By Debra Walker
When I came out in the mid-seventies, I paid tremendous attention to news from San Francisco about LGBT issues. Even though I was living in a pretty conservative part of Southern California—or maybe because of it—in 1978 I was activated by the power of the San Francisco community, with its progressives who were then organized to win the battle against the Briggs Initiative/Prop 6. The proposition, if passed, would have banned LGBT teachers from working in public schools. I watched and learned from San Francisco activists, and joined the campaign against Prop 6 in Southern California.
Having just come out to my family, I was still struggling with their struggle in accepting me and my older sister as lesbians. But the strength of the activism in San Francisco inspired so many of us across the state and the country to come out and stand up, to act up against the oppression. Within weeks of fighting off Prop 6, we all watched as Supervisor Harvey Milk as well as San Francisco liberal Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by fearful, homophobic ex-Board of Supervisors’ member Dan White. I watched, horrified, as the subsequent jury verdict of second degree murder unfolded—the so-called Twinkies defense. It was a slap on White’s wrist. I was outraged, as was my community, but I felt so much pride over San Franciscans for subsequently speaking up, standing up and mobilizing for justice.
When I later moved to San Francisco in 1981, I was soon followed by a few of my gay male friends from Los Angeles and San Diego. They had come here to receive medical treatment. When I visited them at San Francisco General, they told me they’d been warned they had “gay cancer,” and were refused treatment in the hospitals in the other cities they lived in. They had to come to SF General because it was the only hospital that would take them. Visiting them at the hospital, I saw the dedication and compassion of the medical staff, and especially of the women who were clearly making a difference. They, along with others, fought through the struggles and helped to build our LGBT community.
The seed for such activism was sown, in part, by the founding years earlier—in 1971—of San Francisco Women’s Centers to incubate emerging Bay Area women’s projects. The group quickly outgrew their tiny office on Brady Street. In 1979, they bought Dovre Hall, a former Sons of Norway meeting hall and neighborhood bar. The organized and motivated women, who included Roma Guy and her partner Diane Jones, transformed the four-story building into the first woman-owned and operated community center in the country: The Women’s Building.
Words cannot do justice to the achievements of Roma—a longtime social justice leader and former Public Health Commissioner—and Diane—a former HIV/AIDS nurse and social justice activist. They took care of those whom others ignored, whether helping HIV/AIDS patients or supporting women with social services, wellness classes and, perhaps most importantly, by providing opportunities for community connections to combat isolation. Roma and Diane helped to move forward important issues concerning healthcare, workers’ rights and more, despite overwhelming challenges. Their work reminds me of the new battle cry for progressives coined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and leveled at Senator Elizabeth Warren earlier this month. Paraphrasing it: Nevertheless, they persisted.
Roma and Diane’s work continues, but we will be reminded of their past groundbreaking efforts in When We Rise, a new miniseries that will premiere on ABC on February 27. Although the series delves into the past, there are many parallels with the struggles facing the LGBT community today. It is therefore extremely pertinent, at this moment, to share Roma and Diane’s story, as well as that of Cleve Jones, Cecilia Chung, Ken Jones and other community leaders featured in the series, which was written and created by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. The series will hopefully inspire others to tear down the glass ceiling still affecting women, and to continue the fight against racial injustice, poverty, threats to immigrants and transphobia.
Ahead of the miniseries’ television premiere next week, I spoke with Roma, who shared her thoughts about When We Rise, LGBT history, current sexism and what fuels her and Diane’s activist energies.
Debra Walker: How excited are you knowing that Mary Louise Parker will play you on the big screen?
Roma Guy: I am extremely excited that both Mary Louise Parker and Emily Skeggs (from the original cast of Fun Home) are portraying me in When We Rise. I never doubted for a nanosecond that Mary Louise Parker would carry the script and the inspiration of our movement. Her ability to capture and move in the heart/mind zone of the character is a marvel.
Debra Walker: Has the television series prompted you to recall some of your early experiences and, if so, what has that felt like? What memories from those early days have been the most powerful for you to relive?
Roma Guy: On a personal level, I like that The Women’s Building is an important, safe community and movement-building space. (In terms of the series,) I am happy that my rural background is identified, and that my family of origin is not demonized because, although Catholic, they found a way to accept me. It was difficult, but they did it. I think siblings and parents need to know it is possible to accept differences that seem impossible, but true, and find the safety and love that thrives for everyone involved. I liked that “Roma Rides for the Revolution” (referring to a 1977 fundraiser for The Women’s Building) is included in the series, because it did create momentum and lots of fun and teasing during the time—although the arrival (Emily Skeggs) in San Francisco was writer’s creativity more than factual as to how it happened.
I liked that When We Rise depicted Diane and I meeting in Togo, West Africa. It was slightly too romanticized for me, but the points made are so true. I am thrilled that the role of community and San Francisco General Hospital during the “Mystery disease,” GRID, HIV and AIDS were given significant attention.
I am deeply indebted that Ken Jones agreed to be a part of the series, (helping to show) the racism in our community. Struggles of substance abuse, fear and violence (are all viewed so) differently (by society) than when they happen to middle-class white people, whether gay or female. Many young people of color all over the U.S. will feel the truth of these messages, especially related to how each person who may be gay, but comes from different communities and families, heals and accepts themselves.
The fact that both Annie Jupiter Jones (Diane and Linda Jupiter’s daughter) and Tom Ammiano agreed to share how Annie was born (insemination) and how she was parented and grew-up in the Mission was excellent in the series, which also showed her struggles and how homophobia did and did not impact her. It was great because lots of children have complex parenting and (these kinds of) troubles.
I could go on and on. You’re not writing a chapter in a book, so let’s move on!
Debra Walker: Has the series inspired you to write your own story, as opposed to being included in someone else’s? Could there be a sequel to the series?
Roma Guy: I have explored writing even some of my story, some of others’, but truly I don’t have the talent, which provokes me on lots of levels, but perhaps (I’ll do it) in another lifetime. I appreciate the book Mothering the Movement by Shawn Robb (that documents the founding of The Women’s Building), and a play by Mercilee Jenkins called She Rises Like a Building to Sky. I am thrilled that the GLBT Historical Society accepted The Women’s Building archives.
Yes, (the series) could continue, since there are so many more dimensions to our activism, the humans who make it happen and those who get in the way and why. It’s worldwide. Such a series does cost lots of money and requires real creativity and breathtaking talent.
Debra Walker: I assume you have seen the episodes. Which one is your favorite? What is your favorite scene in the series?
Roma Guy: I don’t have a favorite scene. I thought Rachel Griffith and Marie Louise Parker were a good match for playing Diane and me, and I enjoyed watching them put it all together.
I liked the Board of Supervisors’ meeting on health access. It was very creatively scripted by Dustin Lance Black. It was deeply moving to watch a Latino immigrant family, with the husband pleading for health access because his young wife was diagnosed with advanced cancer.
One of the most poignant moments features Ivory Aquino, who plays Cecilia Chung. In the scene, her mother accepts who Cecilia is, a transgendered woman.
All of these scenes are true, movement-building experiences.
Debra Walker: You and Diane have been on the front lines of each and every battle our community has had to fight, and you both are still on the front lines. What helps to fuel your activist energies now?
Roma Guy: I was born with lots of energy and raised by community and family who struggled, but were nurturing and also tasked with discipline. They were supportive, even when the elementary school would talk to my Mom and ask, “What can we do to direct Roma’s energy?” Dad was more: “OK, you have energy, so ‘work’.” I learned from him how to interact in community. He had a small business in a farming community and welcomed change, but was deeply disciplined. He also had a great sense of humor. (For example,) he was also on the school board and Knights of Columbus (a Catholic-based fraternal organization)
and he got the priest to agree that he didn’t have to wear the “uniform” at public events! He was a community builder. My Mom “got me,” emotionally, and that made a key, affirming difference to me forever. For instance, although I played softball and girls’ baseball tirelessly, I wanted to play baseball. She bought me my first baseball glove so I could practice with men—who thought what I wanted was cute—and with boys in the schoolyard, sometimes. I was moved to tears; it was a forever moment in my life.
I loved the potato harvest, which led to a month off from school in September/October, and I was disciplined and competitive with my siblings and peers. We started at 5 am and went until sundown. The fatigue was, at times, overpowering. I cycled, had a newspaper route and babysat. I shoveled lots and lots of winter snow, which I loved. I loved playing with my siblings; I am the eldest of 7. I learned to play the violin and clarinet, and to water and winter ski, and to go tobogganing. I would say to siblings, “Let’s take Mom out tobogganing until she laughs so hard she is pissing in her pants! It was so much fun. I read into the night, flashlight and all, and fell in love with non-fiction.
Debra Walker: Can any comparisons be drawn between the political climate of today and what happened during the Nixon and Reagan eras?
Roma Guy: When Trump was elected, I had the very same feeling of despair as when Nixon was elected. I knew my choices under Nixon were different than what my choice was personally and politically now. It took time and regret and depression to accept this challenge in my old age of 74. With Nixon, I made the decision to go to activist grad school with great teachers—Wayne State University—where I could earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in community organizing and planning. The times were scary then and now.
Both leaders had/have hatreds that never end with doses of mental illness, including paranoia. Shameless ambition is exhibited beyond demonization and corruption.
(As for now,) I will remain committed to closing two jails in San Francisco—with special attention to diverting, and early exits for all women, including cis-women. I will (continue to fight) deportation, displacement of poor people of color and how the system works differently for immigrants, the undocumented, and African Americans. I will work on reproductive justice, including defending Planned Parenthood; and violence against women, people of color and the poor. I want us to defend our gains and maintain, not only defend, our visions of justice by working with committed activists and policy folks who are open to the “justice for all” agenda.
During the Reagan era, I was in San Francisco at The Women’s Building, so I was very grounded and working with activists I respect on anti-apartheid, Central America, gay rights and women’s/girls’ rights. There was not as much disorientation and depression as was true with the Nixon era and, now, with Trump.
The anti-war part of the people’s agenda will definitely have to be revived. Climate change and Supreme Court issues are key now in ways that were not true with Nixon or Reagan.
Debra Walker: Roma, I have known you since before you knew me. I think we met at The Women’s Building at some event, but we have worked together for Tom Ammiano’s early races and at The Harvey Milk Club. We both have experienced some of the sexism that exists in our LGBT community. Share some of the challenges you have faced, as a woman and a lesbian. What major challenges that you faced were not shown in When We Rise?
Roma Guy: When We Rise was a slice of my life that hopefully reflects some reality and inspiration; an understanding of yesterday linked to what is needed today. Much about girls’/women’s issues and just being a “progressive”—with different eras’ meaning of progress—ring true today. 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. When We Rise explores all of these levels. Whether we have been successful and our creativity will communicate the feeling, the agenda, the listening … the consciousness is always in flux; the energy and focus and unity are essentially constant.
(In terms of other challenges,) remember that when I was in my teens and young, women could only apply for jobs that were advertised in the women’s section of the newspaper.
Debra Walker: How has your experience in politics, as a woman, prepared you for what is happening now? It seems like the current situation developed, in part, because of our collective resistance to females at the helm. Has there been any change in this regard from thirty to forty years ago?
Roma Guy: Sexism did play a part in voters’ decisions at the Electoral College. If Hillary had (engaged in) one affair with anyone, the scandal would have crushed even more than Benghazi or giving speeches to the one percent. The issue of mistrust of her versus the “trust of Trump” (was fueled by) the clear direct hatred of her combined with center-right Democrats, independents, and Republicans ignoring and refusing to take-up the sexism.
Hillary’s campaign also didn’t develop even a subtle defense against her anti-women opponents. It seems that at the national democratic level, there was some naiveté and inability to understand that voters lie (about 5–6%) about voting for women and people of color. Today I am more understanding and persistent in developing clarity for phases of our agenda as I move into the (current) political struggles.
Violence and daily sexism are so harmful; I am a witness to it with my three grandchildren. I am completely irritated that both men and women collectively use the phrase “you guys” to normalize “all of us.” Check it out. I used to ask my students to practice their public presentations without saying “you guys,” and to find a substitute like “you all” or “we all.” I promised I would not punish them with a poor grade even if they couldn’t do it. They were completely stunned that they couldn’t do it. Both women and men could not. The day they do, I will be a happy camper, because messaging matters. You would never normalize “you men” to mean all in a room of only women, or women and one man. But (it’s revealing about ongoing sexism) how we now feel OK in our consciousness to say “guys” and feel like we are not making girls and women invisible.
Debra Walker is a Commissioner for the City and County of San Francisco Building Inspection Commission. A past president of the Commission, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, Walker is also an internationally recognized painter and printmaker. For more information: http://www.debrawalker.com/