Arts & Entertainment

Review: “When We Rise” by Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones is the author of the current best-selling book, When We Rise, My Life in the Movement (New York, Hachette Books, 2016) that formed the basis for the recent TV mini-series by the same name on ABC. This memoir of his life in the gay movement is unique for the first-person, eye-witness accounts it provides by a close associate of San Francisco’s legendary gay icon, Harvey Milk. It offers spellbinding descriptions of Milk’s influence, his horrific assassination in November 1978 and Jones’ growing role in the LGBT movement.

Jones, who came up with the idea for the Names Quilt, a response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s that brought home the personal dimension of the epidemic, had a major role as a consultant for the 2008 Academy Award winning film, Milk. Jones parlayed his friendships with screenwriter Justin Lance Black and producer Gus Van Sant into an extraordinary portrayal of Milk’s career. Sean Penn won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Milk; Emile Hirsch portrayed Jones — who approved of the choice (“except that I am taller,” he wrote) — and Black won an Oscar for his script.

In fact, Jones was sitting with Black at the February 2009 Academy Awards ceremony when Black won the Oscar and delivered an acceptance speech that was a first of its kind. Speaking openly of being gay himself, Black articulated an amazing affirmation to millions watching on TV.

“If Harvey Milk had not been taken away from us 30 years ago,” Black said, “I think he’d want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there who have been told that they are less by their churches, by the government, or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.”

Jones wrote that “I watched from my seat and could not stop crying,” I reaction that I shared, along with millions of other Americans, including LGBT persons of all ages, their loving families, friends and supporters. It marked, after 31 years, a national redemption for the murder of Milk and a prescient forecast of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that confirmed that the “equal protection under the law” guarantee of the U.S. Constitution does indeed extend to LGBT persons, including to their right to marry. On The day of this ruling, June 25, 2015, was another day I could not stop crying.

In Jones’ memoir, he writes about how the young, post-Stonewall gay movement “saved my life, twice.” First, in 1971, “as a frightened teenager, when I learned of the gay liberation movement and flushed down the pills I had hoarded to end my life.” He was saved again, he wrote, in 1994 “when I was dying of AIDS,” when “the movement stormed the Food and Drug Administration, confronted the pharmaceutical industry’s greed, and exposed the shameful lack of government response.” This led to a life-saving treatment regimen for the epidemic that had killed 600,000 other mostly gay males in the U.S. The LGBT movement, he wrote, “saved my life and gave it purpose and connected me to other people who also sought love and purpose in their lives.”

Jones’ eyewitness to the LGBT movement was not without plenty of pain, including the Milk assassination and the AIDS epidemic. His vivid and penetrating recollections of these experiences and so much more make his book one of the more important contributions to the growing library of indispensable LGBT literary works.

I don’t recall, but I have a strong sense that I met the young Jones, who escaped his family and showed up as a teenager in San Francisco in 1972. I was still in the midst of my most energetic gay activism at that same time. I co-founded the Berkeley, Calif., chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and was a major contributor to the Berkeley Barb and Gay Sunshine counterculture newspapers. Jones wrote, “In those days, one could probably count the number of self-described ‘gay rights activists’ on the fingers of two hands.” Well, one of those fingers belonged to me.

He was 18 then, and I about 10 years older, and we traveled in the same neighborhoods of downtown San Francisco then, from Market Street, to the Tenderloin to Polk Street, from the front of Flagg Brothers and the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, to Ritch Street and Bob’s Burgers.

He was known as the “class sissy” in Phoenix before coming to San Francisco, and I was described as one among “offbeat liberation fairies” by the openly-gay San Francisco Chronicle’s Randy Shilts in his book, The Mayor of Castro Street, the Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), because my politics was more radical than simply a call for equality.

Fast forward to 1977. Jones returned after long periods of travel to volunteer on Milk’s first campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Supervisors from a particular district (encompassing the Castro and Haight). This was Milk’s first and only electoral victory.

Jones’ recollections of that campaign, and the subsequent incredibly politically dense period that followed, are the most compelling part of his book, from the demonstrations and riots to a vivid, stomach-churning description of the slain Milk’s body as it lay for hours on his City Hall office floor.

Jones’ memoir skips over other important years, namely 1983-1984, when controversies over how to react to the massive and horrible deaths from AIDS that claimed so many gay men before a cure was found. The pain and panic was too great, perhaps, although Shilts, in his And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic chronicle of the AIDS epidemic published in 1987, wrote that Jones had reluctantly aligned with those in the San Francisco gay leadership who called for the closing of the bathhouses.

By Jones’ own account, he seldom shied away from taking strong and controversial positions in the often-contentious gay movement. To this day, he remains on his feet, so to speak, to present one more gift to his catalog of enormous contributions to the movement — his new memoir. We can expect that much more is still to come.