds a way to mention her ex-girlfriend almost immediately after sleeping with Jean. It’s actually Jean who points out Roma’s still in love with Diane, acknowledging that Roma clearly needed someone to talk to about it. After all, the last time Roma talked to her Catholic family about anything personal was just before college, and Roma still rushes to make sure to say she’s not gay even when a rude police officer says she is.

So Roma has Jean on her side, but she still can’t seem to hook the rest of the women at the Women’s Centers. Half of them refuse her idea to create an alliance with gay men and drag performers (who, Roma points out, somehow found a way to get permits to have their clubs open), either because of their hatred of men (of any sexual orientation) or because of a misguided belief that gay men have more “sexual energy” than gay women and are ruining it for everyone in the fight.

Sally invites Roma and Jean to an afternoon tea to discuss the possible alliance, and things become more complicated once Sally reveals she and Jean are involved… and want Roma to join them in a relationship outside the “traditional heterosexual” norm of monogamy. As if that’s not enough to surprise Roma, Sally also suggests she joins them on their weekend away (on their land they bought together) to plan action against NOW. Given Roma’s priorities, that’s the thing that really gets her upset, though Jean can’t even believe Roma’s still a part of NOW. “How is that any crazier than wanting a three-way relationship?” Roma asks, but Jean replies that she didn’t “want any hurt feelings.” After revealing that she and Jean had sex 12 times (“three times each time, so 12 times total. But only four visits”), Roma storms off. Because again, she can barely handle “one girlfriend, let alone two.” And she storms off with the best exit line possible: “Thank you for the terrible tea. But I have flyers I need to be stapling up to protect us from the patriarchy.”

This isn’t really necessary to the narrative, but Roma is awesome.

Jean eventually chases after Roma and helps her put up the flyers for the non-sanctioned anti-violence against women rally, and along the way, Roma meets Cleve at a laundromat. At first, Roma mistakes him for a woman (from the back, it’s hard to tell), but once she realizes he’s a guy, they strike up a conversation about the movement. Cleve reminds Roma that they’re all living the “same struggle, same fight,” and just like her, he’s not just focused on any one thing — especially since feminism itself isn’t just one thing. Roma invites Cleve and “all the boys like [him]” to the rally, as long as he doesn’t tell anyone she invited him.

Once it comes time to rally, Roma is afraid that no one’s going to show — especially with all the police who are suddenly showing up — but they do, women and men alike. Sally speaks up for the cause, Del joins in, and Roma even defends Cleve to the more vocal anti-men members of the group. Really, the rally goes much better than expected, until the tear gas starts up and the officers start beating women with their police sticks. Roma and Jean get away (separated from Cleve, who also gets away), but Roma takes all of this as a sign that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Jean suggests it’s deeper than that, though, telling Roma that “good ideas aren’t enough to lead with” and that before Roma can fight for the cause, she needs to finally “own” the fact that she’s a lesbian. She needs to stop hiding.

And that’s exactly what she does at the National Women’s Caucus. Attending as promised, Roma, Jean, and others interrupt a speech from the “Lavender Menace” movement. “We are not a menace,” Roma proclaims, “We are not a distraction. And we will not be silenced any longer.” The next step is to truly create a place for all women, run by women, so Roma and Jean go to Black Cat (where Cleve vouches for Roma) to ask Mama Jose (Michael DeLorenzo) just how they got a permit for the cafe. Apparently it’s as easy as having someone on the inside over at the permit offices. Roma is finally putting the pieces together, with Jean’s help. And that’s when everything gets more complicated, as Diane has come to San Francisco to be with her.

NEXT: Tragedy at sea

Ken Jones

No relation to Cleve Jones, U.S. Navy Officer Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors) has to reconcile being a gay, black soldier in a world that doesn’t take too kindly to all three of those things, to varying degrees of hate and prejudice. When his story begins in the South China Sea, near Vietnam, he’s got a good thing going on on a battleship. His job is to call for fire — though not necessarily hit the enemy — so the enemy fires back, giving away their location, and he and the boys can call in an air strike. That’s the Vietnam War for you. At the same time, he’s in a secret relationship with a fellow officer who works the gun mount, Michael Smith (Charlie Carver), and both are understandably on edge about that. But when they’re on shore leave, everything else just disappears, like when they make love at a hotel in Malaysia (after Ken reads the Life magazine, of course) or plan to transfer to Naples together. Michael even got a birthday present for Ken the last time he was in Naples, so there are obvious plans for the future happening here.

But though their love is secret, Ken gets extra attention when they return to the the ship; he’s warned by a superior black officer to keep his nose clean. It’s not until after a mission gone wrong — the gun mount reaches unsafe temperatures and Michael ends up dead after one shot too many — that the reason for the attention is clear: Ken is up for a promotion to San Francisco, to a task force focused on reforming racist and prejudiced officers who aren’t changing with the times. Ken obviously no longer wants to go to Naples, and he’ll go where he’s needed, but he can’t really see the bright side of things in the aftermath of Michael’s death. This is all juxtaposed against a speech by Dr. Charles Socarides about the “myth” of the “happy homosexual” and how it can’t be sustained.

In San Francisco, Ken actually does a great job in his new position, despite the fact that it isn’t exactly easy to change the prejudiced minds of military men with 10, 20, 30-plus years of experience who believe “there’s nothing wrong with treating different things different.” But Michael’s death and the things Ken saw and did in Vietnam are still “weighing on him.” And even though he tells his superior officer that he knows he “needs the Lord’s help,” Ken was raised with a vengeful God, and he doesn’t know if help is even possible. His superior directs him to a good church, though he warns him not to dress in his uniform — it’s a rough part of town, and they don’t really like the military there — and Ken takes his advice. The problem is, this “good” church is still very anti-gay, so even surrounded by other God-fearing people who look more like him, Ken’s still an outsider. After church, however, Ken sees a drag queen and follows her to a second location: the Black Cat Cafe.

At the cafe, Ken meets Mama Jose and introduces himself as “Michael.” Mama Jose isn’t fazed; she tells him he can be whoever he wants to be here, and she can even tell he’s “a Navy boy.” According to Mama Jose, “God has delivered you to this place of refuge,” just like all the other draftees who were dismissed by the Navy for being different. Mama Jose tells Ken — who just want a place where he can drink in peace, not to be part of a “revolution” — not to worry about the cops showing up at the cafe, not after riots like the one at Stonewall. But she also tells Ken he won’t get a moment of peace if he’s not willing to fight for it at all.

Naturally, the cops do show up though and raid the place, with Mama Jose instructing patrons and queens alike to lock arms, like it’s just a normal night. But Ken is far too terrified and runs away, telling the cops he’s “not one of them.” The next time Ken goes to this part of town, he follows another soldier to a gay bar, shaking like a leaf as he shows the bouncer his military ID only to realize he’s not welcome there simply because he’s black. The white men at this bar make sure to tell Ken he’s “not one of them” before he can even get the peaceful drink he so desperately wants.

Even though Ken is doing well at work and actually getting through to those prejudiced military men, he’s still lost. While he understands being black and can use that to get through to the officers, he points out to his superior that his blackness isn’t the full extent of his problems: “Being black isn’t the only thing that’s different about me. Other things. That feel born in me.” He calls it being born into “enemy territory,” and because of it, he can’t even fully process Michael’s death. He’s not sure if Michael’s in heaven, hell, or if it’s even his fault. Ken wears his heart on his sleeve. Just as his black superior officer on the ship told him to keep his nose clean only to clarify that he was referring to things like “marching with the Panthers,” his superior officer in San Francisco also seems to realize the deeper meaning of Ken’s struggles — though his solution is simply for Ken to go to church every Sunday and never even think about saying more about what he’s really talking about.

Ken finally opens the present from Michael on his birthday (a nice satin suit), and only then can he sob and get some sense of closure. But he still needs somewhere to belong, and he eventually returns to the Black Cat in his suit, apologizing to Mama Jose about leaving her and the others behind and promising not to run again. “I’ve never left a brother behind… I thought your life was worthless,” he says, and he tells her he also felt the same about himself. He briefly meets Cleve and Roma at the cafe, but once he leaves, he meets a nice man named Richard (Sam Jaeger) who works at Child Protective Services. They hit it off instantly, and he even tells Richard his real name. How’s that for a happy ending in “Part I”?

 “The peace movement kids, the women’s movement, the civil rights fighters. All of the outsiders and outcasts. Everything we read told us that San Francisco was where we, the ‘us’-es, could find safe harbor. So that’s where we went. On our own journeys to find freedom and shelter. All of the ‘us’-es.”

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