When We Rise, ABC's expansive new miniseries, covers over five decades of the LGBTQ movement and introduces viewers to key figures whose names we may not have instantly recognized. Ivory Aquino, who plays transgender activist Cecilia Chung on When We Rise, tells Bustle that, as much as the entire cast and crew wish the series wasn't relevant to 2017, she's hopeful it will send a strong message that will benefit society. "[When We Rise] shines light on stories that people may not know or be familiar with," Aquino says. "It puts human faces to a community that viewers maybe just see as LGBTQ without recognizing the humanity of its members."
The themes that resonate most for Aquino are unity and diversity. "I think there is a tendency to see 'the other' and fear something that is not familiar," she tells Bustle. She hopes that viewers who don't know anyone from the LGBTQ community will see that the people depicted on the show advocate for causes that we can all relate to. "These causes are dear to everyone's hearts," Aquino says. "It's the desire for love from one's family and a life partner, and it's the desire to be able to love what one does in their career or vocation. Those are universal themes that aren't exclusive to one community, so we really have a lot more in common than we realize."
In order to prepare for her role, Aquino met with Chung, who remains a tenacious LGBTQ activist in San Francisco. She'd read about Chung and watched interviews, but meeting in person was invaluable — and it evolved into a beautiful friendship. "I was able to learn about her dreams, her aspirations, what she wants for the community, and the vision she’s working towards," Aquino says of their first meeting. The two bonded immediately and Chung invited Aquino to shadow her on the job. The next day, Aquino watched Chung speak about transgender women and HIV at a conference and later she attended smaller, more intimate meetings.
"I saw the fire in her in terms of speaking about the issues that are important," Aquino says. "But underneath that fire is such a huge heart, and I was able to take that combination of fire and heart with me when I filmed."
The two remain in close touch and Aquino describes Chung as a "mentor" and "older sister" figure in her life.
Although transgender characters are slowly but surely getting more representation on TV, they're often portrayed by cisgender actors — so it was important to Aquino that showrunners were committed to hiring transgender actors. "There’s so much trans talent out there, so there’s no excuse not to hire trans actors," she says.
Aquino also applauds the decision to air When We Rise on ABC rather than a premium channel that wouldn't reach as many viewers. "Showrunner Dustin Lance Black mentioned that if it was on cable, we would maybe get more time and a bigger budget, but it would be preaching to the choir," she says. "ABC is a milestone and it's groundbreaking that there's an opportunity to reach people that maybe aren't part of the community and humanize these stories for them."
For everyone involved in the series, Aquino says high ratings were never the objective. "The goal is for people to tune in and be drawn in by these stories. Regardless of the ratings, if people are touched enough to recognize that people who they thought were 'different' or 'the other' and see themselves in these characters, that would make everything worth it."
With LGBTQ rights under attack, When We Rise sends the crucial message that we all need to respect each other and honor one another's humanity. As Aquino says, our sexual or gender identities don't change the fact that we're all human and we inherently have so much more in common than many people realize.