“When We Rise” (Review)

This week we experienced an amazing television series about the LGBT+ movement’s history titled “When We Rise.” It is based on the memoir of the amazing Cleve Jones.

To my knowledge, this is the first time our community’s history has been documented this way. It has received some backlash about ratings and portrayals of conservatives (of course), but that does nothing to diminish the series importance and power to positively impact our community, efforts, and country.

The power of the series was its ability to have many stories unfolding on the screen and in my memory at the same time. Simply powerful and often overwhelming. Here are a few examples:

  • When the cops hurt and threatened the characters on the screen, I vividly remember bleeding in the snow after suffering a physical assault (one of many). I remembered feeling powerless and hopeless as the cops talked to and took the word of my attackers (that I had flirted with them…not) and then the police officers turned smirking and saying, “he got what he deserved.”
  • When the AIDS pandemic first manifested as depicted in San Francisco, the looks on their faces and tears of terror, we experienced those exact emotions as the gay community in Nashville was also decimated. I remember, vividly, erupting with grief in a Krystals burger place at 3 am one morning when I found out my first boyfriend (we had broken up by then) had died of AIDS. He didn’t even know he had it until two weeks before he died.
  • When the AIDS Quilt went to DC in the series, I remembered and grieved, again, my friends who have been memorialized with panels in the quilt.
  • During the third and the beginning of the fourth installment, I felt the guilt of having betrayed my own community. I went into the church closet in 1992 and eventually was vocal in my opposing of LGBT+ rights.  I remembered everything that happened that was shown (and more) but from an opponent’s viewpoint. The contrast of the emotions from being in the community, to being an opponent of the community, and now trying to find my place in our community, broke my heart. After the third show, I cried myself to sleep.
  • When they showed the Prop 8 Protests, I remembered seeing that footage after a night of celebrating the passage of it. At the time, when I saw the footage, a small voice inside my head said, “How could you do this to your own people?” I wept then and wept again when I saw the same people and protests in the movie. It would take quite a while, but it was that moment that began my return home to the LGBT+ community and living an honest, authentic life.
  • When Ken Jones left his conservative church environment in the series, I saw his heart in his eyes (very well acted) when he recognized his LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Christ as authentic believers.
  • When DOMA was struck down on-screen, I remembered being silently happy and wanting to join the celebration but feeling, at that time, I couldn’t. At that point, it was another moment of being compelled to come out again which happened a little while later.
  • The sentence they showed at the end of the Supreme Court recognizing our right to marry, I remember the country erupting with joy, Facebook turning into a rainbow, and texting/calling my boyfriend at the time simply elated and crying with happiness all day. Also, I joined the Orlando community that night at a fantastic celebration. It was one of the best, and most memorable, days of my life.

Of course, the binary unfolding of the series and the stories that weave throughout my journey happened ALL throughout the series. I know some of the conservatives portrayed and a LOT of the specifics of the behind the scenes details. I don’t get invites to conservative shindigs anymore, and I am ok with that ;). I have met some of the gay rights leaders portrayed in the series as well. But as importantly, maybe, more importantly, I remember all the amazing people I was honored to be in a relationship with and their stories throughout almost the entire timeframe documented in the series.

Powerful.

When We Rise, even though based on a memoir, told all our stories. There is no way to document the entirety of almost 50 years of history in 8 hours, but they did a great job in showing both the big vision and personal impact of the events that unfolded. I also love that it showed humility by revealing our strengths and some of our weaknesses as a movement. I am very proud to live in a country that, at times, is willing to humble itself (ourselves) and correct wrongs. A country that at our core does want to bring further equality and freedom to people who deserve the exact same right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

We rose. We are rising. We will rise. No going back.

Thanks to all those who pursue(d) full equality and justice for LGBT+ people.

Getting Tested for HIV at Orlando Pride

Many things happened last Saturday at Orlando Pride, but in this post, I wanted to share about how I ended up doing something I hadn’t even thought of as a possibility during the festival; getting tested for HIV. My friend Crumpy and his friend New Baldy (both nicknames obviously) mentioned the possibility of getting tested right there, right then. So, I did.

The last time I was tested was the first time I was out in the ’80’s. Back then, to get an accurate test result, you had to wait for 3 to 6 months after the risky behavior. Early on in the pandemic, it seemed like almost everything was risky behavior. Many of us lived in constant fear of AIDS. When you got tested back then, they drew vials of blood and sent them off to be tested in a lab. Then, you waited for what seemed like an eternity (at least several weeks, one time for me it was longer) for the results.

It was always scary to get tested back then because so many people and friends had passed away very quickly after they found out. The first man I ever was “with” in that most intimate of ways passed away from AIDS. He didn’t know he had AIDS until a few weeks before he passed. I can remember, with crystal clarity, the night I found out he had died. I was in a Krystal fast food place after the bar closed and literally broke down in sobbing grief when a mutual friend told me. One, because he, Ron, had died. Secondly, because of our sexual history, I thought for sure I had contracted HIV, too.

Compounding the problem, the religious and cultural stigma of gay men was horrible to begin with. That same systemic bigotry used HIV/AIDS to only make things worse as gay men. It was an incredibly difficult time.

Now, decades later, here I was walking up to a mobile clinic (a fancy truck/van), and everyone was super nonchalant about it. As I walked up a couple of stairs into the mobile clinic, I didn’t show it, but I was genuinely fascinated that this could all be done in a “mobile clinic.” I understood you could give blood in mobile blood donor buses, but had never thought you could do something like this as a mobile testing service AND get the results right there. Amazing. Even so, fascination changed to fear as the doctor introduced himself. My gut turned inside out with a flash of sorrow as long-ago memories and a moment of fear tried to resurface.

Regardless, I sat down in this itty-bitty chair in this itty-bitty mobile clinic doctor’s office, where a very nice doctor with an Indian accent and blue rubber gloves covered all his educational and legal bases. Then he took an itty-bitty pin needle punch type of mechanism and pricked my middle finger. He squeezed out about two drops of blood (instead of two vials.) Then mixed my blood with three itty-bitty solutions (looked like the mixing was done in a particular order) and then he said;

“Mr. Thomas, we got the result as you can see by the one blue dot, you are HIV negative. Did you expect this result? Are you surprised in any way?”

I said that I expected it to be negative. I didn’t go into the fact that the only sexual activity that I have had with another person in 25 years was a guy I dated last year. He and I had deeply honest conversations/preparation so by the time we did come together, we knew neither of us had STD’s and were HIV negative. No, I wasn’t surprised by the result, and yet a part of me was relieved.

Sitting there I was astonished at how simple and fast the test was. It took less than ten minutes; maybe even less than five. When I walked out, I smiled at the youngins’, New Baldy and Crumpy with his new flip fan (I let him have mine that they were giving to people who got tested.) As they chatted on and on, I didn’t say anything to them but I thought how grateful I am that they live in a world where you don’t have to live in fear of being seen to go get tested. I was happy they had mobile clinics with quick results instead of living with high anxiety for weeks or months on test results that were not anywhere near as efficient and accurate as today’s tests.

And as Crumpy and New Baldy laughed and picked on each other for various reasons, I remembered Ron and some of the friends we lost when they were that age. Today, I was glad these young men still take this health issue and process seriously. I also felt peace to know that if any of us did find out we were HIV+, there are many options, resources, and possibilities for living a long and beautiful life like many of my HIV+ friends have.

If you have not been tested, please do.

Being free is good,

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