Bi People Have Yet to Rise
*SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD For When We Rise*
In the four part ABC series When We Rise, bi activists are erased from queer history. Despite tweets from screenwriter and director Dustin Lance Black, there are no recognizable bi activists portrayed or even authentic bi characterizations.
The series, based on the memoir of protagonist and noted gay activist Cleve Jones, covers a large chunk of the LGBT rights movement from the 1970s to the recent marriage equality fight. The three main protagonists — Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Ken Jones — their work with race, feminist, and LGBT rights.
This portrayal of three early gay rights activists is curious. The narrative claims that the early gay rights movement was pro trans, pro black, and feminist. As someone who did not live during those years, I’m skeptical. How much was the movement intersectional in its early stages and how much was cleaned up for the series? If the movement was that intersectional in the beginning, I’m left asking “what happened?”
In my experience within the movement, there has been sexism, racism, transphobia, and biphobia — all things conveniently left out of the series.
There are two points in the series that are being used as evidence of bi inclusion. In the first two episodes, Ken has a lover that is married to a woman. His lover, Richard, also has HIV and hides his sexuality in part by remaining married to his wife.
The wife acts more as a friend and beard than an actual partner. At one point, when Ken wants to be more out about his sexuality, Richard’s wife says: “Richard and I stayed married for a reason. It’s afforded us this home, our stability. We need more discretion now, Ken, not less.”
This character reads more that he came out to his wife, she reconciled herself to his gayness, and they remained together out of convenience. Not that he is bi.
The second character is, again, a lover of Ken named David. He, too, has HIV, is married, and is a war veteran. While in rehab, Ken and David form a bond over their addiction to drugs, veteran status, and being HIV positive.
In a frank conversation, Ken asks David how he ended up in a group for HIV positive drug addicts. David doesn’t want to talk about it. Still Ken hits on him and invites him to have sex while unbuttoning his pants. David refuses saying he “doesn’t want it like that” and that he “doesn’t fall in love with men. Except maybe once, like you, in the war.” The next day David had his wife pick him up from rehab.
When We Rise did not rise to the occasion. It’s a missed opportunity to not include the important work bi people have contributed to the movement. In two areas, it is unacceptable that the bi community was omitted. First, the HIV/AIDs epidemic. Bisexual people were hit with HIV, too, and were often blamed for “spreading” the disease to women. The early HIV activists were not welcoming of bi people, because their sexuality complicated the narrative. Instead, bi people didn’t disclose their sexuality to gay or straight people. Being forced into the closet killed many of us.
Not only was the bi community suffering because of the HIV/AIDS, they were fighting it. While the media was busy scapegoating bi men for spreading the disease to women, bi activists like Dr. David Lourea and Cynthia Slater were out raising awareness and offering sex education in the same sex spaces of San Francisco. In fact, throughout the history of “gay rights” bi activists and allies have been consistently erased, it is sad to see that When We Rise is continuing to do so.
The second huge omission was marriage equality. One of the first couples to get married when marriage equality passed in Massachusetts was renowned bi activist Robyn Ochs. When We Rise focused on gay activism out of San Francisco, but bi activists were there too. Lindasusan Ulrich and Emily Drennen were married three times — twice during California’s period of on-again, off-again marriage rights during the Proposition 8 era.
Ulrich and Drennen were arrested and frequently interviewed by press, most of the time being mislabeled as lesbians. The last few times they got married and arrested they carried the bi flag with them to combat that erasure. Their wedding dresses were displayed in the San Francisco’s GLBT History Museum for the “Biconic Flashpoints: 4 Decades of Bay Area Bisexual Politics” exhibit. The exhibit included a rich history of bisexual advocacy in the Bay Area, any of which When We Rise could have found ways to incorporate.
I appreciate the racial diversity and the trans inclusion of When We Rise. The series is groundbreaking in that, for the first time in network history, gay and trans activism and history was shown for an entire week in the living rooms of families all across the country. But as with past shows that have been labeled as ground breaking, I can appreciate the content and its historicity while recognizing when I have been left behind.
The erasure of bi people and our contributions to the movement is inexcusable. Especially when at the hands of fellow gays and lesbians. This erasure of bi people is dishonest and biphobic.