Eike Schroter / ABC

In Part 3, When We Rise Wonders If Gay People Should Be 'Normal'

Or is being normal just a new form of oppression?

Part 3 of When We Rise has plenty of emotional moments, including the scene where Cleve (now a full-grown man) explains to his parents why he loves his partner Ricardo. We saw them meet as young men in the hospital, and from there, apparently, they learned to support each other through their common HIV status, and their shared grief over losing friend after friend after friend to AIDS.

Guy Pearce plays this speech with incredible openness, which is just right. Why should you hold back tears when you're trying to describe the love of your life? There's a similar nakedness to Michael Kenneth Williams as full-grown Ken. When his partner dies; when his partner's family claims the house and kicks Ken out; when he can't beat that hatefulness in court; when he desperately looks for new love while also trying to recover in a VA program for HIV-positive drug users...you just feel it all. And somehow, Ken never seems pitiable. He's got too much fire for that. He demands our sympathy, yes, but also, always, respect.

And if the scenes with grown-up Roma (Mary-Louise Parker) and Diane (Rachel Griffiths) lack that urgency, it's only because they're slogging through the day-to-day work of raising a kid, not facing down imminent death. But their relationship has an ease that I believe in, and so does their anxiety that they might be screwing up their kid. Their worries revolve around their queer family structure, of course, but the series does a good job of pointing out that every other parent has the same anxieties in one form or another. As they do their best to raise a daughter, Roma and Diane are, frankly, pretty normal. Which is moving in its own way.

"Normal" is a word with a lot of weight in Part 3, and for all those emotional scenes, it's the intellectual debate over assimilation that gets me the most fired up, because the question is still important and still unresolved. I'm a married gay man, and I was overjoyed when gay people were finally granted the right to get married. (Same goes for our right to serve openly in the military.) But there are many people who suggest that these rights may actually hurt us. Of course it's easy for straight people to "tolerate" gay people who want to do typical hetero things like get married, the thinking goes. Real tolerance would be celebrating people who don't want their relationships to be mainstream. Real tolerance would be fighting to dismantle the government systems that privilege marriage (gay or straight) over other modes of living.

I'm impressed that When We Rise gets at this. It's there in Cleve's failed attempt to become a foster parent to a baby abandoned by his junkie neighbor. It's there in a subplot about Richard Socarides, the former spokesperson for Bill Clinton whose father was the notoriously hateful, anti-gay therapist Charles Socarides. (Fun fact: Richard is played by his younger brother Charles Jr.) It's there in the way Diane tries to "straighten up" for a parents' dinner at her daughter Annie's school, because she's afraid that if she doesn't blend in enough, it'll cause trouble.

It's certainly there in Annie's voiceover when she says, "They tell you, 'Be like us, 'cause that's how you'll matter.' But the thing about insiders is that even if you do play their game, they know you're a freak and only pretend to like you. So what's the point of acceptance if it's not the real you they give a damn about?" Her eventual conclusion? "That's where the power is. On the outside."

This is a great argument that demands to be considered. At the same time, however, I'd argue that this film is letting queer people off the hook for the conformity we demand from each other. There can be pressure in the gay male community, for instance, to shun monogamy because it's heteronormative and "against the male nature." Among gay men in New York City, there can be pressure to have a certain body, a certain style, and a certain aloofness. There's always a "normal" to be chased, even if one's normal is on the outside of someone else's.

But a miniseries is not a term paper, and I don't expect When We Rise to cover every damn thing. Meanwhile, I'm very interested to see how it tackles gay marriage, which has got to be part of the final night. And where will this story leave us? Which fights will it remind us to fight? Which victories will it remind us to celebrate? What will it choose for its parting words?

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