Our Lives Matter
Forty Years at the Center of LGBTQ & HIV Civil Rights Battles, Legendary Activist Ken Jones Talks to A&U’s Hank Trout About What We Can Learn from Our History for Today’s Fight
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Michael Kerner Photography
The easiest way to meet Ken Jones, one of San Francisco’s most storied and revered LGBTQ activists, might be to accompany him on his hugely successful walking tour of places of historical interest to the community. Three times a week, visitors, newcomers to the City, and long-time residents alike gather at Harvey Milk Plaza at the corner of Castro, Market, and 17th Streets and begin a trek through San Francisco’s LGBTQ history with the man who has lived and shaped that history for forty years, and is still going strong.
For starters, he’ll tell you about the giant Rainbow Flag flying over Harvey Milk Plaza and how Gilbert Baker’s design was rejected by the Pride Parade Committee in 1978. Ken was one of the committee’s most outspoken members, dead-set against using the Rainbow Flag. “Up until then,” he told me recently, “the recognized symbol of gay liberation had been the pink triangle, and that was what we expected to have on a flag representing us. So, when Gilbert showed up with his design, the reaction was, What is this? It’s just a bunch of color stripes! It doesn’t say anything about being gay! I was adamant that we would never use that design! No way! Get that thing out of here! But Gilbert did an end-run around us. He and his friends made a bunch of Rainbow Flags and distributed them the night before and during the Pride celebration. And of course, now, the Rainbow Flag is universally recognized as the symbol of the LGBTQ community.
“I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong!”
The tour wanders through other historical spaces and events in the Castro—the 1980 opening of the Castro Street subway station and the “MUNI Madness” celebration headlined by Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun; up 18th Street to Toad Hall, the area bar famous for welcoming African-American men, where Ken will tell you about his friend Glenn Burke, the first Major League Baseball player to come out; a brief tour of the GLBT Historical Society’s museum; past the now-gone Elephant Walk at Castro and 18th Streets and their legendary Sunday afternoon T-Dances; the site of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation (which morphed into the San Francisco AIDS Foundation), where he’ll talk about the onset of the AIDS pandemic; past the location of Harvey Milk’s camera shop and campaign headquarters; past the 1920s movie palace masterpiece, the Castro Theatre. He’ll point out the brass in-the-sidewalk Rainbow Walk of Honor plaques honoring writers James Baldwin, Yukio Mishima, Randy Shilts, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Tennessee Williams, artists Keith Haring and Freda Kahlo, activists Harry Hay and Del Martin, transgender icon Christine Jorgensen, and many others. He’ll explain why forty years ago, women, people of color, and transgender men and women didn’t feel comfortable in the predominantly white Castro area——and why they still don’t today.
I’m very good at recognizing work that needs to be done, breaking it down into manageable pieces, and empowering people to ‘be all that they can be.’
The tour ends at Twin Peaks, the first bar in the country with large uncovered windows that allowed patrons to see out and to be seen. “That was quite a trip! The opening of Twin Peaks [in the late seventies] with those large single-pane windows that let everyone look in and see who was there. Of course, there was a lot of negative reaction. People who didn’t want the gays in their neighborhood spray painted the windows, wrote nasty things on them. But the owners of the Twin Peaks, bless ‘em, stuck to their guns, and those windows are still there to this day. It’s a different, older crowd there now, some who were there at the opening.”
Ken knows these places and this history intimately. He has been at the forefront of many civil rights battles ever since he came to San Francisco after finishing an eleven-year stint in the US Navy.
Given the times—the late sixties, early seventies—Ken was of course as deep in the closet as any submarine trawling the ocean floor. He achieved the rank of E6-YNI, learning skills that benefit him to this day. “I’m very good,” he said, “at recognizing work that needs to be done, breaking it down into manageable pieces, and empowering people to ‘be all that they can be.’”
Ken met and fell in love with a fellow sailor while serving in Vietnam aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven. Working as the Flag Officer’s Secretary, he met “Sam” (not his real name), a gunner on the DeHaven. The pair fell “head over heels in love,” Ken said, “and planned to spend the rest of our lives together.” One day, under enemy fire, the officer in charge ordered a retaliatory strike. Weapons experts onboard the DeHaven cautioned him that the weapons mounts were overheated and under too much pressure. The officer insisted that they fire anyway. They fired, causing the weapon to explode, injuring six and killing three, including Ken’s lover Sam. Ken was, quite naturally, devastated.
Shortly after he moved to San Francisco, Ken joined the staff at UCSF as Manager of Grant Expenditures and Reports, where in 1978 he met Konstantin Berlandt, who was active in the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front and who worked in the clerical pool doing data entry. “Konstantin could complete six hours’ worth of work in two hours. The rest of the time he worked on Gay Liberation publications. He had an infectious passion for “Out of the bars and into the streets” activism. He asked for my input on a flyer for an upcoming Parade Committee meeting. When I pointed out to him the lack of diversity in the all-white all-male images, he broke out into a huge grin and hugged me. He insisted I attend that meeting to discuss my concerns about all the white male images.”
Ken left that meeting as Co-Chair of an Outreach Committee. “I charged the Committee with getting more under-represented or non-represented segments of the community to march with the People of Color Contingent and to join in the parade planning process.” Ken served in that role for a number of years. And then, in 1985, “I had brought a majority of new, non-traditional members into the planning process and actually had the votes to run for and win as President of the Planning Committee.” At his first meeting as President, he passed a motion to add “Bisexual” to the name of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration.
In 1981, Ken joined the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation as a volunteer. When that group morphed into the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Ken served as Director of the Volunteer Services and Management for SFAF. “In the eighties,” he told me, “no matter who you talked to, they would tell you that there were no people of color working in the Foundation. But actually, there were four of us, and we were smart enough to form the Third World AIDS Advisory Committee and bring in other stakeholders, like Black and White Men Together, Bay Area Black Lesbians and Gays, and the National AIDS Prevention Project, with my brother Reggie Williams.”
Ken also served as Northern California Co-Chair of the California LIFE AIDS Lobby in Sacramento for four years, “actively engaged in writing pro-LGBTQ legislation, lobbying, and killing bad legislation.” The LIFE AIDS Lobby was formed in 1986 in response to “a flurry of activity surrounding AIDS in the California Legislature.” A handful of legislators, responding to and exacerbating the AIDS hysteria that was rampant at the time, moved forward several hate-inspired homophobic bills through the Legislature, with no one there to protect the interests of the communities affected by those bills. The Lobby, a group of over seventy affiliates, including gay/bi men, lesbians, and people of color, changed the State’s political climate regarding AIDS. They successfully sponsored the creation of the AZT Drug Subsidy Fund for low-income Californians and several early intervention pilot projects. Building on those successes, the Lobby expanded its agenda to include non-HIV issues, primarily equal treatment under the law. Their slogan, “Where the laws are made, the LIFE Lobby is your voice,” adequately sums up the role that Ken and others played in the early years of the pandemic.
Not content to flex his activist muscle only here in California, Ken joined the Venceramos Work Brigade and traveled (illegally!) to Cuba to assess the response to AIDS there. He fondly remembers “waking up at dawn and singing work songs on the bus to work in the citrus fields before the heat of the sun became unbearable.” Afternoons were dedicated to chaperoned visits to community health centers, hospitals, universities, and arts and cultural centers, in search of the Cuban response to AIDS. Later that autumn, the World Health Organization invited Ken to participate in six weeks of “building the organization structures necessary to build a community response to AIDS. I was elected by the group to serve as the rapporteur [team discussion leader] of the work group.”
Back home, in 1986, he chaired his friend Pat Norman’s campaign for San Francisco Supervisor despite great opposition. “Establishment gays,” he told me, “were not really feeling an African-American lesbian, and the Black community was not feeling the lesbian leadership, and the press kept us pretty much invisible.” Although the campaign failed to elect Norman, Ken says, “Our victory was leading the discussion for human dignity and human worth.”
At a crucial time in the pandemic, Ken was chosen to moderate a debate on the issue of closing the city’s bathhouses. Ken was recognized as a community “bridge-builder” and probably the only man who could wrangle the warring factions involved in the controversy. The Department of Public Health Department, backed by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and journalist Randy Shilts, thought they could halt the spread of the virus in the city by closing the bathhouses; community activists argued that the bathhouses could be used to spread information about the virus, to educate men about safer sex practices. The DHP, Feinstein, and Shilts carried the day, and the bathhouses were permanently closed in 1986. Echoing the sentiments of many people involved in the bathhouse discussions, Ken told me, “Randy was just the worst. He was a great journalist, but his opinions on just about everything were just wrong.”
In 1989, age forty, Ken received his HIV diagnosis at the local V.A. hospital. “The medical team met me at 11:00 one morning and informed me that I had three months at best to live and that I should get my affairs in order. At 2:00 that same afternoon, some friends came to visit. They informed me that God told us to come here today and let you know that you are not going to die, and God is going to use you as an example to many people all over the world, that He is still in the healing business.” Ken has said that his salvation during the epidemic was his spirituality.
Some readers may have seen Ken——or at least a facsimile of Ken, as portrayed by Michael K. Williams——in the eight-part docudrama miniseries When We Rise broadcast in 2017. Ken closely consulted on the film, written by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black [A&U, August 2017] and based in part on activist Cleve Jones’ [A&U, January 2017] memoir of the same name. “After every take that he was involved in, Michael would rush over to where I was standing and ask, ‘How was that? Did I get it right? Did I do okay?’ I assured him that each take was perfect, really fine. I had no idea actors could be so needy,” Ken joked. Although the film took certain artistic liberties for the sake or dramatization, “all in all, I was very pleased with the results,” he said.
Returning to the current state of HIV/AIDS, A&U asked Ken why the rate of new HIV infections is so much higher in African-American communities than in others. Ken glanced down and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly, “but I do know how to stop it. We’ve got to get these young Black men out of their homophobic homes, their homophobic churches. We have to teach them that Black lives matter, that their lives matter. People like us elders have to be willing to bring these young Black men into our lives, support them, and teach them. That’s how we’ll stop the spread of the virus, one kid at a time.”
Although Ken’s days of working with NGO’s are behind him—“I am not a member of anything or anyone anymore, Praise the Lord,” he said—he remains a vital community activist. “I continue to be concerned about police reform, gun violence and the eradication of poverty in the US.” As evidence of his commitment to police reform, Ken serves on the Citizen Review Board of the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] Police Department. He went through the BART police training curriculum and has done several ride-alongs late at night with BART officers “so I would know first-hand [the problems of] getting our black and brown and poor people to and from their homes safely.”
Regarding the 1980s and the worst years of the pandemic, Ken remembers that “I witnessed thousands of you’s and me’s, scared and frightened but turning that into meaningful and life-saving volunteer work. I often say, there is nothing that had prepared any of us to weather so much loss. So much sadness. So much grief, over so long a time.
“So,” he concluded, “Be kind to us walking with our battle wounds.”
Special thanks to Kevin Zhou (lighting assistant) and the GLBT Museum for letting us make use of their space.
For more information about the photographer, visit: kernercreative.com.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.