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By Lawrence Ferber
Activist Cleve Jones has lived an extraordinary life, filled with world-changing friends and LGBT icons from Harvey Milk to Dustin Lance Black. Jones founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (the story of which is recounted in the documentaries Common Threads and Showtime’s The Last One) and co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. As portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the Gus Van Sant-directed MILK, Jones literally picked up Milk’s bullhorn after his murder and carried on the San Francisco martyr’s fight for equality and social justice by working with a wide array of entities and causes, including the labor union UNITE HERE.
Jones revisits many of these incredible moments and people—from Harvey Milk to Sean Penn—in his new memoir, When We Rise (Hachette; $27). The book also served as partial inspiration for the upcoming ABC miniseries of the same name that charts the modern LGBT rights movement. The screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black, and Guy Pearce co-stars as Jones.
Alternately funny, heartwarming, revealing, tragic, and inspiring, the fast-moving book chronicles Jones’ coming out in an era when American society was barely aware of (and usually hostile to) homosexuality. Jones goes on to recount his extensive youthful travels; sexual and romantic exploits during the free-loving ’70s; the horrific first wave of AIDS that consumed friends and lovers (some of whom figure into David France’s must-read AIDS history How to Survive a Plague, also released on November 29); Jones’ own positive diagnosis and struggles with the virus; the making of MILK; amusing celebrity encounters in Hollywood; helping marriage equality happen; his present life in San Francisco’s Castro district; and his thoughts on the changing face of the city as the real-estate crisis displaces entire communities and longtime institutions.
Filmmaker Rob Reiner (a co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which was instrumental in the successful marriage equality campaign) helped plant the seed for Rise by encouraging Jones to write a book about his extraordinary life. Jones did just that, largely during late-night sessions at Dustin Lance Black’s dining-room table. I spoke with Jones via telephone to ask him about the book, his activism, and what we can do to ensure that progress keeps heading in the right direction.
Lawrence Ferber: This is your second book, the first being 2000’s Stitching a Revolution. How did your writing process differ, and how do they compare?
Cleve Jones: Stitching was written with a neighbor of mine at the time, Jeff Dawson. I wasn’t real proud of it, I have to say. It’s a good book—I’m not ashamed of it at all, and it wouldn’t have happened without Jeff—but I was still frail and fragile, recovering from many years of illness. He did long, long interviews with me that were recorded, transcribed, and I crossed out what I didn’t want included. But I’ve always thought I wanted to do another book and write it myself, in my voice. Also, that earlier book had almost no sex in it! Sex is a part of my life, and there was nothing sexy about Stitching. So when Rob Reiner gave me that nudge, I thought, If I’m going to do it, I’ll do it myself.
Was When We Rise easy or difficult to write, once you got started? You certainly had a lot of extraordinary material to work with, and the book is filled with so many recognizable names and events.
Well, I’m a storyteller. My mom used to tell me, “You sure can talk,” and other people have suggested that talking might be my only legally marketable skill. I know I have these great stories because of luck. I met the most amazing people through my life’s journey, and I’ve witnessed the most amazing things. I didn’t write this as a history book, and it’s not even really an autobiography. It’s a collection of memories from various times in our history, and I hope it conveys what it was like. Admittedly, I thought Rise was going to be different than it turned out. I [initially] wanted to tell the stories from my youth, before AIDS came. I wanted younger generations to hear about what it was like growing up in a time when being gay was illegal—when we were lobotomized and sent to prison simply because we were homosexual.
What can you say about ABC’s upcoming When We Rise miniseries?
I am not supposed to talk about it yet. You can probably guess that it’s not based solely on my book or life. There are stories from my book included in the miniseries, and it’s using my title, of course.
Getting back to sex, you do share how carefree that was before AIDS, and the role it served on a deeper level. At a certain point in the book, you stop talking about your sexual experiences. Did the sex actually stop during that time?
It didn’t stop, but everything changed—the innocence of it. Maybe it seems odd to use the word “innocence” about people in bathhouses, but there was an innocence to it. What I was trying to convey was, I really remember my 40th birthday. I went to bed the night before when I was 39, and the next day when I woke up, I was 80. I wanted to show how dramatically everything changed—from this romantic adventure where anything was possible and our bodies were strong and beautiful, to this different reality. The sexuality that had been so much a part of our solidarity, bonding, enthusiasm, and energy was profoundly altered in a tragic and brutal way.
We have just finished a genuinely terrifying election cycle that might have laid the groundwork for LGBT rights to be pulled back. How close are we to Briggs Initiative-style bills popping up again?
Well, this was also part of my motivation to share these stories—to remind folks that nothing is permanent. What Trump unleashed upon us is not just going away. There’s a tendency—particularly among young people—to think that once you achieve a goal, the fight is done and you have that forever and ever. That’s not how life works. Everything can be taken away in the blink of an eye. I met someone who had a real impact on my youth, Christopher Isherwood, who told me these wonderful stories about [pre-Nazi] Berlin, and how a lot of LGBT people thought they were free during the Weimar Republic. Then we saw what happened. People need to always be vigilant and ready to fight.
Let’s talk about a couple of current issues and battles that LGBT activists are taking on. What do you think about Gays Against Guns?
That has not taken root [in San Francisco] yet. I’m sure glad they’re doing it, and we should all be supporting those efforts. The statistics on gun violence rarely include the horrific suicides, and suicide remains a huge issue for our community. We lose a huge number of people to suicide every year, and suicide by gun is the most lethal way to attempt it. I know people who had second thoughts after taking the pills or walking out on a bridge or pulling the razor out, and they survived. But I don’t know anyone who survived a bullet to the brain. If we could reduce the availability of firearms, I think we would reduce the number of people we lose each year to suicide.
For a couple of years now, you’ve been a vocal advocate for access to PrEP and medications that keep HIV viral loads undetectable, resulting in a much lower risk of transmitting HIV to others.
If the rallying cry for my generation was “Silence Equals Death,” the rallying cry now must be “Treatment Equals Prevention.” The science is pretty crystal-clear on this. People like me, who are HIV-positive but successfully treated and have an undetectable viral load, cannot transmit the virus. People who are negative and engage in high-risk behavior can prevent HIV infection if they are on PrEP. What people need to do is push their local and state government to make these meds available. The cost will come down eventually, but our larger war against the pharma industry’s greed should not dissuade people from pushing for access to these drugs now. In San Francisco, we’re taking a lot of bold steps to break down two main barriers: cost and stigma. Unfortunately, that stigma has really been exacerbated by the disinformation campaign waged by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and the shaming of young people. I hate this. They’re subjected to a lot of shame and blame, and I hear it coming from even some of my own friends. When people asked me about my status, I used to say, “Yes, I was infected a long time ago, before we knew anything about it.” Today, I just say, “I’m positive.” I feel like I was using that previous explanation as a way to distance myself from the younger people who are getting infected right now, but that’s wrong. We need to tell them how beautiful they are and how much their lives matter. We love them, and we need to listen to them instead of yelling.
Finally, is there any boldface name or icon you haven’t yet met, but really want to?
Yes! I would die to have lunch with Bette Midler!
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.