Cleve Jones has been a crusader for LGBTQ rights for more than 50 years. A protégé of Harvey Milk, a co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a marriage equality activist and much more, Jones has left an indelible mark on the lives of countless LGBTQ Americans. His new memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, chronicles the last half-century of LGBTQ activism as well as his role in it.
Congratulations on When We Rise. How has it been going? Any surprises?
I’m overwhelmed by the response, particularly from young people. I think there’s a real desire among the younger generations to learn our community’s history, especially the time before HIV/AIDS. The reviews have been very kind. I was really thrilled to be on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross – it doesn’t get much better than that!
Your book beautifully captures both the personal and the political in our movement. Which chapters have been piquing the most interest?
People seem to be very drawn to the stories about early activism, back in the years when we were criminalized and still living very hidden lives. I’ve also heard from many who were moved by my account of the assassinations of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. It’s also been wonderful to hear from so many folks who volunteered with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt over the years, I feel very connected to them.
You write about being mentored by Harvey Milk, before he ran for office and while he was at City Hall. What made Milk so effective politically? How did he so adeptly build political coalitions?
Harvey’s greatest strength was that he genuinely loved his city and his people. He was able to connect with all kinds of people, find common ground and was eager to cross all the barriers that people create between themselves. He was never just about LGBT rights; he fought for everyone.
Certainly, your memoir is a mustread for anyone who wants to know about the building of the LGBTQ movement. What is it, do you find, that most people typically don’t understand or overlook about the movement?
I think that some people have forgotten our radical roots; that our movement was about sexual liberation and part of a larger struggle against war and racism and poverty.
Already, When We Rise, has been made into a mini-series, and is due to air in February. Were you able to be on the set? How was that?
I was amazed when ABC agreed to make the mini-series. I had worked with Gus Van Sant, Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black on Milk and it was exciting to work with them again and to see my stories woven together with those of many dear friends and colleagues. I spent some time on set and got to hang out with the cast and crew, which I loved.
On the final page of your book, you write, “It is easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges that face us. It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to despair.” You also talk about how much hope the LGBTQ movement gave you over the years. We now face considerable hurdles in the next four years.
I begin and end the book with the statement that the movement saved my life. That’s not hyperbole. As a frightened teenager I was planning to kill myself. Then I read about gay liberation and discovered that I was not alone. Then, when AIDS came, I got sick and almost died. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of AIDS activists, researchers and the medical community, I survived. There have been many times in my life when I thought it was over, that we were defeated. But then we rise, fight back and move forward again. Never give up.
Learn more about Jones and purchase his book at http://clevejones.com/.