ABC’s ‘When We Rise’ Is the TV Show We All Need Right Now

Editor’s Note: Babble and ABC are both part of The Walt Disney Company.


My wife and I passed an older lesbian couple the other day while walking with our 15-week-old daughter. The two women smiled at us with a joy that spoke volumes — the kind of joy you can only share with people like you; people who’ve walked your path, or at least, know what your path is like.

Their delight in seeing my little family strolling along safely and openly and proud was genuine. They looked to us, too, with pride; I could see it on their faces.

But it wasn’t just the pride that comes with living your truth. Theirs was a different pride. Theirs was rooted in a type of responsibility over the young family before them. My family.

Image Source: Aela Mass
Image Source: Aela Mass

Their big smiles and proud faces told us, without a single word spoken, that my family was possible because of them. And I knew it was true. Not only are my wife and I married lesbians, but we are also mothers.

The rights my family enjoy have been given to us from a generation that fought for it, and that fight is wonderfully brought to life in ABC’s new miniseries, When We Rise.

Spanning the years between the early 1970s and 2015, When We Rise follows the journeys of key players whose hard work and perseverance culminated, at last, in victory when the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states. But the series digs even deeper than that, bringing viewers behind the scenes and into the private struggles of the men and women whose stories it tells. It’s those very stories – and others like them – that are ultimately responsible for changing the minds of others and eventually bringing marriage equality to our country. They are the ones we have to thank.

A dear friend of mine told me years ago that the single most important thing any of us can do in the fight for equality is to be out. To be open. To be public in your gayness. To share your story.

Being out and living openly is what changes people’s minds. It’s a lot harder for someone to deny you rights when they know it’s you they’re denying rights to …
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I thought, at the time, that was a ridiculous notion. I was working for the New York State legislature, deep within the political world, and I was a staunch advocate for equality. Surely, the most important thing was to do the work; to get the job done on the equality front. March. Protest. Sign petitions. Lobby for legislation. That is, after all, what the characters of When We Rise did — they worked for it. They fought for it. They didn’t stop.

But my friend was right: Being out and living openly is what changes people’s minds. It’s a lot harder for someone to deny you rights when they know it’s you they’re denying rights to — so being out is paramount to progress.

Image Source: ABC
Image Source: ABC

It’s the “out” stories portrayed in When We Rise that are at the root of the movement. Better yet, they are the movement.

Yes, there is work involved. Lots of it, too. But there is also power in telling the personal stories that made each bit of progress forward possible, whether that be for adoption rights, softening the hearts of the religious right, accessing healthcare for AIDS patients, and — yes — gaining marriage equality. The stories in When We Rise, and similar stories told across the nation, are the engine behind the movement.

The older lesbian couple who passed my family on the street the other day are childless. They didn’t tell us that, but they didn’t need to. Having a family was hardly a possibility for lesbians just a few decades ago. I look at Roma and Diane, a lesbian couple portrayed in the show, and I see where the now-infamous joke about “turkey baster” babies comes from. The truth is, it wasn’t always a joke; it was family planning. It was a real and true and only option for some: to take a man’s donated sperm and impregnate yourself using a turkey baster.

While home insemination is still an option for today’s lesbian couples, it’s now done using sterile, medical syringes. And it’s hardly the most common way to get pregnant. But fertility treatments and IVF were just coming into practice a few decades ago, and were certainly not available to women without husbands.

Watching the lives of those featured in When We Rise puts into perspective how new this movement really is and how far it’s come in a relatively short time, despite still being long overdue. As someone who’s about to turn 39 next month, whose high school didn’t have a gay student alliance until a few years after I graduated, and who lived the life of a straight woman until my mid-20s for fear of living my truth, When We Rise makes visible the fast-paced movement of equality.

At a time when equality and humanity and kindness seem to suddenly be in jeopardy our country, When We Rise is a show we all need right now — gay or straight, bi or trans. It’s a reminder of why respect for others matters and why we simply cannot turn back the hard-won rights of anyone. It shows us the importance of and the impactfulness of marching, of organizing within your community, of getting involved in something bigger than yourself, and of standing up and fighting against the powers that be when those powers are in the wrong.

Being open. Being public. Sharing the story. That’s what this series does.
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It also shows us the importance of storytelling, and, honestly, it moves me to chills to know that this series even exists. Airing this series across all corners of our country will help to change minds.

Being open. Being public. Sharing the story. That’s what this series does.

Image Source: ABC
Image Source: ABC

The show is bold and sexy and sad and thrilling — the way gayness so often is. The way life so often is. Perhaps the strongest sentiment of the series lies within a seemingly brushed-over line of Cleve Jones, one of the gay male characters whose memoir the show is loosely based on: “We’re just waiting for the world to catch up.”

I imagine that’s how the lesbian couple on the street felt when they saw my family. That the world had finally caught up.

TUNE IN: When We Rise is a four-part miniseries event, premiering Monday, February 27 at 9/8c and continuing Wednesday, March 1, Thursday, March 2, and Friday, March 3 at 9/8c.

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