Cleve Jones has been at the forefront of the fight for gay rights since the 1970s.
Today, he continues to speak out—and will be honored with the Harvey B. Milk Leadership Award of the Coachella Valley at the Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast on Friday, May 18.
The critically acclaimed 2008 film Milk, and the 2017 ABC miniseries When We Rise—which was based on Jones’ memoir—have featured portrayals of Jones and his role as an activist and organizer. In fact, portions of When We Rise take place in Palm Springs, where Jones used to live.
“One thing that’s interesting about Palm Springs is that when we look around the country, and also in Canada and Europe, we see that the traditional ‘gayborhoods,’ like the Castro in San Francisco, are going away,” Jones said. “One of the few exceptions to this seems to be in Palm Springs, which is getting gayer and gayer.
“Palm Springs is different from the ‘gayborhoods’ as we used to understand them, because Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley really don’t offer the educational and job opportunities that were available for our younger people in places like San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. It is very much an LGBT senior community.”
As an organizer for LGBT equality—and currently as a labor organizer for hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE—Jones said it has never been easy to organize people.
“People have their lives,” he said. “Most of us lead very complicated and busy lives. Getting people to take the time to focus on political issues and organize is always a challenge.
“I think when people realize we are really under attack, we do respond. I think we’re facing so many different issues that it’s hard to get people to focus—especially when you look at the occupant of the White House.”
I mentioned that some people have even been hesitant to even engage in simple boycotts of anti-LGBT businesses.
“I think that boycotts can be very effective, but the real challenge with a boycott is that it’s not enough to say, ‘Let’s boycott Chick-fil-A!’ You need to put resources into that,” Jones said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of boycotts related to the labor movement that have been very successful, but that’s because we’ve had staff and resources to drive the boycott. Online organizing can be very shallow. People who think they’re changing the world by clicking on an online petition are deluded. Real change takes real work.”
The assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone at San Francisco City Hall in November 1978 took place just a week after the horrifying Peoples Temple massacre in Guyana. (The Peoples Temple’s headquarters were in San Francisco.) Jones was an intern at City Hall when Milk and Moscone were killed by fellow Supervisor Dan White; he said the difficult times the city faced after those tragedies have never been appropriately depicted, not even in Milk.
“It was a long, cold, dark winter—about a thousand San Franciscans were murdered in Guyana with the Peoples Temple, and then the assassinations,” Jones said. “I still get depressed every November. It was very difficult. I was still quite young and had just turned 24, and I had never seen a dead person until I saw Harvey’s body on the floor. Looking back on it, I was in shock for months. I have very few memories of that winter, and I think it’s because I was so devastated and in shock.”
The dramatizations of himself and Harvey Milk in films and TV are important, Jones said.
“It’s kind of surreal at times. I was very lucky with Emile Hirsch, that’s for sure,” Jones said with a laugh; Hirsh played Jones in Milk. “I appreciate that people are very kind to me. Most Americans get their information nowadays from popular culture. We all have a tendency to sneer at Hollywood, but we all line up to go to the movies. We sneer at television, but we’re glued to it. There’s no question in my mind that Harvey Milk was being forgotten—I know that with certainty he was being forgotten—until that film came out, and Sean Penn won an Oscar. I think it’s important that Harvey’s story be known. For me, it’s a little weird sometimes having these kind-of fictionalized representations of my life, but I think it’s all useful.”
Jones came up with the idea for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985. Today, the internationally recognized memorial to those who died of AIDS weighs an estimated 54 tons. Jones said he had no idea the quilt would become so iconic—and would be around for such a long time.
“We created it originally as a one-time thing for the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987,” he said. “Once we saw it … and once the world saw it, we decided that it became clear this would have to go on. We ended up on the front page of every newspaper in the world. People began writing to us and sending us more panels. It was quite an extraordinary experience.”
Jones is concerned there’s a problem with reaching younger LGBT people and encouraging them to study and understand the history of the community.
“There’s a terrible generation gap,” he said. “Part of it is because so many of my generation died, and I think the generation that followed immediately are people who are now in their 40s and 50s, and they were struggling with their own coming-out experiences and were so horrified by what they saw. I spoke to so many people who came out during that period. Even though they might be HIV-negative and didn’t experience losing all their friends, they were extremely traumatized, because gay men were dying by the tens of thousands.
“Of course, none of this is taught in most schools. There are some school districts who have included it in their curriculum, but the majority of young people are never exposed to LGBTQ history. I’ve actually had young people in my neighborhood accuse me of exaggerating when I talk about what the death toll was. Someone told me we hadn’t really lost 20,000 people in my neighborhood—but we did. I’m also amazed by how many young people don’t realize that being gay was criminalized, and it’s a problem to me that not many people know that. I came out during the era where consensual sex between two gay adults was a felony. I remember when it was illegal for us to dance. Young people have no clue that this is how we lived—but don’t single out gay people. Americans in general have little to no respect for history.”
In these days of Donald Trump and a Republican Party whose leaders oppose equal LGBT rights, and with a history in which President Ronald Reagan was chillingly silent for years regarding the AIDS epidemic, I asked Jones if the GOP had ever done anything right regarding LGBT equality or HIV/AIDS.
“I think that back in the day, there were a handful of Republican members of Congress who did the right thing on HIV and AIDS—and, of course, today’s Republican Party is nothing like the Republican Party under Bush or even Reagan,” Jones said. “The Republican Party today is a fascist party, and that’s all there is to it. They’re fascists. Even today, anyone who supports Trump or the Republicans in Congress are fascists. I don’t care if they’re gay, straight or whatever—they’re fascists.”
I asked Jones if he thinks there could be any positive societal change in the near future. He laughed.
“I hope so,” he said.
The Harvey Milk Diversity Breakfast Coachella Valley takes place at 9:30 a.m., Friday, May 18, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros. Tickets are $65. For tickets or more information, visit www.facebook.com/Desert.Milk.