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One Struggle, One Fight, Lots of Feminisms

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

This story is a continuation of the New America Weekly’s Women’s History Month edition.

At the end of the first episode of When We Rise, ABC’s new historical miniseries about the gay rights movement, Roma Guy stands up during a meeting of the then-homophobic National Organization for Women (NOW) and rips off her conservative sweater to reveal a t-shirt that reads “Lavender Menace.” Following her lead, other members of the group stand up, one by one, to reveal their t-shirts and their support of Roma’s demonstration.

The message to NOW is clear: One movement for equality shouldn’t exclude another.

When We Rise is a docudrama created by Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black based partially on Cleve Jones’ eponymous autobiography. It intertwines the storylines of three famous figures in the LGBT rights movement, following their journeys from 1972 to 2013. Much of the show holds up a mirror to today’s political climate, chronicling organized protests and grassroots efforts as immediate reactions to marginalizing ideology. With such a relevant message and timely release, creators expected widespread success. But since it aired last month, it’s garnered a surprisingly tenuous viewership, now said to be the result of technical flaws in execution.

But regardless of the subjective brilliance with which it was rendered, the story offers a few crucial lessons to anyone, anywhere, anytime committed to social justice. And these lessons remind us that the fight for civil rights and equality, known vernacularly as “the fight,” belongs to all of us and therefore must include all of us.

So this Women’s History Month, it’s worth rewinding to see what we can learn from the histories of other equality movements—and how, in significant ways, we’re fighting the same fight.

When NOW President Betty Friedan first used the term “Lavender Menace” in 1969 as a disparaging name for lesbians, she probably didn’t anticipate that LGBT activists would proudly re-appropriate the label to include themselves in the movement toward equality. After arriving in Boston fresh off a Peace Corps deployment, Roma goes directly to NOW’s local chapter to continue her do-gooder work. When, at the first meeting, she realizes the group is staunchly homophobic, she switches gears and heads west to join the equally homophobic but more politically minded San Francisco chapter. She then takes the lead in the fight for LGBT inclusion within the women’s rights movement.

In 1972, Boston’s NOW chapter was hardly the only equal rights group to exclude LGBT people. In fact, the women’s rights movement has a long history of exclusion. Between decades of fighting for different versions of “equal rights” and separate but connected waves of feminisms, the movement is a patchwork of different histories. One of those histories is necessarily that of LGBT rights.

Another is that of civil rights, specifically, the fight for racial equality. Ken Jones, the third main character in the series, embodies the challenges faced by many black LGBT Americans, then and now. After finishing a tour in Vietnam, Ken returns to San Francisco to work in a military anti-racism program—a homophobic program meant to lessen discrimination against black people. Ken’s story depicts the difficulty of existing in two mutually exclusive worlds: a homophobic black community and a largely racist LGBT one. Throughout the series, each of these characters struggles with being told they cannot have two identities at once, especially not two minority identities.

But of course some women are LGBT, and some are black and LGBT, and some have more than two identities not specifically represented in this series. Because there is not true equality if everyone is not equal, women’s history is not one story. It is the story of the LGBT rights movement, and of civil rights movement, and of everyone marginalized because of their identity. It is the story of how people have come together toward a common goal and of how these people continuously reconcile each other and adjust to changing ideas.

So what does this mean for today?

The condensed storytelling style of When We Rise, despite various criticisms, has one key strength that lends itself to a valuable lesson: It disavows the idea of “then and now” and brings mid-century struggles for equality into the present with a stinging salience.  

Encompassing five decades, the series not only depicts the longevity of the fight but also how it progresses, how it adapts to the minds it’s changed, and how its needs evolve. As someone born long after this movement publicly began, I can attest to the ease and comfort of the idea of different fights. In 1972, queer people risked their lives to fight police in the street just to be able to exist in public without fear of bodily harm. In post-marriage equality America, we hopefully fight for non-life threatening rights that are possible to fight for because we can exist in public. Still, we’re confronted with much of the same damaging ideology that picks and prods at marginalized groups; indeed, the fight hasn’t disappeared—its details have merely changed.

Two months ago, millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest against what many feel are unjust political forces. Like so many battles before it, the Women’s March was an immediate reaction that ironically left out certain people in its efforts to fight for everyone. But unlike many protests before it, including some of those depicted in When We Rise, this one had unprecedented support. Because of twenty-first century technology, the movement gained attention online and around the globe. With hearts and minds shaped by activists some 50 years ago, and in the face of a regressive administration, the march represented a fight that, in ways, was different from its predecessors—it didn’t cave into internal struggle, but instead quickly corrected itself to bring in women who had initially been sidelined.

It’s logical that the way we fight today appears different than it has in the past. The needs of women are arguably different today, and there are different social ideas and technological advances at play. Although women and minorities still fight for many of the same basic freedoms we fought for 100 years ago, our story has progressed. For instance, instead of fighting for our right to work, American women now fight for our right to be paid equally for that work. Instead of fighting for the right to vote, we fight for accurate representation in government.

But at the same time, this is not a different fight, not really. It is the same fight that people fought in 1932 and in 1972 and in 2002. It has evolved, as have its proponents and opponents, into what it is today. Still, that doesn’t mean we’re telling a different story; we’re simply writing the next chapter of the same fight.


Sabia Prescott is the LSX coordinator and PreK-12 administrative assistant with the Education Policy program at New America.