January 2017 saw the installation of a new regime in Washington, DC, that to all appearances is hostile not just to gay rights, not just to abortion rights, but to public education and the social safety net so laboriously constructed for all Americans in the last few decades. Large-scale protests are already underway to protect the gains now under threat, and the need for large-scale and long-term social and political activism is very much on the horizon.
Last year saw the publication of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, a memoir by Cleve Jones about his many years as an activist. In my previous blog entry, “Revisiting Activism, Part 1,” I delved into the history of Jones’ activism up to the 1978 death by assassination of his mentor, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. That history included anti-war protests, activities related to the nascent gay liberation movement, and a boycott of Coors beer at San Francisco gay bars in support of labor rights at the Coors brewery in Colorado.
In Part 1, I pointed out some lessons about activism to be drawn from those experiences. In Part 2, I delve into Jones’ experiences as an activist in relation to AIDS and marriage equality. As we shall see, there are additional lessons to be learned that will be helpful to anyone involved in an activist cause.
Jones opens Chapter 32 of his memoir with the following words: “AIDS changed everything about our lives.” Living as he did in San Francisco, one of the early epicenters of the medical maelstrom that was about to engulf the nation in the early 1980s, his own life certainly changed. From the initial terror of an unknown virulent agent that looked like it might kill off the entire gay male population, to the onslaught of homophobic rants during the Reagan years that “sodomites” deserved to die, to the mass protests and die-ins that were held demanding an adequate governmental and research effort to find a cure or at least an alleviation of the ravages of HIV on the immune system, Jones found himself at the front lines of what for several years seemed an unwinnable battle against a very scary viral predator and a government indifferent—if not outright hostile—to all the suffering caused by the disease.
But Jones went a step further: In 1985, he conceived the idea for what was to become the central symbol of the AIDS epidemic. Like his friend Gilbert Baker and the rainbow flag, he created the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I personally think it’s hard to overestimate the importance this great piece of folk art had on the epidemic. One had to be on the mall in DC during the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987—as I was—where it was first publicly displayed to feel the visceral hold it had over those attending the march as in almost complete silence people walked among the panels in tears, overcome by this visible tribute to those dead of the plague.
The AIDS Quilt arguably provided the focus for a sense of grief and sadness that reached not just to those who had lost lovers, friends, and family members, but to a nation that needed to come to terms with the physical and emotional devastation this disease was causing. And it was all the more important as AIDS spread into groups and communities that initially had felt safely distanced from it. The Quilt may have been started by a gay man, but it was as familiar and comfortable a symbol as a quilting bee. Anyone could relate to it.
Jones himself had AIDS, and by October 1994 he was very sick indeed. Then his doctor called him in and put him on some medicines undergoing a clinical trial that used in combination improved his health very quickly. Of course this was the introduction of a new way of treating AIDS that provided not just hope but results. The antiretrovirals and drug cocktails that would save so many lives were at last at hand.
Jones in Chapter 32 of his memoir links AIDS directly to the last of his activist causes that I’ll explore here when he writes: “AIDS also changed the way we viewed marriage. Long seen as unattainable and ‘just a piece of paper,’ marriage was now seen as a vital, even life-saving right. We looked around us. . . . We saw the loving partners caring . . . for their dying lovers. . . . We saw their devotion and said, What do you mean this isn’t a real marriage? . . . This is exactly what a real marriage looks like.” So the LGBTQ community and their allies in California were ready to enter the fray once more after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in a statewide referendum banning gay marriage.
The legal issues involved in overturning the ban are too complicated to go into here. What is more important in terms of lessons related to activism is who some of the prominent non-LGBT allies turned out to be—not just Hollywood liberals like Rob Reiner, Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, and Steven Spielberg, but conservative lawyer Ted Olson and (conservative on most issues) Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Kennedy, who wrote the Supreme Court majority opinion that legalized gay marriage nationwide, was perhaps not such a surprise since in 2003 he also wrote the majority opinion legalizing same-sex sexual activity nation-wide, citing sodomy laws as a violation of the right to privacy and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. But Olson came as a complete shock to everyone involved in the marriage equality case, whether pro or con. A high-ranking official in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and Solicitor General under George W. Bush, his conservative credentials were such that he had been called a “branded right-winger.” Yet he, along with his more liberal lawyer friend David Boies, successfully led the charge against the Proposition 8 gay marriage ban so that in June 2015 Justice Kennedy could again write a majority opinion favoring the LGBTQ population in a case of national importance.
So what lessons can be drawn in relation to activism from the two examples cited in this blog entry?
- Causes can make good use of potent symbols to help spur their success. As with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, they focus energy among the activists themselves, and can help explain and promote the cause to others not yet involved.
- Activists should keep an open mind about who and what can help them achieve their goals. You don’t necessarily know where your allies may be found.
Note: This blog entry, like the one preceding it, “Activism Revisited, Part 1,” runs longer than I would have liked. But as Cleve Jones’ life and memoir show, uneasy times can call forth the need for actions that are out of the ordinary. Both Parts 1 and 2 aim at providing insights into a way of participating in the world that can be adventurous, but also unfamiliar to most people and very demanding.
Activism. It may be just around the corner for many of us.
When We Rise is available as a hardback and paperback in bookstores nationwide, and also as a Nook or Kindle e-book.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.