Meet the Real Women Featured in “When We Rise”

The real lesbian and trans feminists who inspired characters in ABC’s new LGBTQ mini-series.

The epic new four part mini-series When We Rise premieres tonight on ABC. This televised series will chronicle more than 40 years of the personal and political struggles of a group of pioneers for LGBTQ rights. While you’re scooping some ice cream and pouring a glass of wine to settle in for part one of the series tonight, learn a little bit about the real women portrayed by the characters.

Photo by Wikipedia / ABC

Roma Guy, portrayed in her youth by Emily Skeggs and later, by Mary-Louise Parker, is a longtime social justice activist and policy leader. Guy was one of the co-founders of the Women’s Building in San Francisco, 1971. This space was pivotal for the feminist movement as it was the first ever woman-owned and operated community center in the country. Guy continues to fight, still today, for access to public health resource, immigration rights, women’s rights and eradicating homelessness.

Many of the scenes from “When We Rise” may look similar to the protests and rallies we see covering the streets of America today. Much of the work Guy has fought for in her past, is still relevant to our present day politics. “Much about girls’/women’s issues and just being a “progressive”—with different eras’ meaning of progress—ring true today,” Roma said in an interview with the SF Bay Times. “We need to bring our consciousness, and modernize ourselves and our tools, if we want to make a continuing difference and to take care of ourselves to be present; this is true for all ages, and is not easy.

Photo by Wikipedia / ABC

In 1973 Sally Gearhart became the first out lesbian to gain a tenure-track faculty position when she was hired at San Francisco State University. (You’ll see her portrayed by Carrie Preston in “When We Rise.”) In her work as a speech and women’s studies professor, she also created one of the first women and gender studies programs in the country. With the now widely popular the future is female slogan taking over present day feminist movements, we can look back to Gearhart for the inspiration of the statement with her essay “The Future – If There is One – Is Female,” in 1981.

Gearhart now considers herself a “recovering political activist,” living in Willits, California. However, her legacy lives on and continues to inspire lesbian and queer women to move forward in higher education. In 2009, the Sally Miller Gearhart Fund for lesbian studies hosted their very first lecture at the University of Oregon titled “The Incredibly Shrinking Lesbian World and Other Queer Conundra.”

Photo by Personal website / ABC

Cecilia Chung, played by out transgender actress Ivory Aquino, has spent much of her adult life working to advocate for those living with HIV. Though she was at first estranged from her family when she came out as trans, Chung later found reconciliation with her mother, which you’ll see happen in the ABC series. Chung is now a pivotal staff member at the Transgender Law Clinic, which is a continuation of her career in taking a stance for the LGBTQ community. In 2001 Chung became the first Asian and first transgender woman elected to San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee Board President. She has paved the way for many as the first person living openly with HIV to Chair the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Chung continues to make positive strides for the trans community.

Photo by ABC

Bobbie Jean Baker (Jazzmun) left Memphis, Tennessee for San Francisco in 1992. Baker became a pivotal leader in the trans community with her varied work as a peer advocate, case manager, domestic violence specialist and housing manager. Much of this work was done through her role as lay minister at Transcending Transgender Ministries. Baker was an ordained minister through the City Refuge United Church of Christ and served as the West Coast Regional TransSaints Minister of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. She was also well known for her role in the Transcendence Gospel Choir, an all-transgender singing group of which she was a part of for more than a decade.

After her untimely death in 2014, Tiffany Woods of the Tri-City Health Center in Fremont, California, told the San Jose Mercury News, “It’s a big community loss. She was huge in the African-American transgender community and the community at large. She was grooming the younger generation and mentoring them. Part of the work we are all doing is mentoring and teaching and training as much as we can.”

Photo by Zimbio / ABC / ABC

Del Martin (Rosie O’Donnell) and Phyllis Lyon (Maddie Corman) are well-known as fierce activists for lesbian rights. The couple was the first gay couple to legally be married in the state of California in 2008. That predates much of their decades-long legacy of activism. Martin and Lyon founded the first lesbian organization in the country, Daughters of Bilitis, and also the first-ever widely-read lesbian magazine, The Ladder.

The women met in 1950, took two years before they become lovers, and in 1953 they moved in together on Valentine’s Day. Though Del passed away in 2008, Phyllis carries on their legacy still today with Lyon-Martin Health Services. The clinic was started as a judgmental space for lesbians to receive access to health care and now is known for providing care for those living with HIV and transgender patients.

Photo by SFDept / ABC

Anne Kronenberg (Britt Irvin) was Harvey Milk’s campaign manager during his historic win as San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. She continued as Milk’s aide until he was assassinated in 1978. Kronenberg’s current role as executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management continues her activism, as well as her role as co-founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation.

Photo by ABC

Pat Norman (Whoopi Goldberg) founded the Lesbian Mothers Union in 1971 while living in San Francisco. Norman was a fearless leader for LGBTQ rights and the communist movement. In “When We Rise,” you’ll see Norman paving the way as the first out LGBTQ employee of the San Francisco Health Department. She also played a large role in the grassroots movements to create the San Francisco Women’s Center Building, the Women’s AIDS Network, the National Gay Task Force, the Lesbian Rights Project, and the Human Rights Foundation. Norman was one of the community organizers of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian/Gay Rights, of which she was also the co-chair.

With the AIDS epidemic happening during her era, she became an outspoke advocate for Black women, stating in theSan Francisco Metro Reporter, “In the United States as a whole, 60 percent of all women with AIDS are African American, as are 50 percent of the babies born with AIDS. It is important that we stop the rise of HIV infection among African American women. Only awareness and education can help us confront this epidemic in our communities.”

“When We Rise” premieres tonight at 9pm ET/PT on ABC.

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