ABC's latest miniseries, When We Rise, chronicles the history of the gay rights movement in America over the course of decades. To anchor that story, When We Rise follows Cleve Jones, an LGBT activist, as he attempts to fight for equal rights in the 1970s and onwards. Focusing the series on one activist is a smart way to combine its political and personal stakes, but those unfamiliar with the history of the LGBT movement may not realize that Cleve Jones is a real person.
Films and series based on actual events often create characters to help tell the story, but writer Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant go right to the source of the LGBT movement itself, looking into the life of Jones as well as many other important figures. Jones, played in When We Rise by Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce (all of whom you can see below), founded both the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and is still active in human rights movements today. So he is not only a real person, but is possibly even more important to the LGBT movement than When We Rise can fully portray in its four parts.
As they told The Daily Beast, Black and the real Jones became close friends throughout the creation of When We Rise. Jones actually wrote his memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, in Black's house while Black worked on the miniseries' script. And Jones may have already written his memoir, but that doesn't mean his work is done. Just as the struggle for LGBT rights has not ended, Jones is active in the fight for equality today and When We Rise shows that although the world has changed, LGBT citizens continue to face many obstacles.
In fact, Jones has done so much in his life, this is not the first time that the creative team of Black and Van Sant have told his story. Although he wasn't the central figure, Jones was a major supporting character in their 2008 film Milk, and was portrayed by Emile Hirsch. But Milk ends in 1978 and focuses on Jones' relationship with his mentor Harvey Milk, so When We Rise paints a much larger picture of how the LGBT rights movement stretched across the United States in the decades that followed and how it continues to rage on.
Less than a week before the premiere of When We Rise, the Trump administration withdrew bathroom access protections for transgender students. It was a big hit to the movement, especially after years of progress under Barack Obama. While the loss of basic rights can cause a great deal of discouragement, the real Jones has spoken out and said nothing will be able to stop the progress of the LGBT rights movement. "There have been so many points in my life when I thought I was done and the movement was done, and I want people to be aware of that right now with Trump," he told The Daily Beast in the same article. "When it seems like it may be over, it’s never over."
Jones' life has seen him staring into the eyes of those who sought to take away the rights of the people he loved and never wavered. As an activist for LGBT rights and AIDS awareness and research, Jones has had a massive impact on the country. Over the course of its eight hours, When We Rise will shine a light on important figures that often go unseen by the public at large, and there may be no one more deserving of that recognition than Cleve Jones.