The Real-Life Gay Rights Activists of ABC's 'When We Rise'

'When We Rise' retells the struggles, failures and triumphs of the gay rights movement. We look at five of the real-life pioneers depicted in the drama.
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When We Rise Photo

An action shot from ABC's 'When We Rise.'

Tonight ABC premieres its miniseries, When We Rise, a chronicle of the modern-day gay rights movement told through the personal stories of some of the most prominent activists of the era. The seven-part miniseries is based on LGBT activist Cleve Jones' memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, and is written and created by Dustin Lance Black, Academy-Award winning writer of Milk.

The star-studded cast plays the following activists: Guy Pearce as Cleve Jones; Mary-Louise Parker as Roma Guy, Rachel Griffiths as Parker's partner, Diane; Michael K. Williams as Ken Jones; and Ivory Aquino as Cecilia Chung.

In anticipation of tonight's premiere, here's a preview of who these real-life heroes were and what they're doing today.

Cleve Jones

Born in Indiana and raised in Arizona, Cleve Jones didn't tell his parents he was gay until he was 18. "I thought my life was over when I was 15 years old, when I realized I was gay. I was going to kill myself," Cleve Jones admitted.

But after seeing an article about the gay liberation movement in Life magazine, he discovered there was a community and more importantly, reason to hope.

Jones moved to San Francisco and became an activist in the early 1970s. There he met LGBT activist Harvey Milk and interned for him at his City Hall office, until Milk was killed in 1978.

Continuing to fight for the cause, Jones was one of the founders of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and later, The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in the 1980s. He's written books about his activism, served on advisory boards for equal rights, and in 2009 led the National March for Equality in Washington, DC.

Jones is currently a union organizer in San Francisco.

When We Rise Cast Photo

The cast of 'When We Rise: My Life in the Movement': Michael K. Williams, Ivory Aquino, Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths.

Roma Guy

Born in a large, rural working-class family in Maine, Roma Pauline Guy developed a sense of equality and justice even when she was young. After attending public schools and graduating with a masters in social work from the University of Maine, she spent nine years working all over Africa.

In the 1970s, she, along with her partner Diane, moved to San Francisco and joined the Women's Movement. Together they co-founded the San Francisco Women’s Building, a community and arts center that advocates gender equality and self-determination. As a health advocate, Guy has fought tirelessly for women to have health access in San Francisco.

In the 1990s Guy served on various boards and institutions to help align progressive agendas and since 2005 she has lectured at San Francisco State University and is the director of the Bay Area Homelessness Program.

Diane Jones 

Having joined the Women's Movement and co-founded the Women's Building with her partner Roma Guy since the 1970s, Diane Jones served as an HIV/AIDS nurse for 33 years until her recent retirement last year.

"I'm not one who's much for reminiscing about the bad old days of the epidemic or the sentimentality that seems to go along with this," Jones told the Bay Area Reporter in 2016. "I care about our history, but my passion is for how it informs what we need to be doing today to end this epidemic."

Despite retiring from nursing, Jones plans on remaining active by participating with Getting to Zero, a local initiative which aims to reduce the transmission of HIV by 90 percent before 2020.

Ken Jones

The life of Ken Jones tackles racial issues and tension between gay white men and gay men of color. Jones was a Navy man who was taken from his post in Vietnam and reassigned to lead a military desegregation program in San Francisco. His story is perhaps the most tragic and the least cathartic on the show; he is rejected from the mainstream gay movement because of his race and alienated from the black and veteran communities because of his sexual orientation. Despite his struggles, he eventually became the first African-American chair of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration Committee.

Cecilia Chung

Born in Hong Kong in 1965, transgender activist Cecilia Chung immigrated to Los Angeles with her family in the early 1980s. In 1987 she graduated from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and spent most of her life advocating for health issues affecting the LGBT community, including HIV and AIDS programs.

In 1993 Chung decided to fully transition, but encountered financial problems and was estranged from her family. For three years Chung lived on the streets as a prostitute and became addicted to drugs. It was during this time she discovered she was HIV positive. Chung was eventually able to reconcile with her mother, and in 1998, she received full gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.

Chung is the first transgender and Asian woman to head the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Celebration. She was also a co-founder of the annual Trans March.

Appointed by Mayor Edward Lee to the Health Commission, Chung made San Francisco the first city in the U.S. to pay for gender reassignment surgery on behalf of uninsured transgender patients.

Today Chung is an active member of several HIV/AIDS and transgender organizations.

ABC's 'When We Rise' premieres tonight at 9pm EST.