BY BRIAN BROMBERGER | It’s not an exaggeration to say that longtime gay activist Cleve Jones has been involved with every major event in San Francisco’s LGBT movement since 1977, when he befriended and worked with Harvey Milk.
That year Milk finally won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, making history as the first gay man elected to office in the city and California. But Milk would be gunned down a year later, thrusting LGBT people out of the closet and into the streets.
This week, Jones’ memoir When We Rise was published, in which he recounts his eventful life.
In addition to his work with Milk, Jones, 62, is also widely known for creating the AIDS memorial quilt, which today is a collection of more than 48,000 individual three-by-six-foot panels, according to the Names Project Foundation. (Jones is no longer affiliated with the foundation.)
In his book, Jones, a long-term HIV survivor, also delves into his early years in 1970s San Francisco with his adventures as a sexual liberationist, featuring passionate relationships with friends and lovers, and coping with prejudice and violence in a city that was not always welcoming to LGBT people.
Jones recently met with the Bay Area Reporter to reminisce about gay life then and now.
In 2000, Jones had co-authored a book on the quilt with Jeff Dawson entitled Stitching A Revolution. He said he wrote his memoir in part to discuss the changes that have occurred.
“When I read Stitching, it didn’t feel like it was my voice and I was annoyed with myself for not having done it alone,” he said. “And so many extraordinary things have happened in the last 16 years. I was taking [director] Rob Reiner and his wife, Michelle, on a tour of the Castro, telling them all my stories and at one point he stopped and said I should write a book.”
He said that originally he had planned two parts.
“But as I began to recreate the conversations in these stories, I realized that not just LGBT people, but Americans in general, don’t read or respect history, so I wanted younger people to know what life was like before we were normalized, decriminalized, mainstreamed, and made another demographic subset to market products to.”
He said the book focuses more on his life before AIDS.
Jones also believes that Donald Trump’s election makes his book even more relevant, calling his memoir remembrance with a purpose.
“I posted on Facebook well over a year ago that people needed to stop laughing at Trump because he could win,” Jones said. “I was frightened and the reality of his winning loomed over me as I finished the book, that everything we have accomplished can be swept away in the blink of an eye. It’s not rhetoric or hyperbole and anyone who reads history knows I’m telling the truth. This book is not an exercise in nostalgia, but which strategies worked, which didn’t and how is it possible that we were criminals when I was born yet we got to where we are today. In light of Trump, how do we defend these gains?”
He said the top priority for the LGBT movement “is recognizing that everything we have accomplished is hanging in the balance and can be swept away with breathtaking speed. I take no comfort from any reassurances. We have crazy people in charge of all three branches of government. The second priority is to organize, defend what we have, and protect each other.”
As for Trump himself, Jones doesn’t mince words.
“I’m horrified. It’s an unmitigated disaster,” he said. “I think I won’t live long enough to see this damage repaired. I’ve been very angry all week and not just with the people who voted for Trump but some of the smug white liberals I’m hearing from. I posted on Facebook that the next person who tells me to relax, that we survived Reagan and Bush, will get slapped. Most of my friends did not survive and there are the hundreds of thousands I did not know who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the wars and coup d’etats we supported. I think it’s 1933 Germany.”
When asked what lessons he learned as an activist that may be applicable to dealing with Trump, Jones replied, “In the aftermath of the election, people began to put out different ideas how to respond and were attacked by others. Two days ago, thousands of people spent the better part of the day arguing about whether or not they should wear a safety pin to show their disapproval of Trump. Whether it’s civil disobedience, writing letters to the editor, running candidates, or defeating ballot measures, there are people out there who will attack you, call you an idiot, and tell you none of this works.
“The reality is that all these tactics can be effective,” he continued. “We need to do all of them and find a way to encourage people to find something that they are comfortable with and sustain it. With our collective attention span diminishing daily, it’s important for people to know what it means to be in this for the long haul and endure criticism.”
Working with others
Jones is adamant that the LGBT movement doesn’t exist independently from other struggles.
“Much of my life and career comes out of identity politics,” he said. “I’m proud to be a gay man and part of this community. I love what queer people bring to the world, but I’m not a single-issue person.”
Some political leaders such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I) have called for an end to identity politics in the days since the election. Jones doesn’t agree.
“Rejection of identity politics at its core is a denial of empathy,” he said. “If our capacity for empathy with other human beings is limited, defined, or restricted by skin color, heritage, or sexual orientation, then we are well and truly fucked. We’re not strong enough to allow these divisions and the gay movement I grew out of had solidarity with the woman’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement. If you are LGBT, you need to be actively opposing racism, war, and poverty and if you aren’t, then there is either something wrong with your heart or you are just not paying attention.”
In aligning with other social justice movements, Jones believes every LGBT person needs to reach out respectfully to people who don’t look like them.
“Let’s go back to the notion of the 99 percent and be clear who and what our enemies are,” Jones said, referring to the vast majority of people who do not live in the top 1 percent. “Commit to defend each other and make that commitment to yourself and make it public. If Trump is going to deport, we must defend these immigrants. It appears that violent attacks on Muslims and transgender people are going up, so we need to defend them unequivocally. Let’s be prepared to fight these people in the courts, in the streets, in the voting booths, everywhere.”
Owes his life to movement
Jones is certain that he owes his life to the movement. In fact those are the first words in his memoir: “I was 15 when people were calling me faggot. I didn’t know what it meant so I looked it up and discovered I was sinful, sick, and could go to prison if I was caught or be lobotomized. Both my parents had had surgeries, so there were painkillers and sleeping pills in the house. I would steal them very carefully, one pill every other week so they wouldn’t notice, until I had quite a stockpile. That stockpile was there because I felt at one point I would get caught, be exposed, and I would kill myself,” Jones writes. “… Then I read in Life magazine that there was a gay liberation movement. There were other people like me who lived in large numbers in places like San Francisco and they were fighting the police. So I flushed the pills down the toilet.”
Jones is in a new relationship with a young man who came out recently, though he declined to share the man’s name.
“The message that saves lives is come out, find your people, don’t be frightened, be fabulous,” Jones said. “The movement again saved my life a second time when I was dying of AIDS: no T cells left and I could barely walk. Thanks to the ACT UP movement storming the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and Wall Street, I got into one of the first protease inhibitor clinical trials that saved my life – and I’m not being melodramatic.”
When asked about the December 1 observance of World AIDS Day, Jones smiled because it was the brainchild of someone he knew and loved, Dr. Jonathan Mann, head of the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS, who died in a plane crash in 1998.
However, Jones is wary of San Francisco’s Getting to Zero initiative, which aims to reduce HIV transmissions to near zero by 2020.
“It’s a great goal, but we’re nowhere near it,” he said. “I would say after Trump’s election the notion of getting to zero anytime soon is ridiculous.”
According to a recent report from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the city saw 255 new HIV diagnoses in 2015, the lowest level since the start of the epidemic.
Jones said the two pressing AIDS issues, both in the U.S. and globally, are stigma and access.
“The social stigma is so powerful it dissuades people from getting tested and silences people from sharing their stories,” he said. “Young people don’t want to reveal their status to their peers and lack the solidarity my generation had. The stigma is a powerful deterrent to accessing care and the financial cost of getting that care. Look at PrEP, of which I’m a strong proponent, yet the population that needs it most, people of color, are not getting it.
“We see young African-Americans in Atlanta, gay and bisexual men showing up at public hospitals with pneumocystis pneumonia, full-blown AIDS, their immune systems completely destroyed and this is their first contact with health care. Stigma and access are complicated by homophobia, racism, and poverty,” Jones said.
So much of Jones’ early life was impacted by Milk. It was the most exciting time of his life and he is eager to talk about it with young people.
“I want them to know he was an ordinary guy. He had a lot of enemies and many queens couldn’t stand him – he could be quite acerbic – but he was neither genius nor saint, a bad businessman with a poorly run camera store who lost many elections,” Jones said. “Yet he was one of the first dozen of our people to be elected, but his real significance was that he was our first shared martyr. With being murdered, losing our lives to suicide, drugs, or alcohol, there is hardly any shortage of martyrs in the LGBT community, but Harvey was the one we all heard about. At the time of the film Milk , recognition of Harvey was disappearing really fast and young people didn’t know who he was.”
When We Rise is also the partial inspiration for the forthcoming ABC miniseries of the same name from screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and executive producer Gus Van Sant to be broadcast in February.