A Conversation with ...Cleve Jones 

Cleve Jones has long been on the frontlines of LGBT activism. He was mentored by the late activist and politician Harvey Milk in San Francisco's gay bastion, the Castro District. Their story was recently re-told in the 2008 movie Milk. In 1983, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and later came up with the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. More recently, he co-chaired last October's National Equality March in Washington, D.C., which called for the federal government to provide LGBT equality across the country. He will speak at the Pride Advocacy Rally at 6 p.m. Fri., June 4, on the steps of the City-County Building, Downtown.

This is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in our June 2 print edition.

What's the takeaway from Harvey Milk's movement in San Francisco in the 1970s?

His strong message to all of us to come out of the closet remains a really powerful message. It's the way we win both personally and politically ... I think also Harvey's distrust of the gay establishment is so relevant today, more so than I'd like it to be ... In the last 18 months, we've seen a real disconnect between the grassroots community and the political establishment.

What "gay establishment" do you mean?

I'll give you one example I'm still steamed over. In the weeks leading up the National Equality March, virtually all of the national LGBT groups were either actively discouraging the march or offering tepid lip-service ... This is another thing used to keep us powerless: Let's have these endless, mindless arguments over what's effective and what's not effective. The reality is, it's all effective ... People need to quit bitching and pick whatever tactic is most appealing to them and really get with the program.

So you're not seeing the same kind of activism now that was present during the 1970s?

You really can't compare the two times. In the 1970s, what we were doing was brand-new. There was an excitement and electricity that comes from being part of something that's truly brand-new.

What do you think when you see things like pride fests, for example, getting all kinds of corporate support?

It's not fair to single out pride committees. They have to come up with the money to put on these events ... I would just like to point out, though, that maybe we don't need to be spending all of this money. Look at the National Equality March -- it was organized in less than four months. We had one part-time, minimum-wage employee. We did the entire march for $154,000 ... Over 200,000 showed up, mostly young people. It was an amazing day ... [I]f we really look at our grassroots history, [you will] see that some of the most amazing things we accomplished were done with very little money at all.

So there's more focus on raising money today than on the message?

I have concerns about it. If you look back, we started as a radical movement, and there's a lot of people that want to deny that history but you really can't. We were a radical movement. I know because I was there. We were mostly people who were already political ... and then we found each other. It was called gay liberation and it used the ideology and vocabulary of other liberation movements. Then we were hit by an [HIV/AIDS] epidemic. And I really think that's when things began to change very dramatically. The loss was appalling, so it, in many respects, strengthened the community. We had to fight. We were fighting for our lives.

For example, in Harvey's last campaign for supervisor, when he won, as I recall, the total budget for that campaign was $35,000, and I remember thinking, "Oh God, how can we ever raise that much money?" Within a few years of that, we were routinely raising millions of dollars in every city to care for people with HIV ... [T]he radical liberation movement was pretty much put on hold so we could reach out and get corporate support and get government funding. That changed everything ... I'm enjoying all the attention Harvey Milk's getting, but if he were around today, I'm not sure people would be following him.

Then what made him relevant?

Harvey is relevant because he was assassinated. I know that sounds brutal, but it's true. Harvey Milk, when he ran for office, he was not supported by the lesbians. They ran a candidate against him. He was not supported by the gay establishment. They also ran a candidate against him. I think had he lived, he might well have become a unifying force ... I don't speculate about what he could have done. But the only reason we know his name is because he was assassinated.

Are you seeing any more political allies now, 30 years later?

Oh yeah, definitely. We've made enormous progress and there's still a long way to go, but nobody should doubt that we've made really remarkable progress. And I think that finally it's interesting that it's taken over 40 years for the movement to get to the point of saying what we want is full equality without exception. We want equal protection under the law I think that's a growing consensus we're tired of compromises and we're tired of half measures. We want equal protection under the law. There's no such thing as a fraction of equality.

Here in Pittsburgh, there are anti-discrimination laws in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but once you get outside of those jurisdictions, LGBT residents aren't afforded the same protections.

That illustrates why federal actions are necessary. It's very similar to strategic decision that was made by Dr. King and other great heroes of the historic civil rights movement when they understood clearly they'd have to continue to fighting places in like Selma, Birmingham or Montgomery, but they set their sights on Washington, D.C., and succeeded in getting the civil rights passed and voting rights passed.

It's hard to pinpoint a figure like Dr. King in the LGBT-rights movement. Where does leadership need to come from on these issues?

The leadership needs to come from everywhere but I think it starts with a reality check with so much of the leadership, [which] seems, to me, to be very invested in continuing this state by state, county by county, city by city struggle. As I and many others have been saying for some time, it's a failed strategy. I say that with nothing but respect and affection for all of us who have pursued that strategy for these many decades. That was the only thing that made sense then, but that was then and this is now. It's time to understand this state-by-state approach is ruinously expensive and even when we win, our victories are incomplete and impermanent. They are incomplete because they do not grant full equality. People in Massachusetts -- same-sex couples in Massachusetts and Iowa and Vermont and New Hampshire and D.C. -- are still second-class citizens because they don't get the most significant rights granted to heterosexuals because those rights are determined by the federal government and not the states. We've also seen how impermanent these are. Witness Maine. Witness [Proposition 8] in California. I believe that this is the time to focus increasingly on the federal action. That doesn't mean we abandon the local work. Not at all. There's a very important role in local activists. But I wish that national organizations would focus their attention on real progress at the federal level.

President Obama has said he wants to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell "policy. But senior Pentagon officials have asked him to wait. What do you make of his handling of the issue?

I'm frustrated and concerned that the compromise did not include a time-certain date for implementation of a new policy, nor does it explicitly state that LGBTs will be protected from discrimination. It removes the "don't ask, don't tell." Another larger issue that my understanding of our democracy and our Constitution is that Congress makes the policy and the military follows. This seems put all of the power for these processes in the Pentagon and I hate saying it, but I just don't think we're going to see anything positive come out of this for a very long time at all. The way to repeal it is to repeal it and to move forward with a clear position of nondiscrimination. Our troops have been fighting side-by-side with soldiers from many countries who have openly gay and lesbian people serving with honor. This is really a no-brainer. The population supports it. I'm disappointed and frustrated.

One argument senior Pentagon leaders have made is that they want to study it and make sure there won't be "opposition in the ranks." Do you think there's any validity to those concerns?

I'm sure there's opposition. I don't think we need to study it. I think we need to change the policy and that this would be a great time for fierce advocacy from the Commander-in-Chief. It's sort as if they said to African Americans, "end racism, then we'll desegregate." It's not our responsibility to end homophobia. It is the government's responsibility to protect all of its citizens, regardless of what kind of adequate attitudes exist.

What's the greatest opposition to achieving gay marriage, repealing DADT or Prop 8?

Clearly the main opposition has been from the religious right. They are powerful. They are well organized. I think really we have to look to ourselves. We're not doing a very good job. And we lack solidarity and we lack discipline. So it's tempting of course to just point to the right-wing religious fanatics and they're the ones that are responsible for this. We also need to look in the mirror a bit to see if really willing to make commitment to do hard work that's necessary to win.

When were you first aware of the gravity of the AIDS epidemic?

No one knew anything about in late '70s. The first printed word was from 1981. I first read about it in the first article published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the Centers for Disease Control in June of '81. Many of us understood right away that it was really serious. But I wish people knew more about the early days of the epidemic. It's yet another example of how much we can do with very little money when you look at the explosion of activism from ACT UP to the [NAMES Project] to the incredible movement of volunteering that mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteer mobile caregivers. It's amazing what we can do. We have extraordinary people. And yet we haven't been able to muster that in our own struggle for equality.

Why not?

We don't have a national movement. We have a bunch of organizations that claim to be national and spend enormous sums of money but they do not represent the grass roots. I'm sure someone will want to argue with me about that but to me it's clear. And we have a lot of turf warriors; even the squawking on the National Equality march and how it would take away resources. That just makes me crazy because it's all based on supposition that there is a limited, finite amount of money available to us and a limited, finite number of people willing to do the work. That's not how you build a movement.

Movements have to grow or they die. Our leadership is very much about excluding the people right now. You hear it every time we're told a plan. Every time we hear "trust us, we know what we're doing." I don't hate any of these people. I'm too old. But I'm not seeing much vision. I'm not seeing the kind of determination that I want to see and I think that these compromises are very debilitating because every time we compromise and accept further delays, we're sort of complicit in undermining our own humanity. As long as the government continues to define us as second class citizens, our children are going to continue to kill themselves and continue to be beaten and discriminated against. I get very frustrated.

Another thing I find troubling, and I don't often get into this: We look at all the ways that Americans are divided from each other: race, gender, sexual orientation. But I think the division that is the greatest and most destructive is one that we don't talk about very often at all and that's class. I recently looked at all of the Web sites by the national groups – not one of them has anything in Spanish. But when you go to rallies and pride marches … what I see is large numbers of young people with brown skin. I don't see them reflected in the leadership. I think it has to do also with what happens to AIDS activism. You look at these agencies created mostly by middle class, white gay men and now majority of their clients are people of color, heterosexual African American women. I think we're less interested in fighting for these lives.

The Pittsburgh connection to this is Queer as Folk … I haven't been to Pittsburgh in awhile but I don't understand how you can have a show about gay people in Pittsburgh that was all white. Pittsburgh's not all white, the gay community of Pittsburgh's not all white. Give me a break. So when you look at the controversy over around the HRC and transgender community ... I think this controversy is really more about class than transgender issues. Transgender people are at the bottom of the ladder. They make people uncomfortable because they're not rich, white, powerful people.

It troubles me that a lot that transgender people are not part of community or their someone we can bargain with their rights to get their own -- I hate that. Transgender people are among the most vulnerable people in the community. It saddens me greatly that people don't see that.

Is it possible then to achieve full equality for all marginalized groups with these built-in class issues? Does one have to be solved before the other?

I don't know. I think it's important to talk about it and I think it's important to raise the issues of solidarity and discipline. Look at any movement that has succeeded and what they bring in solidarity and we don't have that.

Are you upbeat about getting that?

I am disheartened. I think it's very clear that the election of Barack Obama and the timing of that occurring the 40th anniversary of Stonewall [made it clear] that change was really possible. And at the same time, we got slapped upside the head with Prop 8. Then a couple weeks later, the film [Milk] comes out and people are suddenly informed of this history that they had never been taught in school. And a Democratic majority in both houses [of Congress] created this window of opportunity and a bunch of us tried very hard and as loudly as possible to say, "Look, this is the window of opportunity that has been opened to us and it is already closing and now here we are a few months before the midterm elections and that window of opportunity is closing very, very fast and we haven't achieved much." That just makes me crazy that so many people were unwilling to push. Many of the young people were willing. Many of us older were willing to do whatever we could to take advantage of this extraordinary possibility. But we really didn't.

Speaking of the Prop 8, you started another project, this time chronicling the trial for it. Can you talk about that?

Here in California, they are already talking about putting Prop 8 back on the ballot in 2012. The price tag for that is, I don't know, $50-60 million? Let's say we win. Well, then the right-wingers will circulate petitions in church and in Orange County for a couple Sundays and well, put it back on the ballot in 2014. But we have this federal court challenge that has the potential to not only overturn Prop 8, but also turn over the Defense of Marriage Act […] that the rightwing used so successfully as a wedge issue.

Ironically, here once again, where was the establishment? They opposed the lawsuit. Said it wasn't time. Told everyone to wait. Came up with up an interesting argument that the best way to win was to have our rights put out to popular vote. I never remember that being an issue we agreed on. So now we've got a real possibility that this is going to go to the Supreme Court but the cameras were barred from the courtroom so no one really knows what was going on in that trial. As it winds its way to the Supreme Court, the challenge is how do we inform Americans of this testimony has occurred -- which I believe proves Prop 8 is unconstitutional and further proves its proponents were motivated by hatred? How do we get the word out? How do we inform people about this and let them know the opportunity exists that we'd never again have to fight a statewide initiative?. I'm trying to come up with something that will help people understand the implications of this trial and create a role for them in moving it forward.

So I call it Equality on Trial. It's a three-phase program trying to get people to focus on these re-enactments and go online and read about the trial and testimony that was there. The second phase is to collect testimony from the millions of Americans that have witnessed or experienced discrimination or harassment or violence and tell their stories. We'll add their stories to the body of evidence and the third phase will be to find a best possible way to communicate it and present these testimony to Congress and court. I think it makes sense because it is federally-focused.

One last question. When you sewed the first patch of the AIDS quilt, did you expect to get this big?

I thought it was a good idea and I thought it'd be big, but I never really understood what big meant in terms of the commitment, meant the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who created quilt panels and worked as volunteers at displays.

click to enlarge 22_news3_cleve_jones.jpg


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