“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher and poet George Santayana wrote in 1905. They're words that Winston Churchill paraphrased during the Second World War and which remain prophetic today.
In the first episode of When We Rise, the older Cleve Jones (played by Guy Pearce) looks back at his youth in San Francisco in the 1970s from the context of George W Bush’s America (prior to the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional). Jones wonders about the tide of history, and whether a new world order might erase all the progress his generation made, sending things hurtling back into a darker time.
“I could go to my grave a criminal... again,” he worries aloud. As we are reminded on numerous occasions throughout When We Rise, this first generation of LGBTQI activists (which also includes Roma Guy and Ken Jones), of which Cleve Jones was a key, essential contributor, were not just fighting for ideas, they were fighting for their lives.
Jones moved to San Francisco from Phoenix, Arizona. The "Year in Review – 1971" issue of Life magazine sparked a fire in his belly. He came across it in his school library while skipping gym class. Jones recalls, in the preface to his 2016 memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (the partial inspiration for the television series), that one headline in particular caught his eye: “I was idly flipping through the pages of Life magazine when the headline leapt off the page: ‘Homosexuals in Revolt!’” His immediate response: “I was thrilled and then amazed."
Jones (played as a young man by Austin P McKenzie) looks back to his early years of the movement – firstly, a gay and lesbian movement, that would eventually take in bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex identities – as a time of intense struggle and hope. It was a time when he was willing to risk everything for what he believed.
As he tells his friends, enticing them to join him at a Stop Violence Against Women march, “I feel like fighting back today. I feel like getting arrested.” The risks, Jones knew from the start, were great, but the issues were worth rising up for – legal discrimination; social, cultural and political invisibility; and public indifference.
Jones’s remembrances show that history is ultimately a record of personal memories. In this way, When We Rise is like a history book of the early, dynamic years of the LGBTQI movement come to life. The series – written by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and co-executive produced by Gus Van Sant – is focused exclusively on the US experience, but has worldwide resonance. As a visual document, it reminds us that visibility matters - that we must look back to understand the world we live in now and that we have much to learn about the struggles of the present day from those faced years before.
History always repeats. The same stories replay themselves, decade after decade, century after century. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is focused on eroding identity politics. His almost daily Twitter outbursts, the January 2017 Women’s March aimed against him, and his recent executive order to roll back Obama’s transgender bathroom and locker room policies for schools all remind us that full citizenship, for many Americans, remains an ongoing fight.
Progress is always painful. While Tony Kushner’s extraordinary, Pulitzer Prize winning play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, reminds us that “the world only spins forward”, it does so, often at great personal, human cost.
Cleve Jones is HIV positive. He survived the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s where most of his friends didn’t. Jones has lived to tell their stories, and created the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a visible tribute to those who have died – an act of memory, and importantly, of history.
“Each generation has its own epic confrontations that it must face,” Jones explains early in the series. Rising up for LGBTQI rights in the face of AIDS was his. Jones remembers that, “From the beginning of the epidemic, our fear was that everything we’d worked for would just be swept away.”
It can be too easy to forget the struggles of the past, until they return to haunt us again. As Trump threatens to roll back progress for women, LGBTQI people, refugees and immigrants, and American-born people of colour, Jones’s plea to the young man who is interviewing him to “pay attention” to history is a call to all of us to do the same.
Watch When We Rise on SBS On Demand or on SBS on Saturdays at 8:30pm. Here's the first episode: