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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.

Published in Features

In most ways, Aiden Stockman is a typical 18-year-old guy.

The Yucca Valley resident recently graduated from high school. He is just getting his driver’s license, and he’s debating what to do with his life.

However, attendees of Palm Springs Pride’s Harvey Milk Breakfast, held in downtown Palm Springs on May 22, know Aiden is far from typical: He and his mother, Kelli Drake, spoke at the event, and had many attendees in tears as they told Aiden’s story of struggle—and surprising acceptance—in Yucca Valley as a transgender youth.

Of course, transgender people are all over the news these days, thanks to the success of Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, the Golden Globe win for Jeffrey Tambor playing a transgender woman on the Amazon.com series Transparent, and, most notably, the journey of Caitlyn Jenner.

However, Aiden—who was born Victoria Stockman—was dealing with what’s called “gender dysphoria” well before anyone had heard of Laverne Cox, Transparent or Caitlyn Jenner. While his journey was far from easy—in fact, it almost cost Aiden his life—he said his Yucca Valley High School classmates were incredibly supportive when he finally told them he was transgender.

“Everybody at school was like, ‘OK, cool. That’s what you want to do?’ he said during a recent interview with his mother at the Starbucks in Desert Hot Springs. “I got Homecoming Prince during my senior year, and I was on the wrestling team, so people didn’t really care. Your classmates vote for Homecoming Prince.

“I dealt with some pricks here and there. I was sitting at a table one time with friends at lunch, and all of a sudden, these guys threw a bunch of food at me. They called me a faggot, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ Obviously, it hurt my feelings, and I just started to walk away. My friend Jared and my friend Kevin asked me what was wrong, and I told them; they went up and got up in their faces and yelled at them. My whole family and my cousins messaged them and got in their faces, too. The next day, they came up to me and said they were sorry.”

While some may find the support that Aiden received from classmates to be a welcome surprise, nobody should be surprised by a recent graduation honor his classmates bestowed upon him.

Aiden was voted “Most Changed Since Freshman Year.”


As she looked over photos of Aiden as a child, Kelli Drake noted that Aiden always showed off a masculine side.

“I think when me and Aiden’s stepdad got married, it was a fight, because we wanted him to wear a dress, and he was like, ‘I’m not wearing that!’” she said. “So we had to settle on a pair of brown skorts. He was mad that we even made him wear that.”

While Kelli Drake can laugh at memories like this now, Aiden’s childhood at times was downright painful. She talked about how Aiden spent almost an entire school year in and out of the Loma Linda University Medical Center, dealing with depression and behavioral issues. It was during this time she learned Aiden was binding his chest with an Ace bandage.

“We didn’t know he was doing that until we took him to Loma Linda, and they were doing admitting,” she said. “They do searches and go through all their stuff. The lady brought it out, and I asked, ‘What the hell is this, and where did it come from?’ We had no idea. It wasn’t until after that we saw what was going on.”

Aiden said he can remember when he decided he wanted to transition.

“It was probably during seventh-grade when I started going through puberty. It was kind of a wakeup call, and I was like, ‘This sucks!’” he said. “During my freshman year, I went to the hospital in Loma Linda, and I was there for a couple of months back and forth. … They just loaded me up on medication and were like, ‘OK, there you go. You’re fine.’

“I remember I came out to my mom as transgender during my sophomore year, and that’s when I started going to a psychologist, and I got the paper from the psychologist saying it was necessary for me to start hormone therapy, because I had gender dysphoria.”

At one point, Aiden tried to kill himself. “I remember my mom and my stepdad went somewhere, and my brother was home with me. I just took all of the pills. I was having a dysphoria kind of day. When my mom came home, I told her I took them all, and I felt bad I did it in front of my brother. I went to the hospital, and my mom stayed with me all night.”

Aiden and his mother have learned the hard way that insurance companies often don’t deal well with the issues transgender individuals face.

“We would call up the insurance company and get a representative over the phone and say, ‘OK, this is the deal: My son is transgender. We need to find an endocrinologist and hormone-replacement therapy,’” Kelli Drake said. “They would put me on hold and wind up e-mailing me this letter with a thousand different doctors on it—and they’re all doctors that are trying to get him pregnant. It was very hard to find doctors that dealt with this, and even the doctor we see in Redlands now, Dr. (Victor) Perkel—Aiden is the first transgender person he’s ever treated. He usually treats people for diabetes and stuff like that, not for this.”

However, Kelli Drake said Dr. Perkel has been supportive of Aiden’s needs as he goes through the physical transition from female to male.

“We made a few phone calls at first and made sure he knew why we were going there,” she said. “When we went there, we already had the letter from a therapist saying he had been through therapy and basically had his brain picked, and this is what he wants. Surprisingly, Dr. Perkel was fine with it and said, ‘Wow, this is great; of course I’ll do it.’ The first couple of months, we had to go down there because of the shots, and now we’re to the point where he writes a prescription and calls it in, and Aiden injects himself once a week. It’s a relief. We also had to get a letter from him because we found a plastic surgeon who does this kind of top surgery, and he basically wanted a letter from Dr. Perkel saying that Aiden understands the surgery is irreversible, just to cover his butt. (The plastic surgeon) got a letter in the mail a week later recommending the surgery, saying that it was medically necessary.”

Later this year, Aiden will have that chest surgery, or “top surgery,” as it’s called.

“I’m not nervous about it at all, and I’m really excited,” he said. “My cousin wanted to go to the U.S. Open of Surfing tournament this summer. I told him I’m not going, and he asked me why, and I said it was seeing guys with their shirts off, and I couldn’t take mine off. He didn’t know it, but last year, it sucked for me.”


Earlier this year, Aiden had his name and gender legally changed.

“It went through on March 23,” Aiden said. “The judge was all like, ‘Good morning,’ and I said, ‘Hey!’ He asked if I wanted the name change and the gender change, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then he said, ‘Congratulations! You’re a young man now.’ And I yelled, ‘SWEET!’

“We walked out of the courtroom, and my mom said, ‘You’re supposed to be polite and say, <em>Yes, your honor</em>.’ It was my moment for a second, and he got me happy.”

Despite some great moments, Aiden is still struggling with a lot of issues related to his transition.

“I want to join the Army or the Marines, but they said I couldn’t until I’ve fully transitioned,” he said. “They would call my phone, asking for Victoria Stockman, and I would answer like, ‘Yeah, this is her.’ I was thinking about going to college and getting my prerequisites done, but I don’t really know, honestly. I’ve just been hanging out.”

It’s all too common for transgender individuals to face challenges regarding unemployment. A 2013 report issued by the Human Rights Campaign showed transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed, and that four out of 10 transgender people who do have jobs are underemployed.

“I would try to get a job, but I would go into places, and my stuff wasn’t changed yet, and it says ‘Victoria Stockman’ on it,” Aiden said. “People would give me an application; I would fill it out, go back in, and they’d look at it and be like, ‘Yeah, OK, we’ll call you.’ … It’s a cold shoulder. It sucks.”

However, Aiden has found comfort in sharing his story.

“Through the (Yucca Valley High) Gay Straight Alliance, Palm Springs Pride, and the Harvey Milk Breakfast, I’ve talked to a bunch of kids, and I’ve shared my doctor’s information,” he said. “If someone older than me could have explained it to me, I wouldn’t have had to go through all this myself.

“If they want information, I’m really open about it. I talk about everything, and if someone wants to know something, I tell them.”

Below: Aiden Stockman today, and pictures from his childhood. Aiden’s mother, Kelli Drake, said Aiden—formerly known as Victoria—showed a masculine side even as a toddler and a young child.

Published in Features