Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When We Rise - the first two hours

from left: Bruce Cohen, producer of Milk; Roma Guy;
Ken Jones, Cleve Jones, Dustin Lance Black
What a blessed two hours.  The first two hours of the ABC Series When We Rise, I mean.  Cleve Jones’s book by the same name elaborated into an eight-hour TV series on the history of the gay liberation movement, at least the San Francisco contribution to it.

I am commandeering the word “blessed” from the evangelicals because it felt to me like a gift from the gods, despite the abominable commercials every six minutes or so.  To sit here and watch history unfold.  My history.  I wasn’t on the front lines, didn’t know Cleve Jones or Anne Kronenberg or Del Martin or Harvey Milk personally, although I’ve seen them at plenty of public events.  (And sat behind Anne K. on the streetcar as extras in the movie Milk, I just can't help boasting.)  But I’ll never forget the thrill of Harvey’s election or the agony of his assassination.  I was in Santa Cruz when the verdict came down that Dan White had gotten off after killing Harvey and went insane with rage.  I know if I had been in the city at the time I would have been in the crowd smashing windows at City Hall.

I came to San Francisco to live in 1965 and I know what it was to live in the closet, sneaking into gay bars hoping nobody would see me from my daytime life, sharing stories with friends who had been clubbed by policemen simply because they had not managed to get away when the bars were raided.  The whole trajectory from those days when my being gay made me suicidal to the day three years ago when a bunch of predominantly straight friends put on a wedding dinner for me and Taku, my life-partner, that’s all mine, and that of of my gay and lesbian friends. Watching it unfold on television last night was a blessed, blessed event.

Three more evenings to look forward to.

What a service Dustin Lance Black has done for the LGBT world.  First, the film Milk, for which he won an academy award in 2008, and now this.  And in-between that amazing play called 8, a staged reenactment of the Proposition 8 trial, when the court overturned that hateful anti-gay referendum on constitutional grounds.

The man's got his head on right.  He has been unafraid of showing racism in the world of gay white men.  And he knows the importance of setting the LGBT struggle in the context of rights for women and black Americans.  The awareness my partner Taku had when he told me he became a women's studies major in college because there was no gay studies program.  "It's OK," he said.  "It's the same struggle." That was a moment when I realized I had found somebody I could take seriously and would one day marry.

I would say this TV series and the accomplishments it celebrates are a dream come true, except that this exceeds the stuff of dreams.  I never imagined, during all those lonely fearful years, that we would one day be understood, and promoted, and welcomed, and loved, by what we call the mainstream of America.  Not the holdouts, of course.  They’re still there, firmly convinced they know the mind of their homophobic God.  But by and large, at least in the section of the country where I live, I have no fear of physical harm by gay-bashers.  Not that they’re not out there – just look at the recent threats against Jews the past couple of days to see the thugs are still out there – but because the world has come around and let go of a hatred of “the other” that once was a socially acceptable public value, one that could be displayed and carried into action without fear of censure.

Women's Center, San Francisco
The “mainstreaming” of gay history means that I get to see all these familiar character actors I know so well from other places. What a treat to see Rachel Griffiths, for example, playing the role of Diane, the wife, eventually, of Roma Guy.  I’ve been a fan of hers since the days of Six Feet Under, where she won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild and Emmy awards for her performance as Brenda Chenowith.  And Brothers and Sisters, that high-quality soap starring Sally Fields, I also got hooked onto.  Then there’s Mary-Louise Parker to look forward to in future episodes, playing Roma Guy, who went on to found the Women's Center in San Francisco.  You can see Roma in action today at the center's website here.

There’s Whoopie Goldberg playing Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee of the San Francisco Health Department.  There’s Rosie O’Donnell playing Del Martin, founder of the country’s first lesbian organization. There’s David Hyde Pierce, from the sitcom Frasier, the neurotic Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier’s younger brother.  He plays Cleve Jones’s father, who leaves his son out in the cold after Cleve comes out to him.  I love it that Pierce, whose Niles Crane character was such a clear gay stereotype on Frasier, is himself gay, and participated in the world of illusion that his eccentric marriage problems with wife Meredith were straight people problems.  And that in this series he plays the straight bad guy who represents the countless thousands of fathers who throw their children into the street rather than accept their gay identity.

Have thrown.  That’s the point.  They’re throwing them out less and less these days, one hopes.

AIDS quilt at Washington Monument
I love it that Cleve Jones is getting his due reward.  I felt the impact of his contribution to the world of gay liberation when I went to the March on Washington with gay friends back in October of 1979.  Officially known as the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, there were several life-affirming events I will hold close in my memory forever.  One was the candlelight event at the Lincoln Memorial, where I sat in silence with thousands of gay and lesbian strangers with a feeling of family connection I never knew was possible.  I went back again eight years later for the Second March.  In the interim, support for gay rights had grown to the point this one could be referred to as “The Great March.”  Earlier that year I had caught wind of a project Cleve Jones had started called The Names Project, a memorial quilt made up of hand-sewn memorials to loved ones.  I remember sticking my head in the Market St. office to see dozens of hands pulling needles and thread through cloth panels, channeling grief into what has become a great community effort to make beauty of tragedy.  At the AIDS march on Washington I remember hours spent listening the the names of AIDS victims being read off one by one by their family members and other loved ones, surrounded by the the ever-growing quilt which today is comprised of 48,000 3 by 6 memorial panels, too big now to be displayed in its entirety anymore.

I remember sitting there hypnotized by the endless list of names, recalling the fact that Ronald Reagan had taken four years to even mention the disease, and recognizing that most of the people affected by the devastating loss were straight people.  That feeling came back at the gala event at the Kennedy Center.  Most people hurting in this room are straight people!  This is not about cutting off an infected limb, as I once heard a southern preacher refer to the need for public rejection of LGBT Americans.

Cleve Jones I knew.  But I didn’t know Roma Guy, whom Dustin Lance Black has also brought front and center in this series.

Time to get out the history and brush up.

Time to feel proud.

And grateful.

Will want to see this program again.

Without the commercials next time.

Photo credits: five in front of SF City Hall from the Bay Area Reporter
AIDS quilt at Washington Monument

Women's Center Building, San Francisco

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