"When We Rise": 7 Slices Of Queer History That Deserve Their Own Movies

Before you watch ABC's gay-rights miniseries, get an education in LGBT history.

Tonight is the premiere of When We Rise, ABC's four-night miniseries charting the history of the LGBT rights movement from Stonewall to the modern day.


While the series, conceived by Dustin Lance Black, is groundbreaking, there's no way it can encompass the entirety of queer history in America, which (spoiler) began long before 1969.

Below, we share seven chapters of that history that deserve to be chronicled, as well.

When We Rise aires February 27 to March 3 on ABC.

George Washington: Friend of friend of Dorothy.

A gay man was one of General George Washington's closest allies and had a major impact on the Revolutionary War: Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was a Prussian military officer who fled Europe to avoid prosecution for homosexuality. Steuben was hardly closeted—even Benjamin Franklin knew of his open secret—but his expertise in training and tactics were vital, so he was invited to train the fledgling Colonial Army.

Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 and began educating the recruits on how to perform drills, stand at attention, wield a bayonet and quickly reload a musket. With his expertise and discipline, he was integral in helping defeat the British—and the men purportedly appreciated his eagerness and frequent use of profanity.

It's at Valley Forge Steuben met his aide-de-camp and lover, Benjamin Walker. "If I had seen an angel from Heaven," he remarked of the young captain, "I should not have more rejoiced."

In the final years of the war, he served as Washington’s chief of staff. In fact, Washington’s last act as general was to write Steuben a letter thanking him profusely for all he had done. Steuben eventually resigned from service and settled down on his estate with his longtime companion, William North.

An ocean liner, a warship, and a submarine have all been named in his honor, as have several counties and cities across America.

Eleanor Roosevelt's BFF.

Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt's lesbian leanings circulated even while she was in the White House: Mrs. Roosevelt was close friends with several lesbian couples, including Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, but it was her relationship with Lorena Hickok drew the most attention. The two wrote thousands of letters to each other, many of which have a romantic bent.

“Hick my dearest—I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you,” Eleanor wrote. “I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you... I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.”

“I’ve been trying to bring back your face, to remember just how you look,” she added. “Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that “whether Hick and Eleanor went beyond kisses and hugs” could never be known for the certain, but “day after day, month after month, the tone in the letters on both sides remains fervent and loving.”

Can we be Frank?

The father of the modern gay rights movement, Frank Kameny, began his lifelong fight for gay rights in 1957, when he was fired from his position as an Army astronomer for being a homosexual.

Kameny appealed his termination, arguing that calling homosexuals a security risk was “no less odious than discrimination based upon religious or racial grounds.” He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court (which refused to hear it) but he was inspired to fight for the rights of homosexuals.

Kameny worked with Barbara Gittings to produce the first public demonstration for gay rights in America in Philadelphia four years before Stonewall, and spent decades fighting for equality. Two years before his death, Kameny was on hand when President Obama signed the order repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell.

The godfather of civil rights.

Born in 1912 to a Quaker family, Bayard Rustin pursued human rights in all forms—spending three years in jail during WWII as a conscientious objector and traveling to India to learn civil disobedience from Gandhi.

Once back in the States, he became a pivotal figure in the black civil rights movement—pioneering the earliest Freedom Rides and mentoring a young Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin guided MLK in directing the Montgomery bus boycotts, and is considered the architect the 1963 March on Washington, but an arrest for solicitation in 1953 meant he had to work mostly behind the scenes. (Sen. Strom Thurmond read Rustin’s entire arrest record into the congressional record, and his FBI file listed him as a “suspected communist and known homosexual subversive.”) Even fellow activists tried to oust him from the movement.

In his later years, Rustin directed his energy into the nascent LGBT equality movement, declaring, “the new n*ggers are gays.” A year before he died, he declared “we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless we are ready to fight for a new mood in the United States, unless we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”

In 2013, President Obama awarded Bayard Rustin a posthumous Medal Of Freedom. It was accepted by his partner, Walter Naegle. In 2015 he was an honoree at Logo Trailblazer Honors.

ONE, singular sensation.

Decades before Obergefell v. Hodges, the rights of the LGBT community came before the Supreme Court—and we won.

In the mid-1950s, the Mattachine Society birthed a spinoff organization, ONE, Inc, which launched an eponymous magazine, ONE: The Homosexual Agenda. In 1954, the FBI and the Postmaster General of Los Angeles declared the magazine obscene, and refused to deliver through the U.S. mail, even though it didn’t include any erotic imagery or photographs.

The publishers sued, but, lost the case and their first appeal. "The suggestion advanced that homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of our people and be accorded special privilege as a class is rejected," wrote In March 1956, U.S. District Judge Thurmond Clarke in his ruling.

But ONE took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the magazine's favor. In the following issue, the staff laid out just how historic that ruling was: "For the first time in American publishing history, a decision binding on every court now stands... affirming in effect that it is in no way proper to describe a love affair between two homosexuals as constitut(ing) obscenity

The riot that exploded before Stonewall.

In 1967, an angry protest in L.A. set an important precedent for the LGBT rights movement, two years before the first brick was thrown at Stonewall.

On New Year’s Eve, the Black Cat Tavern, a newly opened gay bar in Silver Lake, was subject to a police raid. Witnesses reported cops using “deliberate and excessive force,” including mercilessly beating one patron in the head with a pool stick. The raid sparked a riot that engulfed adjoining bars and resulted in 14 arrests.

Then, on February 11, between 300 and 600 demonstrators gathered outside the tavern to protest the raid and police brutality. It was a peaceful event, despite the presence of squadrons of armed policemen. Ultimately two men arrested during the raid were convicted of “lewd conduct”—for kissing on New Year’s.

But their lawyers did something unusual for the time: They appealed, establishing a precedent of appealing such convictions based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The series of events that took place that month had a long-reaching legacy: Not only did it set legal precedent, but the raid inspired the creation of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). And the group that sponsored the demonstration, Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE), went on to launch The Advocate.

In February 2017, L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell led a rally outside the Black Cat commemorating the demonstration's 50th anniversary.

Fire in the streets.

Four years after Stonewall, New Orleans’ gay community was celebrating Pride weekend at the Upstairs Lounge, a popular second-floor bar on Chartres Street. At around 8pm, a fire broke out on the steps leading up to the bar and quickly engulfed the entire venue.

Some 64 patrons were trapped in the bar, including members of the Metropolitan Community Church who had stopped by after services. Some patrons tried to leap out the window to escape, but bars on the windows blocked their exit. Rev. Bill Larson got stuck in the window frame, where his charred corpse remained until the following day. Assistant pastor George Mitchell managed to escape, but went back in to rescue his boyfriend. Their bodies were found clinging to each other.

In all 32 people lost their lives, but what followed was almost more horrific: Police refused to call it arson, even though traces of lighter fluid were discovered on the scene. (The lead suspect, Rogder Dale Nunez, committed suicide in 1974.) Several families refused to claim the bodies—and churches refused to hold a funeral or memorial service, and three victims were buried in a potter’s field.)

After the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church agreed to a small prayer service, he received a flood of hate mail and was chastised by his bishop.

It was the worst fire in New Orleans history, but city officials never made a statement about the blaze and news organizations barely covered it. One talk-radio host joked they should bury the victims in “fruit jars.”

Prior to the Pulse nightclub shooting, it was also the worst attack on LGBT people in history.

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