◻︎ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FRIDAY, MARCH 10, 2017
My husband David and I have recorded and are slowly watching the ABC mini-series When We Rise about the gay liberation movement. The story follows the lives and events of some well-known figures in our movement including Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Del Martin, Phyllis Lion, and Larry Kramer. It’s interesting the power this program holds for me. These were people of my generation, and while we lived in different places our lives were so much alike. This struck me immediately in the opening credits.
Cleve Jones was 18, still largely closeted, and active fighting the Vietnam War. As the film opens Cleve is passing out flyers in the library. He spots the librarian setting out a copy of Life Magazine, the issue pictured here, and sees the words “Gay Liberation.” He nervously approaches it, looking about to see if anyone notices him … looking … at … those words. After a moment he snatches the issue and darts out.
These still-image screenshots capture the scene with Austin McKenzie playing Cleve Jones, starting while he leaflets and then nervously spotting the magazine.
This scene was like watching myself.
In February 1970, still a high school student, I attended a national anti-war conference in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University. About 3500 attended. At one point I needed a break from the reports and polemical fights. I walked out of the gymnasium where we were meeting into a hallway by some stairs. With shock I realized I was standing at an unstaffed gay liberation table. Shit! I looked around quickly. There was no one nearby. I had never seen anything like this. There were books and flyers displayed. I tried to carefully scan across the table while appearing as though I wasn’t. And there it was, The Sign: “Gay is Good!”
I was dumbfounded. I paused a moment, frozen, gathering my senses and slipped away.
That moment is seared into my memory. It was scary, shocking, thrilling — and confusing. “Gay is Good!” What? Gay is good? Is this possible? I wanted it to be true but it seemed inconceivable. Gay is good?!
Watching the scene with Cleve Jones in the library was like hearing an old song that sweeps you back to your youth. You know, when all the old feelings return. Even the smells. Watching that scene I was back in that hallway in 1970 looking at that unstaffed gay lib table. “Gay is Good!”
If I had only known then what I know now.
Last August I was out antiquing with David and his family, wandering through the stores in Angola, Indiana. I always pour through old stacks of Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic. A small collection caught my eye, and there was the December 31, 1971, issue of Life — the one featured in When We Rise. Of course I bought it!
“Homosexuals in revolt” exclaimed the article on page 62. It went on for several pages with text and photographs describing a world that seems so long ago and yet so recent.
The LGBT community has made so much progress since 1972, the starting point for When We Rise. I was still deeply closeted n 1972, self-doubting, self-hating, and scared. I wasn’t sure I’d ever come out. I couldn’t imagine actually having a relationship with a guy though I wanted it terribly. The thought of marriage never even entered my head. Marriage?! It still amazes me.
Things are a lot better now. Many more kids come out than in my day, and much younger, but it can still be very difficult and scary. There’s bullying, parental rejection and other problems. In fact I’ve assembled a whole section on this website featuring videos of people telling their Coming Out Stories. A few come out live on camera. Videos include contemporary youth and also people like George Takei, Jane Lynch, Rosie O’Donnell, Jason Collins, Ellen DeGeneres, Don Lemon, Ian McKellen and others. I invite you to check it out.
Aside from these personal thoughts and remembrances evoked by When We Rise, the show couldn’t be more timely from a political perspective. We’ve made great progress, but with progress often comes backlash. And that seems to be the period we’re entering now.
We rose, we fought, and we won. It’s looking more and more like we’ll need to do it all again. And that’s OK. We can do it. We have the lessons of history under our belt and we have more friends and allies than before.
We’ll rise again and we’ll win again.
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