By Laura DeBrizzi
I am not gay. I do not have AIDS. I am not transgender. And yet, I cried buckets of tears on Friday’s closing installment of ABC’s When We Rise, a weighty project which chronicled the gay rights movement in America. The country’s current administration–led by Trump but steered by crony Steve Bannon–prides itself on mischievously handing out warped goodie bags, filled not with candy, but racial slurs, homophobia, gender and socioeconomic inequality, to constituents via tweets. And so, the very fact that a major network ran a four-night mini-series like this proves that ours is a nation which will not be bullied into silence. Many shockers can be associated with this high-profile project written by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the least of which being that the mini-series did not die with Roots. When We Rise weaves hearts in such a way that its impact ignited both fury and compassion within me. Although I have many gay friends and even some I would consider family, I did not know their stories from beginning to end and could not recall so easily their pain. I grew up White, straight, and in many instances, I suppose, privileged. I did not consider myself the latter, having been raised female in a working-class city, but When We Rise forced me to admit that I was one of the luckier ones.
I was not denied entry into Brownies, a term used back in the day to distinguish full-fledged Girl Scouts from the half-pints, and easily gained acceptance on the basketball court and softball field. I was not shunned by my family; there may have been times where my father and mother wanted to unleash a palm print or two on my bottom (calm down, people! It was the 70s and spankings had yet to be outlawed) for talking too much in school, but that is as far as I was expelled. Further beyond, my higher education glided along minus the bruises. Later on, when I walked into work, I could display pictures of my then husband and I without backlash. The decision to start a family would be ours without interference from the government. Upon divorcing, I learned the all too hard lesson that what was mine was his and vice versa … in the state of New Jersey anyway.
So I wondered: How could an educated and well-rounded 41-year-old woman like myself think that she knew what her gay and transgender counterparts had been up against? Could I be that self-centered? Yep!
When We Rise chose to unravel the stories of its main characters from adolescence up until present day, concocting a power punch that hit my gut and heart, because when Michael Kenneth Williams’ “Ken” loses his partner “Richard” to AIDS, I cannot say that I didn’t know him when … because I did. I was there when “Ken” braved the terror of Vietnam; I walked beside “Ken” when he first reached for “Richard’s” hand in the shadows; I turned to wipe “Ken’s” tears when “Richard” succumbed to his disease. To witness this same man then have no say in the burial, and be, ultimately, evicted from the home by “Richard’s” estranged relations left me feeling anything but hollow because I knew him…now.
Mary-Louise Parker’s “Roma,” a lesbian and women’s right activist, took on everything from chauvinism to universal healthcare. Tuning in to When We Rise automatically placed me in the battlefield with “Roma” and once the carnage churned out it was impossible to run away; healthcare manipulated by dollar signs and discrimination driven by the so-called word of God hit close to home. I stood with “Roma” when she marched for a Woman’s Building in San Francisco as a young twentysomething; I huddled with her when she schemed to locate an anonymous sperm donor for girlfriend, “Diane;” I reached out to hug her when she married “Diane” 30 some odd years later in 2015.
I knew her…now.
Prior to February, 27th, “Roma” and “Ken’s” journeys held no consequence for me and their struggle only overheard in conversations. While it is true that I was intimately familiar with what it was like to grow up next door to desperate neighbors whose breath wreaked of alcohol; shuffle nervously over whether or not my father’s three jobs could satisfy bill collectors; and run around concrete bases, marked by colored chalk, in the middle of a busy street, I had to admit that I could not see very far beyond my littered neighborhood.
When We Rise welcomed me into strangers’ lives and I, in turn, opened my heart so that I could say that I knew them when …
Mr. Trump, tweet hearts. Hearts. Then, attempt to behave as a human so you, too, could say you knew your people when.