With a New Memoir, When We Rise, Iconic AIDS & Labor Activist Cleve Jones Connects the Past and the Future
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
With that simple declarative statement, the first sentence in the preface to his long-awaited and just-published memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, Cleve Jones begins to open up his life to us. And what an extraordinary life it has been. We sat down to chat, one long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS to another, about the movement then and now, what we’ve learned and, importantly, what remains to be done.
Cleve was born in 1954, “into the last generation of homosexual people who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way that we felt,” in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His parents, an educated, professional couple, moved the family to Phoenix in 1968, where they both taught at Arizona State University. Like other teenagers at the time, the draft loomed over Cleve’s head. He was drawn to the Quakers due to their opposition to conscription. From that early age, he saw “big-picture” connections among various movements; thus, he participated in the grape boycotts of the United Farm Workers and the efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1971, he happened to see an article in LIFE magazine called “Homosexuals in Revolt!” and saw that a small group called Gay Liberation Arizona Desert was meeting at ASU. “I am pretty sure,” he writes, “that was the exact moment when I stopped planning to kill myself.”
Cleve’s political education turned into graduate school when he migrated to San Francisco. Here, Cleve met Harvey Milk, who recruited him to work on defeating Proposition 6, the “Briggs Initiative” which would have banned LGBT people from working in public schools, and introduced him to the coalition of labor and LGBT groups boycotting Coors Beer. Later, Cleve worked as a legislative assistant to newly elected Supervisor Harvey Milk, until Milk’s assassination on November 27, 1978, and to Assemblyman Art Agnos in Sacramento, becoming expert at getting things done. Those “things” include conceiving and incubating The NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt, co-founding the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and helping to win marriage equality on a national level.
Oh! And writing a memoir! It was with the genesis of When We Rise that we started our conversation over coffee in San Francisco.
“I was recruited by Chad Griffin to help with the Prop 8 trial,” Cleve told me. “The day of our first court hearing, in Judge Vaughn Walker’s courtroom, film director Rob Reiner and his wife Michelle and the rest of our team were there. Afterwards we went for a walk, and I was yakking away, telling my stories as I always do. And Rob Reiner said to me, ‘You have to write a book!’ Well, when Rob Reiner says ‘you have to write a book,’ you better fucking well write a book!” And write he did. “The first sentence of the book was the first sentence that I wrote and it was the first that also, I think, gave me the direction for the book.”
“I had envisioned from the get-go that the book would be divided into half before 1981 and half after 1981, before and after AIDS hit,” Cleve told me. “And then as I began to write and recall the seventies, I realized that that was giving me the most pleasure and that those stories might be the most useful to young kids growing up.” There is a lot of exuberance in those pre-1981 stories, the exuberance of youthful attractiveness and of discovering new powers and new pleasures.
I asked Cleve whether he had kept a journal or a diary he could refer to while writing those sections. “No,” he said. “Actually, [after I had finished writing the book] I discovered a journal from 1977, and I learned that everything I had written about those travels through Europe and Egypt were all written in the wrong years! I had things happening in 1975 that didn’t happen till 1977, and vice versa, so in a mad panic just before publication date, I had to go and correct all of that.”
After completing 120 pages, Cleve wanted others to tell him if he was on the right track. So he sent the manuscript to a few friends, including a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and author Jo Becker, who were very encouraging. “Then I sent the manuscript to [writer] Armistead Maupin [A&U, June 1998]. I was so nervous—I mean, he’s ARMISTEAD FREAKING MAUPIN, y’know?! But he was really lovely and liked the book and gave me a wonderful blurb for the book.”
Maupin is not the only one. The ABC Network has already filmed a six-part miniseries to be called When We Rise, partially based upon Cleve’s memoir, produced and directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black. “ABC brought Lance on board and they hired other writers; I spent a lot of time with them down there, they spent a lot of time up here. The series isn’t just about me, of course, it’s also about several of my friends, so I introduced the writers and producers to them. The result was a wonderful script, and they hired a great cast.”
“It’s a very peculiar experience!,” he said, laughing. “I like to tell about my first meeting with Emile Hirsch [who portrayed Jones in the 2008 film Milk]. I liked Emile because of Into the Wild, such a beautiful film. So I’m waiting to meet him and I hear the sound of a skateboard approaching. I look up, and there’s young Mr. Hirsch. I had a pick-up truck back then, so I said, ‘Why don’t you just get in the truck and let me drive you around San Francisco and let me show you my neighborhood and tell you stories.’ Then I realized that as I was driving around and talking with Emile, I was trying to ‘butch it up.’ And when I realized I was doing that, I was just horrified! I was like, What the fuck am I doing? But I think every gay man knows that feeling of not being certain if it’s safe to just relax and be yourself.
“I decided to take Emile home for dinner, and I sat him down and said, ‘Listen! I’m a queen and I’m proud of it! But I don’t want to be a cartoon queen!’ And he was perfect, he did the role just right. In the miniseries, Austin McKenzie plays ‘young Cleve’ and Guy Pearce plays ‘old Cleve.’ But no matter how it turns out, Emile was my first!”
Sitting and chatting with Cleve, I couldn’t help being aware of the history that he carries with him, a history that has often seen him butting heads with the leaders of national LGBT organizations. “I think it’s really important for people to be critical of their leadership, always,” he said. “After Prop 8 passed, I was just sick of the ping-pong game. I was just at the point where I was beginning to think that maybe I really was going to live quite a bit longer. And I really wanted to see marriage equality happen in my lifetime. When I heard from Evan Wolfson that he thought it would take another twenty-five or thirty years, that was simply unacceptable to me.
“I was just sick of the ping-pong game. The legislative strategy was a failed strategy. No victory was ever permanent or complete because they were state victories. So even if we had beaten Prop 8 or if we had taken it back to the ballot and won, we would still be second-class citizens, we still wouldn’t get Social Security parity, it wouldn’t address the military issue. It was clear to me that actual equality had to come through Federal action.
“I think it’s important for people to remember that as late as the summer of 2009, all of the national LGBT organizations and the ACLU vehemently opposed going to the Federal courts—vehemently!”
I reminded Cleve that even Barney Frank opposed taking the marriage equality fight to the courts.
“Barney’s a very intelligent man, quite possibly one of the brightest people ever to serve in Congress, but he doesn’t come from the movement,” Cleve said. “And I think part of his responsibility was to protect the Democratic party from the Left, and that’s the role that he played. But he did it with an unnecessarily mean-spirited vocabulary that really annoyed me. Like, telling the kids not to march [on Washington, D.C.] because all they were going to impress was the lawn.
“But I’ve never had much use for the national organizations, and I think a lot of what we have achieved has happened in spite of them.”
A lot of what we have achieved in the last thirty-five years, Cleve has written, happened because the AIDS crisis—when so many of our families and friends and others saw us sick and dying—changed so many hearts and minds. “There’s that, yes, but it’s so much more than that,” Cleve explained.
“Before AIDS, the notion of a ‘gay community’ was just that, a mere notion. We were still part of the subculture, still criminalized. So when AIDS happened, it forced a lot of us out of the closet, it forced families to deal with us, it forced congregations to deal with us. And yes, it changed some hearts and minds.
“The other thing that happened that was crucial to the marriage equality fight was, we looked at ourselves and the way that we were responding to the crisis, and we saw the devotion of our partners. Most people fought back against the epidemic. They joined ACT UP or the Shanti Project or they delivered meals—or they just stayed home and cared for their partners of twenty years until they died. So, after we went through that individually and collectively, after we emptied all those bedpans and spent all those nights pacing in the I.C.U. hallways and saw all the suffering and all the courage, we were like, What do you mean, this isn’t a marriage? Fuck you! This is exactly what a marriage looks like—and we want our rights!
“Also, the reality was that that ‘little piece of paper’—which is how most of us in gay liberation thought of marriage for many years—turned out to be something that could mean the difference between life and death! We knew people who died because they didn’t have access to their partners’ health insurance because their relationship was not acknowledged by the state or the insurance industry.”
Since Cleve and I are both members of the AIDS Generation, diagnosed with the virus before 1996, our talk turned to being a long-term survivor and the struggles against stigma and for services we face. “The generation that came up immediately after us, the men who are in their forties now, really did kind of turn their backs on us. And I think it’s understandable, because what they were witnessing as they were coming up was so horrifying that a lot of them just didn’t want to deal with it. But younger people do want to hear the stories. The AIDS crisis was a very long time ago for them. It’s like when I was young in the late sixties and early seventies and hearing stories from my grandparents about the Depression and World War II—it was that far back in the past for younger people. But they do want to hear about it, and that gives me hope.
“For many gay men in my generation, probably the majority, we were not able to keep our relationships with our biological families. We lost most of our closest friends. And during that time when we should have been saving money and investing in our futures, we were instead on the frontlines of a horrendous life-or-death battle. So I think that we’re very vulnerable economically. And with the housing crisis here in San Francisco, many long-term survivors are being forced out of the gayborhood. When we’re forced out, we lose an awful lot. When we lose the gayborhood, we lose political power, we lose cultural vitality, and we lose the specialized social services that are very important, not just to people with HIV but to transgender people, to seniors in general.”
As our conversation drew to a close—although I could have chatted with him for many hours more—I reminded Cleve that Harvey Milk famously admonished us, “You gotta give ‘em hope!”—and asked him, “What gives you hope these days?”
“Well, to be honest with you, what gives me hope right now is a certain young man I’ve met recently who has brought so much…” Cleve’s eyes watered over and he smiled a shy grin, his newfound joy very apparent. “I haven’t been this happy in decades. And it is a rational happiness, it’s not irrational.
“I’ve lived long enough to see the most amazing changes in my own lifetime, and those changes happened because of people like us, ordinary people who, many of us, were deeply flawed. But we changed the world. We absolutely did. And that’s part of what I wanted to convey in this book, and I hope young people will read it and see that you can endure, you can survive, you can win. Our world, the lives of LGBT people have changed profoundly. It’s easy to lose sight of that right now in the midst of this hideous campaign, but we continue with each generation, I believe, to make progress against racism and sexism. None of these things is solved over night or in a generation or even in two generations, but yes, we can change the world, change is possible.”
Hank Trout writes the For the Long Run column for A&U.