When We Rise

ABC’s “When We Rise” Diminishes Contribution of Latino Gay Activist
By Joseph Castel

In March, Academy Award winner, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black launched the highly anticipated miniseries about the San Francisco gay movement beginning in 1972 and ending with the marriage equality victory. It was an admirable, ambitious attempt to take on 40 years of gay history and convince ABC television to air it. The series takes us through Harvey Milk’s campaign/assassination/riots, AIDS, Act Up and Prop 8. The Oscar winning screenwriter (Milk), perhaps bit off a little more than a miniseries could chew and digest in four nights (viewers still can catch the 7-episode docudrama on abc.go.com or Hulu TV).

The first two episodes engage viewers with a trio of unassuming San Francisco activists: a closeted woman, Roma Guy, confronts men hating lesbians; Ken Jones is a disenfranchised African American Vietnam vet who’s conflicted over his sexuality due to his religion, and a white middleclass youth, Cleve Jones, runs away to find himself and ends up empowering a movement.

By the fifth episode, set 20 years later, their stories begin to unravel. It’s the 1990s and the decades long saga self-implodes due to an overload of characters, a switch up of older actors to replace the aging main characters, and a myriad of LGBTQ causes, marches and personal crises.

By taking such a huge chunk of LGBTQ history in a single bite, one real Latino gay hero in the series became a prime time casualty.

Jose Sarria was a San Francisco activist from the early 1950s to his death in 2013. In 1961, he was the first openly gay person to run for a political office in the country, 11 years before Harvey Milk. He ran for a City Supervisor seat in San Francisco. Although he lost, he proved for the first time that there was a gay voting bloc. He also started the country’s second largest LGBTQ nonprofit organization, the Imperial Court System, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS and other charities.

Sadly, you wouldn’t know any of this by watching “When We Rise,” because Black’s story begins in 1972, and Sarria’s heyday as an activist took place 10 years prior. Still, the writer/director incorporates two scenes in the first episode that highlights Sarria (played by Michael DeLorenzo). In a scene set in the Black Cat Café, where Sarria performed (the Cat closed in 1963), “Mama Jose” introduces himself to Jones and tells him about San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riots of the early 60s when the drag queens retaliated against the cops, something Sarria did not partake in. The scene’s purpose is to give the downtrodden Vietnam vet inspiration and hope.

What’s vexing is the fact that the audience learns absolutely nothing about Sarria’s own activism. The closest thing to Sarria’s character is when she and fellow drag queens sing God Save Us Nelly Queens (something Sarria did to end his cabaret shows) as they are hauled off to the pokey in a paddy wagon. However, Sarria was never hauled away in a paddy wagon from the Black Cat during any raid. I should know, I was one of his closest friends and confidant and currently making a documentary on his life entitled, The Black Cat, due to be released in 2017.

They had raids on the Cat, but not when Jose worked there. He was a force to be reckoned with and actually cooperated with the police to not have raids at his place of employment—and the Cat was not a drag bar as portrayed in the series, it had one drag entertainer and that was Jose. Back then drag was against the law. Of course, this is just television, so you can’t believe everything you see, even if it touts itself as history.

Clearly, Mama Jose is a background character, but how easy it could have been for the screenwriter to have the club’s bartender explain to Jones that Mama Jose was the first openly gay person to run for public office. Wouldn’t that have been inspirational? Talk about a missed opportunity! Especially, since I know that ABC went to the trouble of borrowing Jose’s empress crown for that specific scene.

Unfortunately, most of the LGBTQ community is sadly unfamiliar with Sarria’s milestone contributions to the movement in San Francisco. And this series does nothing to correct that oversight by delegating Sarria to a wisecracking “Auntie” with a Bronx accent, whose history is never contextualized.

In the second and final brief scene with Mama Jose, a patron asks her how the owner got a permit to operate a gay bar. Instead of telling the patron the TRUTH, that the Café’s straight owner took the Alcohol and Beverage Control board to the State’s Supreme Court in 1951 and won the right for homosexuals to assemble in a public California establishment for the first time, Mama Jose turns to the patron and says something like, “that depends on what kind of permit you’re applying for.” Really, Dustin Lance Black?

It’s understandable that Black chose not to delve into Sarria’s life, since he’s more of a backstory to his little opus about Cleve Jones. After all, the series is based on Jones’ memoir. Jones’ story, however, extorts so much screen time that the rest of the activists end up looking like liberal sock puppets. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the series should have been “All About Cleve.”

Unfortunately Black is guilty of doing exactly what those in the entertainment industry have done to gender nonconformists for decade—
those who have fought for LGBTQ rights since Stonewall—either erase them completely or downplay their involvement. Can anyone say Sylvia Rivera?

I suppose followers, admirers and friends of Jose should be grateful that ABC threw us a bone at all by having him appear in the series. I think not. If Black is determined to write about our heroes, then we should hold him accountable— just as he holds right wing politicians and Hollywood powerhouses accountable for their misrepresentation of LGBTQ individuals. After all, are we not a part of that same community?