ABC's new miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles five decades of the LGBTQ rights movement, is an inspiring depiction of the progress that's been made. But it's also a sobering reminder that the rights the community fought so hard for are currently under vicious attack. Just a week before the series premiere, the bathroom bill designed to protect trans students in schools was rescinded, and the setback is both discouraging and frightening. Ivory Aquino, who stars as transgender activist Cecilia Chung on When We Rise, tells Bustle that showrunners' decision to cast a transgender woman is significant because the common practice of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles often "sends a deadly message."
Aquino says reversing the bathroom bill "reduces trans people to body parts and fails to honor or even acknowledge the whole person." During their formative years, it takes courage for children to speak up about gender identity — and being discriminated against at school has myriad consequences. "It takes so much bravery to share their authentic voice and reveal who they are," Aquino says. "And then to tell them 'no, you're wrong' in the formative years, when they’re in school and supposed to be learning... they aren't given the opportunity to thrive like everyone else."
It's not just a matter of having their identities dismissed by authority figures — Aquino is deeply concerned that the bathroom issue interferes with a child's education. "The reversal of the bathroom bill leads to instances where trans kids are holding back from eating or drinking just so they don’t have to go to the bathroom," she says. "How can kids learn in this environment when they’re being told 'you can’t go into a public space?'"
"If there’s not an environment where learning is the priority, then it affects a trans kid's life," Aquino continues. "If a kid is in a classroom and there’s an important lesson being given and all they can think about is 'I need to use the bathroom, but I'm afraid to', how is that providing them with the space to learn?"
Aquino says movies and TV shows can help illustrate why we shouldn't think of the transgender community as people who went "from male to female" or vice versa. Although transgender characters are slowly becoming more prolific on TV, they are seldom portrayed by transgender actors — so it was extremely important that showrunners wanted a transgender woman to play Cecilia Chung. "There's so much trans talent out there that there's no reason to not hire trans people," she says. "But it also involves trans lives and, when depicting trans women, the audience sees a trans character on TV and then a man speaking during interviews or awards ceremonies. It sends out the wrong message that once the cameras have stopped rolling, there's a man underneath a trans woman."
Media has the power to send out strong messages, and Aquino says this one is deeply disturbing. "It sends out a deadly message that trans women are men, and that's the farthest thing from the truth."
Hopefully, When We Rise and similar TV shows will continue to impact audiences and inspire more people to become allies. Aquino says she is thankful for the many allies who have expressed their support for the LGBTQ community during the past weeks and years. And, if you're unsure of how to be an ally, she has straightforward advice: listen. "The best thing is to allow people from these minority communities to tell their personal stories, because it’s a personal story that touches someone’s heart and allows them to expand their mind," Aquino says. "That's what many allies are doing right now. They're allowing space for people to share their stories, and that’s a huge step in humanizing the community."
When We Rise gave viewers an opportunity to learn the personal stories of a number of key figures in the LGBTQ rights movement. Now, we need to apply the same mindset to our personal lives and ensure that we make an effort to listen to the stories of members of all marginalized communities.