'When We Rise' executive producer says show is a 'bold' depiction of LGBT history

PHOTO: ABCs mini-series "When We Rise" chronicles the real-life struggles of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Pictured is actor Guy Pearce (center) who portrays Cleve Jones.PlayEike Schroter/ABC
WATCH 'When We Rise' chronicles the struggle for LGBTQ rights

The fight for transgender rights has never been more front and center on the national stage than it has been in recent months.

Hundreds gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue just last week to protest the Trump administration announcement of an effective rollback of an Obama administration directive that extended Title IX protections against sexual discrimination to people who identify as transgender. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination by schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court entered the debate last fall when it announced it would rule on a lawsuit brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, against Gloucester County School Board in Virginia to allow him to use the boy's bathroom. The lawsuit argues that the school's bathroom policy is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and violates Title IX.

This critical moment in history for transgender Americans coincides with the debut of ABC's new miniseries, "When We Rise," which chronicles 40 years of the LGBT community’s struggle. The show’s cast includes Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg and David Hyde Pierce.

Transgender actress Ivory Aquino is one of the show's breakout stars. Born a boy, Aquino fully transitioned to a woman over a decade ago. Learning about President Trump's recent decision to rescind the national directive was difficult, she said.

"It's somewhat astounding that this simple act of just wanting to relieve yourself is- - it's such a necessity to be able to move around in a public space and then go use the restroom," Aquino said. "It's hard enough to want to be your authentic self, amidst society telling you that it's wrong.”

“And the thought of that happening to these kids who just want to use the restroom, that's why I'm so thankful for the show,” Aquino continued. “Because, at least, I feel like I'm part of something that that's doing something.”

Dustin Lance Black is the executor producer of "When We Rise" –- the first series of its kind. Since winning his 2009 Oscar for writing the screenplay for "Milk," which tells the story of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, Black has become an outspoken activist for LGBT rights.

"I can't believe we're living in a country right now where you can attack school children," he said. "That's who these kids are. These are school children who… need to go to the bathroom, so they can go back to their classroom and try and learn, and they're now being bullied by their government."

"I say loud and clear to President Trump and to Vice President Pence and to their entire staff and cabinet: 'You are fathers. Imagine if your daughters were sent to school and were told they had to go to the boys' restroom. You would fight like hell to stop that from happening, to keep that safe.' And that's what we're going to do," he added.

One of the show’s central storylines charts the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and 1990s, which decimated the gay community.

"I was in the closet for a very long time,” Black, 42, said, through tears. "And I was in San Francisco ... I finally found a home where I felt safe, and that was the theater, and my mentors were getting thin and disappearing, often within weeks. This is, like, 1988. There's no treatment that works.”

One of the hardest parts of the miniseries for Black to shoot, he said, was when the show goes to San Francisco and recreates some of the events he experienced as a kid.

"I just think about all of my friends and mentors who won't live to see the new freedoms that we've won and help pushed forward together. They didn't get to see this moment," he said. "I know there's more to do, but LGBT lives are getting better, and I miss a lot of the people, who I fought alongside to get here."

A core activist chronicled in the series is Cleve Jones, played as a young man by actor Austin P. McKenzie and then later by actor Guy Pearce. Jones famously came up with the idea for The Names Project Foundation and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

"Cleve's experience is the closest to mine, for sure," Black said. "Different in many ways, but, I mean, he's a gay white man from a conservative place."

Jones worked closely alongside lesbian activist Roma Guy, portrayed first by actress Emily Skeggs and later by actress Mary Louise Parker.

"Roma Guy is this force of nature who, I tell people, ‘She probably has done something in her life that benefited you in some way. She probably fought for some cause,’” Parker said. “She really does look beyond her and to all of her neighbors… I tried to take as much from her as I could. And she was so generous with me. You see how you can get things done with a spirit that big."

In one powerful moment recreated in the show, Jones comes across a baby that has been abandoned by drug-addicted parents and steps in to foster the child. But later, Jones is forced to give the baby up because he was gay.

"They found AIDS medications in his cabinet, in a time when there finally was a treatment," Black said. "So he was going to be OK, but it indicated he was gay, and guess what, it was legal at that time to deny a gay person the ability to foster parent at that time."

It's that "denial of love" that is the root of "emotional violence" against the LGBT community, Black said.

"I was 6-, 7-years-old when I first had a crush on the boy down the street," Black said. "I remember him walking away from me. I remember the butterflies in my stomach. But I think for straight people, you start to imagine asking that person on a date, going on a date, a first kiss, marriage, kids, blah, blah, blah. You let it grow."

He continued, "For an LGBT kid, when you have that crush, you might have that for a moment, and then, it's fear, and it's shame. And shame to me is anger that you're aiming directly at your own heart. And that's incredibly debilitating ... a complete rejection of self, and something you can't change. Trust me. They tried. They failed."

Black is referring to gay conversion therapy, the widely discredited practice that aims to alter one’s sexual or gender identity.

Dr. Charles Socarides was one of the earliest and most fervent proponents of such psychotherapy aimed at "curing" homosexuality.

In one emotional scene from the series, his son Richard comes out to his homophobic father. The conversation recreated in the show is based on a real-life event, which included an exchange between Richard and his father when he says his father threatened to kill himself.

"The scene was very traumatic," Richard Socarides said. "It was very difficult for me given who my father was. And so just going to him and speaking the words was very emotional. And then he did in fact, as is shown in the scene, pull out a gun. I knew that the gun probably was not loaded, I knew he wasn't going to fire it. But it was very emotional and I probably did not react in real life as calmly as Charlie does in the film."

Charlie Socarides, Richard’s real-life brother, plays him in the show. Richard, who later became a senior adviser to President Clinton on gay and lesbian issues, said he was incredibly proud of his brother for taking on the role.

“He's not gay but he is certainly an ally and he did such a beautiful job," he said. "I'm very proud of him."

"I like to think of our father as someone who in some sort of alternate reality could have adapted, could have changed," added Charlie Socarides. "It was just too entrenched with his professional identity, with just what he believed to his core. So he was unable to adjust later in life when everyone else had."

Black hopes Americans from all walks of life will be inspired by these stories of bravery and perseverance.

"I think everyone understood how bold this was, the potential of this to reach a broader audience, to not preach to the choir," Black said. "I believe that America is great because we're really, really different from one another and we have different ideas of how to solve problems… Let's be the strongest nation in the world through inclusivity and acceptance and celebration of difference."