Wednesday night, as the Republican Administration announced its withdrawal of federal guidance that protected transgender and gender-nonconforming students in public schools from being discriminated against based on their gender identity, I sat in a movie theater on the Lower East Side. I was there for a preview screening of the first episode of “When We Rise,” a four-part television docudrama that follows the lives of three young people who in the early ’70s became trailblazers in the LGBTQ rights movement.
The “When We Rise” miniseries will debut Monday night, February 27 on ABC TV at 9p/8c. Due to an address to Congress by President Obama’s successor, the three subsequent two-hour episodes will air March 1 to March 3, also at 9p/8c.
As I watched the stories of real-life activists Roma Guy, Cleve Jones and Ken Jones unfold on the screen, I felt myself becoming emotionally involved. I was reminded of the pain LGBT people suffered then – and still suffer – often at the hands of law enforcement. I choked up during the conversation young Cleve Jones has with his physician father, reminded that many in the medical profession back then considered being gay or trans a mental illness, “curable” with conversion therapy or electroshock treatments. And I jotted down lines from the show that have been running through my mind ever since.
“When did you know you needed to rise up?”
The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”
“I feel like fighting back today, don’t you?”
“We have to create our own power to ensure our safety.”
In the discussion after the screening, the show’s writer and creator Dustin Lance Black was asked what impact he thought the miniseries would have in our current post-election world. “I think it’s critical that people remember the ‘we’ in ‘When We Rise,’” he said, “so we can stop this backlash and we can push that momentum forward again.” The we in the audience applauded with a sense of urgency.
I’d known on my way to the theater that the current Republican administration could at any moment rescind anti-discrimination protections for transgender students. But that didn’t stop the combined body wave of nausea and anxiety I felt on my train ride home after the breaking news popped up on my phone: Those Obama-era guidelines had been reversed. The irony of this happening on the night I’d just viewed the important history lessons in “When We Rise” rang in my head like a fire alarm. How could it be that in 2017 schools no longer had a duty to treat transgender girls and boys with the same fairness and respect they treat other girls and boys?
I didn’t want to believe that the progress of the LGBTQ rights movement, like the civil rights movement that preceded it, could ever be rolled back. And yet here we are, American citizens governed by a Republican administration that has begun attacking the basic rights of our most vulnerable people: transgender and gender-nonconforming children.
I know this isn’t just about children, but that’s where the Republican administration has chosen to start. The so-called “bathroom bills” and “bathroom debate” continue to be called that and messaged as such under the Republican party’s efforts to defeat civil rights protections for a broad range of people. Their language is about creating fear — fear of the unknown, fear of “the other” — in order to enact rules and legislation that will eventually strip LGBTQ people of basic freedoms, rights and protections.
But no matter how challenging or difficult these weeks since January 20 may be, I know that LGBTQ progress is progress. As a nation we must not turn back. And as parents, families, educators, advocates, allies, or anyone with a moral compass, we cannot be complacent. We must stay informed, stand up, speak out, attend school board meetings, reassure vulnerable kids we have their backs, and send messages to the federal government insisting on its duty to ensure that all transgender and gender-nonconforming students are protected from discrimination, bullying and harassment.
Those children, adult members of the LGBTQ community and its allies, along with all other marginalized groups, will never be alone. We are in this together. And like those freedom fighters before us, we must never give up. I feel like fighting back today, don’t you?
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