What We Can Learn From The Activism Of “When We Rise”

1Emily Skeggs and Austin P. McKenzie as Roma Guy and Cleve Jones in When We Rise.

Phil Bray / ABC

When viewers first meet Roma Guy from the ABC miniseries When We Rise, it’s 1972 and she’s gently pushing away her lover, Diane. She can’t use a real relationship with another woman at this stage in time, she explains. “There are rights for girls we need to fight for the moment,” Roma (Emily Skeggs) tells Diane (Fiona Dourif). “That’s all I can carry. I can’t carry this, too.”

Feeling like there is a choice to be produced between women’s rights and gay identity may seem foreign with a modern audience, however it was a reality for your real Roma Guy, particularly after National Organization of Women president Betty Friedan called growing lesbian visibility a “lavender menace” that might undermine feminists’ goals. Guy — who’s played by Skeggs like a young woman, then by Mary-Louise Parker when she’s older — told BuzzFeed News she feels like When We Rise captures the struggle she and plenty of other lesbians faced back then.

“Was I gonna turn out and therefore make that portion of my movement work, or was I just gonna eat it and say, ‘I won’t have lovers but I’ll work from the women’s movement’?” Guy recalled over the telephone. “But as I found it, it had been a really big component of the struggle. I’m like, OK, fine, civil rights, racism, the women’s movement, and lesbian and gay rights — it should all add up.”

The early instances of When We Rise — which aired in four parts now, the last of which premieres tonight — do an admirable job of encompassing several of these battles from the activism community, though it might be impossible to touch on every intersection from it. Roma’s friend Cleve Jones (played first by Austin P. McKenzie and later on by Guy Pearce) works in the burgeoning gay rights movement, even though he is also an activist for ladies’s causes, there’s distrust among female activists of the man, despite his sexual identity. The third activist When We Rise concentrates on is Ken Jones (played by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams), who’s got to find his role just as one activist while combating his ostracization on the gay community to be a black man and challenging the unchecked racism from the burgeoning gay movement.