Books: Transformative champion of LBGT rights

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: April 11, 2017 Last modified: April 11, 2017

When We Rise: My Life In the Movement
by Cleve Jones
Constable £14.99

Movements, of whatever hue – in Cleve Jones’ case it is rainbow coloured – can be all-consuming to the point where you are lucky to survive with anything resembling a life still intact. That they can also impart an impetus and objective that raises a life far above the ordinary is exemplified in Jones’ remarkable account of the modern gay rights movement, and his place within it.

Jones’ serendipidous discovery, while thumbing through a library copy of Life magazine as a high school student, of the nascent gay liberation movement, was he recalls, “the exact moment I stopped planning to kill myself”.

Instead, like countless others before him, Jones stuck out his thumb and beat a path from small town Arizona to San Francisco, already a mecca for the gay diaspora. “The city was filled with boys like me. We’d come to be gay. We’d come to join the revolution.” Not content to be a foot soldier, Jones quickly found found himself shaping events, rather than simply watching them unfold around him.

When We Rise is both a personal coming-of-age story – Jones finds ample opportunities across Europe and the Americas to shag and to fall in love, everywhere from bath houses to tree houses – and a compelling account of how the movement itself came-of-age. From the Stonewall riots, through to sustained legislative attacks by right-wing fruitloops such as Anita Bryant and her ‘Save our Children’ fundamentalists, Jones’ takes us through the tumultuous changes that defined America for a generation of gay men. He deftly contextualises events with wry social commentary. At times it’s a little like reading a real-life Tales of the City, and indeed, Jones’ contemporary Armistead Maupin crops up more than once.

Key to the success of the movement was the election of Jones’ friend and mentor Harvey Milk to the San Francisco city council (Jones acted as historical consultant to the Oscar winning biopic of Milk’s life) and Jones touchingly recalls Milk telling him that “If we all come out, we can win.” “I had been out of the closet for five years, but now I had my marching orders.” Milk was assassinated by fellow council man Dan White in 1978 but Jones never stopped marching. In fact he marched all the way to Washington along with 100,000 others, in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and has now marched into history – When We Rise is the inspiration for a major US miniseries currently airing on the ABC TV network in the US.

Back in San franciso Jones read a dry article in a medical journal under the headline ‘Pneumocystis Pneumonia – Los Angeles’. He clipped the article and wrote in the margin. “Just when things were looking up.” Jones understood that a “mysterious and dangerous and new” challenge was presenting itself. By the summer of 1982, 500 cases of what became known as AIDS had been reported. 200 people had died and Jones himself was not immune.

“How much time do I have left?” he asked his doctor. “Don’t be melodramtic, you’re not even sick yet,” came the reply. “But I knew it was a death sentence. I was 31 years old.” Jones hit on the idea of creating the AIDS Memorial Quilt to remember the dead. Friends described it as “the stupidest idea they had ever heard”. Weighing in at 55 tons the quilt is now the largest piece of community art in the world and is as much a testament to Jones’ own indefatigablity as to names stiched within in.

Now 62, Jones remains alive and well, and credits his survival, once again, to the movement to which he has dedicated his life. The movement that lobbied governments to provide the resources and research that has enabled him to not only live, but to demonstrate to others, through this astonishing and affirmative memoir, the transmutable power that can be harnessed when extraordinary individuals organize together. When We Rise should be mandatory reading not just for queer millennials lured into believing that once won, rights can not be removed at a stroke of (a president’s) pen, but for anyone who has ever been tempted to let others march on their behalf. If Jones had given into the temptation to stay in bed of a morning many of the rights we take for granted would remain nothing more than pipe dreams.

We have much to be grateful to Jones for. Not least a bloody good read which proves that not only is the personal always political, it can also be deeply moving, screamingly innappropriate, and utterly transformative.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist