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Fair Lawn Woman Recalls Early Days Of Rights Movement, With 'When We Rise'

Christine Nunn was a major fundraiser for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center -- one of the first medical centers in the U.S. dedicated to care for the LGBTQ community. Photo Credit: Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and Christine Nunn Facebook
The director and actress discuss the powerful new ABC mini-series.
The director and actress discuss the powerful new ABC mini-series. Video Credit: Good Morning America YouTube

FAIR LAWN, N.J. – ABC's striking four-part miniseries "When We Rise" began this Monday, telling the personal stories of another civil rights movement of the '70s. A Fair Lawn woman has been watching – and looking back on her own life and the advances she's seen.

The series has eight hourlong episodes, presented in pairs over the week. It's set in 1970s San Francisco, home to activists in the peace, environmental and women's rights movements, and it tells the story of gay men and woman who began publicly fighting for their rights.

Christine Nunn, of Fair Lawn, calls it "the era when the gay boys and girls rose up to take care of each other."

Such stories have not often been broadly shown, and especially not through more traditional venues like ABC. This miniseries is created by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for the highly-acclaimed 2008 film "Milk."

Sean Penn also won an Oscar for the film, for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the gay activist who became California's first openly gay politician in 1977, winning a seat on San Francisco's city council. He was assassinated by a former councilman, who also killed the mayor, just before.

"This is not the first time people of diversity have faced a backlash — not by a long shot," screenwriter Dustin Lance Black told the Los Angeles Times.

That is also the pattern of equality and social justice movements. It's never a straight line, it is a pendulum. We have to do the work necessary to keep the pendulum from swinging too far back. This series is a road map to how that is done.

The series covers four decades of these people's lives, and their continued fight for equality. Nunn has watched the series from her Fair Lawn home.

"It certainly brought back a lot of memories of great, bonding times and also the horrors of the rampage of full-blown AIDS," she said.

In the '90s, she helped raise millions to build the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York City – which was one of the first health centers in the country to focus on care for gay and lesbian patients, and it's now the largest.

Early on, it was the Community Health Project – "a tiny thing, back then," Nunn said.

She's very self-deprecating about her role: "I'm just a good moneymaker; I was a good fundraiser. And it was an issue near and dear to me.

I played the smallest of parts in helping to create Callen-Lorde. The men and women that were the visionaries to have seen the need, addressed it and made a health center are heroes in my book. All the volunteer doctors, nurse practitioners and nurses were amazing.

Nunn sought and obtained grants from many corporations and foundations, including the Kresge Foundation, receiving the largest grant it had ever given to a gay- or lesbian-related organization at that point.

There was also a mobile health unit, which had showers, for the practical and heartbreaking reason that many gay youth are kicked out of their homes – "throwaway youth," she said.

And that's not an obsolete problem, Nunn added.

The Health Outreach to Teens program is ongoing, now offered both on-site at Callen-Lorde and through a medical van. One of the young women who was first involved with the project is still working there.

The executive director "had the vision to buy this place on 18th, and somehow we did it," Nunn said.

Callen-Lorde celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and it has two more locations, in the city and in the Bronx.

The final installment of "When We Rise" airs tonight at 9 on ABC.

If you missed the series live, a Disney/ABC rep noted that it's available on the Disney Watch App, iTunes and Hulu, as well as through some cable services' OnDemand functions.

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