Gay activist Cleve Jones speaks his mind in Sonoma Oct. 2
Among a certain segment of the politically-engaged population, the name Cleve Jones ranks up there with Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and, especially, Harvey Milk.
In fact it was Milk who, in the 1970s, was often credited with bringing Jones – then a fun-loving 20-year-old who was having the time of his life in San Francisco’s Castro District – into the gay rights movement.
Jones is the author of “When We Rise,” a memoir of his life – much of it in the gay rights movement, but not all. In fact the book is compelling because of the universality of the story, taking place as it does between the 1970s and the present day, the lifespan of a generation.
“You didn’t have to be political or educated or even all that smart to understand that you, that we, were part of something brand new, something that had never been seen before,” he writes in the book. “And a big part of that, maybe the most important part, was that word: we.”
“That’s one of my favorite passages in the whole book,” said Jones, during a conversation last week with the Index-Tribune. Jones will be featured at the next Sonoma Speakers series event on Oct. 2.
The ABC-TV version of “When We Rise,” which is currently available on Hulu, shares the same writer (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Gus Van Sant) as the 2008 Oscar-winning film “Milk” – along with a number of the same characters, including Jones. In “Milk” the young Jones is portrayed by Emile Hirsch; in “When We Rise,” it’s newcomer Austin McKenzie.
Hirsch and McKenzie portray him in much the same way – as a flirtatious if not flighty young man with an insatiable appetite for fun. But those days were not to last, and with the murder of Milk by Dan White in 1978 – what had been a lark turned deadly serious.
“When I first became aware of him, he still had the pony tail, and I thought he was a bit old to be a hippie,” says Jones of Milk. “But as he changed, I started to get really impressed by him. Here he was, this older gay Jewish guy from New York City, who came to the city of Saint Francis and really won peoples’ hearts. Watching him do that was a very important part of my development as an activist and organizer.”
Jones took Milk’s mentorship and carried it much farther than anyone might have expected from the self-described “crazy and adventurous” young man who embraced the gay lifestyle of the Castro with great enthusiasm and little discretion, as the incidents described in “When We Rise” make clear. As time went on, Jones assumed an ever-larger role in what is now known as the LGBTQ liberation movement: he led multiple gay rights marches following Milk’s murder (he literally inherited Milk’s bullhorn), co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and in 1984 conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt – then and now the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
Jones did not escape the “plague”; he believes he contracted HIV in the late 1970s, and by 1984 began to show signs of AIDS-related illness. The program “When We Rise” shows Jones – now played by an older, angrier Guy Pearce – leaving for Palm Springs “for his health,” which is only partially true. While he did live in Palm Springs for a while, most of his greatest illness and most dramatic recovery was spent in Sonoma County.
“I moved out of the City and up to the Russian River, in the late summer of 1993,” he told the I-T. “By the end of that year, I was extremely ill. He was absorbed into the supportive Villa Grande community, on the west end of West County near Monte Rio, where Jones lived during those difficult years – even enduring back-to-back winter floods in 1995.
“And then in November of 1994, through the expanded access program, I got into a clinical trial, with a combination of three drugs that had not yet been approved by the FDA. And it was that combination of drugs that saved my life.”
That combination of drugs became known as the “AIDS Cocktail” that saved, and continues to save, many from the worst ravages of AIDS. It was administered, Jones is specific to tell us, by his AIDS Foundation co-founder Dr. Marcus Conant, at Santa Rosa’s Kaiser Medical Center.
“It’s funny, I just recently tackled some boxes that have been deep in my hall closet,” says Jones, “and discovered all my calendars going back to the late 1970s. And during a period when I remembered being mostly bed-ridden, I was still traveling. Not nearly as much as I had done before, or I do now. But I was still traveling with the Quilt, giving speeches, testifying and lobbying.”
Once he rebounded – and he said the cocktail got him back on his feet in a matter of weeks – he continued his activist life, and broadened it. For the past dozen years he’s worked with Unite Here, a combination of two unions, for textile and industrial workers, and hotel and restaurant employees.
“The backbone of our union are hotel and casino workers,” says Jones. “We represent many of the workers in Graton Resort and Casino (in Rohnert Park). We’ve got I think 55,000 members on the strip in Las Vegas. If you look at Las Vegas, my union is really the main reason why there is a middle class in Las Vegas. The people who work in hotels and casinos work very, very hard, and being in a union makes a huge difference.”
Says Jones of his union work, “It keeps me rooted in the real world, and I like that.”
But even so, his decades of involvement and leadership in the gay liberation movement permeates his perspective.
“I think a lot of people are very concerned about what’s happening in the country today, and they should be,” says Jones. “But I think one of the things that’s amazing about my lifetime, our lifetime, is just the extraordinary change that we have witnessed. It’s really quite remarkable, and much of it is very positive change. And for the people now called LGBTQ, it’s really very remarkable.”
Articulate as always, and naturally persuasive, Jones summarizes the success of that ongoing campaign for gay rights, for human rights.
“I think what’s most dramatic is that we changed the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people all across the planet. This was not a movement that could succeed without actually changing the way people thought. And we did that.”
Be prepared to change the way you think, when Cleve Jones speaks in Sonoma, on Oct. 2 at Hanna Boys Center.
Contact Christian at email@example.com.