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.
CLEVE JONES IN SONOMA
Cleve Jones will be the featured guest at the Sonoma Speakers Series, Oct. 2, in the Hanna Boys Center auditorium, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35, available at www.sonomaspeakerseries.com.
VIP tickets are available for $75, which include a 6 p.m. pre-event reception with Jones and psychologist Bart Magee, who will interview Jones on-stage, at the same website.
A special dinner with Jones at the Generals Daughter will be held the previous evening, Oct. 1, for $500 per seat. This event is sold out.
“When We Rise: My Life in the Movement,” was published by Hachette Books in 2016. The paperback will be released in time for the event, and will be available at Readers Books.
“When We Rise,” a television min-series, was aired in February on ABC-TV. It is currently streaming on Hulu.