Thursday, December 1, 2016

When We Rise - Cleve Jones

Harvey and Cleve and friends in the 1970's.

Probably the best interview I ever did was with Cleve Jones, back in the summer of
1995.  The first interview was in the Castro, the second was in his home in Guerneville,
North of the City.  We didn't know what the future would be like for Jones, who by then
 had lived with HIV for well over a decade if not more. There was no real treatment
 for HIV /AIDS.  He' d been in the movement for Gay Liberation for the better part
 of two decades.  The Republicans had taken charge of Congress and  no one was sure
what would happen next.

"What happened to those dreams," I asked him.

"They are still happening baby."

We got high and listened to Holst's The Planets, talked about riots and the lessons of
the AIDS years. 

We stayed in touch over the years. I met him in Washington in 1996 the last time the
AIDS quilt was fully displayed.

And saw him give a reading for his last book in 2000 and we went out afterwards.

And last night, he gave a talk at the Strand Bookstore.

Arriving Cleve was posing there with Gil Baker, smiling.

Starting the talk he read a chapter about Harvey Milk being killed.
Looking at Milk's dead body, he knew a chapter of his life was
over.  But then when heard the cops sing, Oh Danny Boy, he realized
it wasn't over at all.

"There were so many moments in my life then I thought it was over,"
he confessed.  "When I was young and gay and thought I had to kill
myself, when Harvey died, when my friends started dying, its never
been over.  And now I'm 62 and I'm healthy and fighting and still here."

The room roared with applause.

"I wanted to tell the story about a time when we were a part of a
revolutionary movement. To be gay was to be against racism, sexism,
war and poverty... What I hope to see is the resurgence of a progressive
movement that has some spine. And I hope we don't do it by consensus.
I am a Quaker. We could do consensus because we all thought alike."

He described the night after Trump's election as people poured into the
streets to protest.  Some brought music and danced.  "Its an echo of the
way we survive.  Even when things are falling apart, we find some humor
and spender.  Its one of our resiliencies.

He recalled the AIDS years.  Treatment arrived in 1996. "But we were
never going to be happy again.  Today, I'm learning to be happy again."
But the memories are hard to shake.  "We'd work, weep, we'd go out and
get a drink, party, get a few hours sleep, and come get back to work.
But we cried every day for literally a decade.... It was hard.  It broke
my heart.  I still think about my friends every day.  

Today, Cleve works with Unite, as a trade unionist. "I'm so disappointed
that the democrats abandoned that base.  I know some of the election
is about racism and xenophobia. But I'm disappointed that the democrats
didn't do more to reach out to that base.Gay liberation was built on a
coalition with teamsters," he explained.

I asked about the heros of the movement, about Hank Wilson and
Howard Wallace.  "Hank lead by allowing others to be leaders,"
he recalled.

"The movement saved my life. When I wanted to commit suicide as a
kid who didn't know other people were out there, i heard about the
movement.  When i was sick, ACT UP stormed the FDA and got us
treatment.  And we got the drugs to live.  So now its time to stand up,
organize, ACT UP and fight back again."

"There was a time when we were part of a counter culture.  Are
we queer revolutionaries or straight except for who we sleep with?
Every generation must address this question with its own vocabulary.
I'm sure there are English departments out there putting together
their own glossaries as we speak."

Standing to talk with Cleve afterwards, he confessed. "I still think
of Hank every day."

Thanks for being there remembering, witnessing, modeling, and
 telling your stories for us Cleve.

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