| Mike Wallace of 60 minutes commenced his documentary on Gays|
with the words “homosexuality is an enigma
This was posted on the New York Times with the tittle “When we Rise”: Stories Behind the Pain and Pride of Gay Rights
Fifty years ago next month, CBS broadcast “The Homosexuals,” an unsettling documentary about a subject “that people find disturbing,” as Mike Wallace, the anchor, put it. For nearly an hour, viewers saw a gay man in shadows describing the tragedy of his life, psychiatrists who depicted homosexuality as a debilitating mental illness and a harrowing clip of a distraught 19-year-old soldier being driven to jail after his arrest on a charge of soliciting sex in a public restroom.
“The average homosexual — if there be such — is promiscuous,” Mr. Wallace told his audience. “He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”
A more contemporary examination of gay life in America comes to network television later this month, in an eight-hour avalanche of prime time spread across four nights, and with a decidedly different take on the subject. Written by a prominent gay filmmaker, Dustin Lance Black, “When We Rise” is a 50-year history of the gay rights movement beginning on Feb. 27, told through four characters who suffer — and often triumph over — family rejection, landlord discrimination, gay-bashing, police harassment, legislative defeats and AIDS.
But the world is a different place than it was when ABC first commissioned the project four years ago. Barack Obama was in the White House, and gay leaders were celebrating a series of court and statehouse victories, which would soon include the Supreme Court’s recognizing a constitutional right to marry by same-sex couples. After President Trump’s election, questions that seemed largely settled about gays in American society — same-sex marriage, equal treatment in the workplace and in housing — suddenly seem in doubt.
Mr. Trump is hardly a champion of gay rights, and Mike Pence, his vice president, has a record of explicit opposition to gay rights measures. Mr. Trump could well end up altering the ideological composition of the Supreme Court that handed down the marriage decision.
Still, as celebration has given way to intense anxiety, Mr. Black argues that the election’s outcome has made the mini-series even more urgent.
“We did not create this series for half a nation,” Mr. Black said. “I believe that most Americans, including Americans who voted for Donald Trump, will fall in love with these real-life families and absolutely relate to their stories when they tune in.”
There have been no shortage of gay characters and gay-themed television shows and films in recent years, be it “Queer as Folk,” “Modern Family” or “Will & Grace.” And ABC was the network that showed what was at the time a groundbreaking gay-themed television movie, “That Certain Summer,” in 1972. But there has never been anything quite as sprawling or historical devoted to this particular topic, a project that is drawing comparisons to “Roots,” the 1977 ABC mini-series that traced the history of African-American slavery.
“We’ve reached the stage in the L.G.B.T. movement when a network not only feels comfortable taking this on — but doing so in a big way,” said Eric Marcus, a gay historian who produces the Making Gay History podcast and is preparing his own multipart documentary on the movement.
Torie Osborn, a longtime gay and lesbian rights leader who was active in San Francisco during struggles depicted in the movie, said, “I hope this is a moment for our allies to learn about our history and young gay men and lesbians to learn about their history.”
“This is a story that could have been told before,” she said, adding: “Better late than never.”
Sipping a cup of tea after flying in from his home in London, Mr. Black, 42, teared up here as he recounted learning that ABC would devote a four-night block of prime time to his work. (“When We Rise” originally was set for four consecutive nights; the second episode has now been delayed a day to make way, fittingly enough, for Mr. Trump’s first State of the Union address.)
It was a far cry from the struggle he endured to get a movie made of his screenplay for “Milk,” the story of Harvey Milk, the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was assassinated in 1978. Mr. Black said that he went nearly broke financing it and that a studio committed to it only after Sean Penn had signed on to play the title character. Mr. Black won an Academy Award for best original screenplay.
“When We Rise” is the latest in a series of works by Mr. Black focusing on gay issues. He wrote “8,” a play based on the closing arguments over the constitutionality of a voter initiative in California in 2008 prohibiting the marriage of same-sex couples. The production of the play was used to raise money for the legal battle that resulted in the initiative’s being thrown out of court.
“Listen, if I wanted to write movies about people with capes and fangs, I could,” he said. “My good, military, conservative, Mormon mother always said, ‘Wake up every morning and make the world better.’ That’s what I was trying to do.”
Still, telling that story was hardly easy. The history of the gay and lesbian movement is diffuse and complicated, with endless debates over where and when it really began, who its leaders are and, most fundamentally, what the battle was — is — about. Its center of gravity bounced across the country. There are few, if any, people who have risen to define the movement: Figures tend to appear and recede to the sidelines, because of death or the challenges of leading a fractious group of what was, at least initially, outcasts.
This has long presented a challenge for anyone seeking a neat narrative arc for this history. “By necessity if you’re going to tell the story of the L.G.B.T. civil rights movement, you are only going to be able to tell a slice of a slice of a slice,” Mr. Marcus said. “What invariably happens is there will be people screaming that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Well, it can’t tell the whole story.”
Mr. Black focuses largely on San Francisco — familiar ground, since that was where “Milk” was based. But other cities were arguably as politically significant — New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and Minneapolis among them — and are largely absent from this account.
The four characters who form the frame of Mr. Black’s story may not be the four most important figures in the movement. They were chosen over (just to pluck a few names at random from a very long list) leaders like Arthur Evans, a founder of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York; Virginia Apuzzo, a former nun and early leader of the National Gay and Lesbian Rights Task Force; Steve Endean, a founder of the Human Rights Campaign Fund; Barbara Gittings, a founder of the Daughters of Bilitis in New York City; and Morris Kight, who fought in the trenches of Los Angeles for close to 25 years.
But Mr. Black needed characters whose lives spanned the contours of this history, who would give continuity to a long story and who are, in three cases, played by different actors at different stages of their lives.
Central among them is Cleve Jones. He worked for Mr. Milk when he was a county supervisor, was there the day he was assassinated and went on to become a founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, an emotionally wrenching commemoration of the people lost to the epidemic, in 1985. Mr. Jones, a historical consultant to this mini-series, stayed in Mr. Black’s home in the Hollywood Hills while writing his own memoir, “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement.”
Mr. Jones, who is played as an adult by Guy Pearce, said that while some details in the production were not true to what he experienced, “When We Rise” captured the spirit and themes of the movement that has absorbed much of his life. “It could be truthful without being accurate,” he said.
“When We Rise” grapples with some of the more difficult chapters of the movement, including the tense relationship between men and women in the early days, and later, how lesbians stepped up to help gay men deal with the health and political ramifications of the AIDS epidemic. Part of that is told through Roma Guy, an early feminist leader in San Francisco, played by Mary-Louise Parker. And it does not avoid the racial discrimination common in gay male bars in the 1970 and 1980s, told through the story of an African-American community organizer in the Bay Area, Ken Jones, played as an adult by Michael K. Williams (Omar, of “The Wire”).
As the production moves into the 1990s and turns to the Clinton White House and its mixed record on gay issues, a fascinating story within a story emerges involving Richard Socarides, who was President Clinton’s gay liaison: He is played by his younger brother, the actor Charles Socarides.
And their father is Charles W. Socarides, a psychiatrist who was one of the most vocal proponents of the view that homosexuality was a pathological disorder. Dr. Socarides is an expert witness, as it were, both in “When We Rise” and in the CBS documentary of 1967.
The fraught relationship between Dr. Socarides and his gay son has been the subject of several articles (including one I wrote in October 1995 for Out Magazine). But Mr. Socarides said there are details about his coming out to his father that he decided to share for the first time with Mr. Black.
“In that interaction with my father, my father takes out a gun and puts it to his head and threatens to shoot himself,” Mr. Socarides said. “Which actually happened. No one ever knew about it. It was really intense. I hadn’t told anybody that ever, because I was trying to protect him, or I guess in some way I was embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I felt enough time had passed.”
The tussles President Clinton had with gay leaders — in particular, over his support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman — seem tame in this political environment, where gay leaders are girding for Mr. Trump, and Republicans who control state legislatures, to roll back protections for gays and lesbians. Still, this new climate does not appear to have shaken ABC.
“That doesn’t change things for us,” said Channing Dungey, the president of ABC Entertainment. “This is a true story involving actual events, involving real people. We are not coming at this from a political place or trying to make a political statement. This feels like an emotional story that we just want to share.”
Mr. Black said that if he had learned anything from this work, it is that the gay rights movement is a story of triumphs followed by setbacks. Mr. Trump’s election, he said, is just another turn in this road.
“We are in a period of backlash right now,” he said. “I would give anything for this to be less topical. But this series shows our history is a pendulum, not a straight line.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 19, 2017, on Page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Stories Behind the Pain and Pride