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LGBTQ Activist Cleve Jones: 'I'm Well Aware How Fragile Life Is'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today, as Pride Month comes to a close, our first guest is longtime LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones. He thinks of himself as part of the last generation of homosexuals who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way he did. He moved to San Francisco in his early 20s and became active in the gay rights movement. One of his mentors was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, who was assassinated in 1978.

When the AIDS epidemic started, Jones was working with the state assembly speaker on gay rights issues and health issues. He went on to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt. He's had HIV for many years, and few of his old friends survived the epidemic. In 2016, Cleve Jones wrote a memoir called "When We Rise: My Life In The Movement." He called it his attempt to describe not only his life, but what his generation fought for, what they lost and what they won.

He spoke with Terry Gross when his memoir was first published.


TERRY GROSS: Cleve Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Remind us of what the penalties were for having a consensual sexual relationship with somebody of the same gender when you were a teenager, knowing that you were gay. And we're talking about the 1960s.

CLEVE JONES: The penalties for homosexual conduct were - would vary from state to state, but they were - it was a felony in most states, punishable with prison terms of varying lengths.

GROSS: So when you realized - when you knew that you were gay, were you afraid that someday you would be arrested?

JONES: Yes. When I began to understand what the words meant that were being tossed my way, I went to my father's library - he was a psychologist - and looked it up. And, you know, it was pretty horrifying for a 13-, 14-year-old kid to learn suddenly that his feelings are not only deemed criminal but, you know, psychologically, an illness. So that was the reality for my generation, growing up in a world that - in which we were criminalized and considered to be ill.

GROSS: And were a lot of people imprisoned for gay relationships back then?

JONES: You know, even in my town, even in San Francisco, thousands of gay men were arrested, usually using entrapment techniques, every single year for sexual behavior between consenting adults. That continued well into the 1970s, until it was finally decriminalized in 1976, I believe.

GROSS: So you were afraid to tell your parents that you were gay in part because your father is a psychologist; you were afraid that he'd sign you up against your will for aversion therapy or electroshock therapy. How seriously did you worry about that?

JONES: Well, I was very concerned about it. And I delayed telling my parents until I was 18 so that they would no longer have the legal right to have me committed and be subjected to these procedures that are, really, pretty barbaric. And, you know, I think those fears were well-founded because, for the first couple of years after I came out, there was very little contact with him. And he really wanted me to be cured, and I kept saying there's nothing to cure. Later, we were able to reconcile somewhat. But my fears were certainly grounded in reality.

GROSS: And you write that you were hoarding pills. You - it sounds like you had a suicide plan just in case. What was the just-in-case?

JONES: Yeah. I felt that my life was over before it even really began because it just seemed then that there was no way to have a decent life and to be gay. So I was terrified that I was going to be caught. And I'd already experienced quite a bit of bullying. And, you know, I just thought that only misery lay ahead and that if I - when I got caught, that that would be the solution. And I wish I could say that was a thing of the past, but you know it's not. And even today, every year, we lose an awful lot of young people, teenagers, who take their own lives because they are gay or transgender.

GROSS: So you found out that there was, like, a gay movement through being a Quaker. You and your mother went to Quaker meetings. She went to Quaker meetings because she wanted to be a Quaker so you'd have a reason to avoid the draft. This was during the Vietnam War. But - so how did going to Quaker meetings lead to your discovery of the gay rights movement?

JONES: The Quakers were very welcoming. And even back then, I think they were performing commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But, really, the big news for me came not at Quaker meeting but through Life magazine, and it was the Year in Review issue of 1971. They had a big spread called homosexuals in revolt, and I think it was eight or nine pages of text and photographs. And it was just the most astonishing thing for me.

Stonewall, the rebellion in New York's Greenwich Village, had happened just two years prior, but if you were a teenage kid in Phoenix, Ariz., you didn't know about that. So this magazine, in a matter of minutes, revealed to me that there were other people like me. There were a lot of us, that we were organizing, that there was a community. And there were places where we could live safely and that one of those places was called San Francisco.

GROSS: So you met Harvey Milk. He became a mentor to you.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: How would you describe his importance in the gay rights movement?

JONES: Well, he's often described as the first openly gay person to be elected to public office. That's inaccurate. And in my book, I make sure to credit the half-dozen or so individuals who came before him in various places in the country. But I think that Harvey's significance really was that he became our first shared martyr. The word of his assassination spread far and wide. And even though gay people had lost many people to violence, to suicide, to drugs and alcohol, here was this symbolic figure that just struck a chord with people. For those of us in San Francisco, it was fascinating to see this guy who was really just kind of, you know, like one of your local neighborhood characters assume this worldwide significance.

GROSS: So in 1977, Anita Bryant led a campaign to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. And after winning, she vowed to take that campaign nationwide. So after her group kind of won in 1977, there was a big protest in San Francisco. And, you know, Harvey Milk helped - you say he helped channel the anger into a march. So describe him in action during that protest.

JONES: Harvey was very smart and really good at working with crowds of people. And he did not want violence. So when people were angry, when people were frightened, he would bring us all together so we could have that sense of power that comes from being together in the street and taking over the street, and then he would march us. And we created this march route that went for miles and miles up and down some of the steepest hills in San Francisco, and the main reason we did this was, first, of course, to show our anger and our determination, but also to make sure that, by the end of it, everybody would be too tired to break windows or fight the police (laughter).

GROSS: Really? That was part of the strategy?

JONES: It was march them till they drop. That was the strategy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: And there were so many times when we would go roaring through town at, you know, 11 o'clock at night, tens of thousands of people screaming bloody murder, but without breaking a single window or injuring a single person.

GROSS: Yeah, you say that Harvey Monk's attitude was don't burn down your neighborhood.

JONES: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: So in 1978, California State Senator John Briggs proposed a bill, which became known as the Briggs Initiative or Proposition 6, that would ban gay people from working in any capacity in California public schools. What was your role in opposing that?

JONES: At that time. there were only a few local jurisdictions in the entire country that had passed any kind of legal protections for the people we now call LGBT, and the movement to repeal them was gaining speed. We had the loss in Dade County, also defeats in Wichita and St. Paul and Eugene. So, initially, we looked at Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, as an inevitable defeat and a really grave threat because this was a bill that would ban anyone who was LGBT or anyone who supported them from working in any capacity in any public school in the entire state. So it was a real attack against gay people, against workers, against teachers.

And Harvey thought it was very important that the young people who were joining gay liberation in droves be organized in an effective way. So my first responsibility in that campaign was to head out and visit all of the campuses and pull together the usually very small gay student organizations that existed at that time and build a coalition. So that was how it began.

GROSS: And what was the outcome?

JONES: Well, contrary to all the predictions, we won that election. And, you know, it would be decades before we won another statewide election like that. And the history has largely been forgotten. And back then, even that early on in the movement, we were able to win. And I think that we did it by coming out, and that was Harvey's main message to the community, was that we had to come out; we had to take the risks.

And yes, there were risks. There were potential repercussions that could be very serious. He never diminished that. But he said that everyone had a responsibility to themselves, to their families, to their community and to the movement to come out of the closet. So in that campaign against the Briggs Initiative, you saw literally tens of thousands of ordinary people knocking on doors and saying, please, I'm your neighbor. I live down the street. I'm gay. If this passes, it will hurt me. It will harm my family. I think that's how we won.

GROSS: You did that kind of work, too, didn't you? Knock on doors?

JONES: Yes, I did.

BIANCULLI: Activist Cleve Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with activist Cleve Jones. They spoke in 2016, when his memoir "When We Rise: My Life In The Movement" was first published.


GROSS: You were working for Harvey Milk when he was assassinated by Dan White, and you knew - you saw police. You knew something was wrong when you came to the office. You had a kind of personal way of getting in there so that the police weren't blocking your way. And you came upon Harvey Milk's dead body and saw a police officer picking up the body. And you saw an explicitly horrible death. What lasting impact did that have on you? You can't unsee something like that. You can't erase it from your mind.

JONES: Well, you know, it changed my life forever. And, you know, when I came around the corner and saw him, I saw his feet sticking out in the hallway. Dan White had invited him into his office and shot him there. And his feet were sticking out in the hall, and I recognized his wingtip shoes. He had secondhand shoes that he'd bought at a thrift store. And then we couldn't leave. We were stuck there because the police were doing their thing.

And we played the tape that he'd left for us to play because he predicted his assassination. And I used to tease him for it (laughter) and tell him he wasn't important enough to get shot. So that was pretty eerie and very horrible to be sitting in his office, listening to his voice predicting his death while his body's there in the hallway. I knew by the end of the day that that was the single most important moment of my life, and it was the single most important thing that had happened to me. Meeting Harvey, seeing his death - it fixed my course.

GROSS: You got a job after Harvey Milk's assassination with the state assembly's speaker, the state assembly of California, to work on gay rights and to monitor the assembly's health committee and serve as the liaison between the committee's Democratic members and the speaker, who was Leo McCarthy. And that's how you first found out about AIDS, before that word was known. You had to, as part of your job, read the CDC's weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report. And back in 1981, you read about something called pneumocystis pneumonia. Did you realize right away that this was something that was going to decimate a lot of the gay community? Like, what was the first article about it that you read? What were the clues?

JONES: It was the first week of June 1981, and I read in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report about these cases of pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi's sarcoma among young, previously healthy homosexual men. And I remember being very puzzled by it and alarmed. I cut it out and put it on the bulletin board at my office. About a month later, The New York Times did their first story about it, and I cut that out, too.

And about the same time, I got a call from Dr. Marcus Conant, who was a dermatologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and he wanted to talk with me because he knew that I worked for the Democratic leadership. And he was already, you know, predicting that we were going to need to raise and spend significant sums of money for research and treatment. So he took me to dinner at a place called the Zuni Cafe - it's still there on Market Street - and told me that he thought it was a new virus, sexually transmitted, may be dormant for many, many years, that it attacked the immune system in some way that he couldn't understand and was fatal. And there was something about the way he delivered this information that just went right to my heart. And I knew that night, and I - you know, I looked up, and I said, well, then we're all dead. And he said, you know, maybe.

He then took me to meet a young man who was dying at the UCSF hospital. His name was Simon (ph). And, you know, he was in an isolation ward, and it was pretty horrifying to see close up what the disease did to him. That was June of 1981. By the fall of 1985, almost everyone I knew was dead or dying or caring for someone who was dying.

GROSS: When were you diagnosed?

JONES: I tested positive for HIV the week the test came out, which I'm thinking was 1985. That time is a bit of a blur, but yeah, I tested positive. And I had been in a study I had volunteered for, so I knew that they had samples of my blood going back all the way to 1977. So I learned that not only did I have HIV, but I learned that I'd had it since the winter of '78, '79. So I never expected to survive.

GROSS: And you almost didn't.

JONES: I didn't get seriously ill until 1993, and then I got very sick. My immune system collapsed, and I was also allergic to many of the drugs used to treat the opportunistic infections, particularly pneumocystis pneumonia. So I moved out into the woods. I got a little cabin out in the redwood forest north of San Francisco and thought that would be as good a place as any to finish up. And. Dr. Cohen had got me in one of these first studies for what we now call the cocktail. And it was a combination of three drugs. And I responded almost immediately. So that was November of '94 that I started on treatment. And it came just in time to save my life.

GROSS: You say the movement saved your life because you think it was in part because of ACT UP that the trials of these drugs are sped up.

JONES: Well, I mean, that's really what this book is about. The movement saved my life twice. I was planning to kill myself when I was 15 because I thought I was the only queer in the world, and I didn't want to live that way, and I didn't want to be ashamed and beaten up. And then I read about gay liberation in Life Magazine, and I decided not to kill myself. And I flushed - you know, I flushed the pills down the toilet.

And then when I was dying of AIDS and could barely walk, of course it was ACT UP that saved my life. It was all of the activism and all the people who participated in that struggle to change the way the drugs were tested, to change the double-blind placebo policies, to make access for people that were dying. And it absolutely saved my life. None of that would have happened if it hadn't been for ACT UP and people like Larry Kramer driving people nuts with their anger and rage. But nonetheless, you know, it was very well-focused, and it had extraordinary results. And anybody who was part of that struggle during that time would say yes, absolutely, Cleve, you're alive because of activism.

GROSS: How's your health now?

JONES: It's good (laughter). And, you know, when - that fall when the meds started to work, I ran into a friend at the grocery store. It was one of my first trips out by myself able to walk, go shopping, you know, live a semi-normal life. And we're in the produce section, and I see my friend. And he's been in the same study, and he's responding well to the meds. And he said, well, I guess we're not going to die. And I said, no, I guess we're not going to die. And then one of us or the other said, but we'll never be happy again. And I thought, no, that's true. We'll never be happy again. And, you know, I'm 62. I'm healthy. I'm happy and very grateful to be alive today.

GROSS: Was it hard to learn how to be happy when you'd lost so many of your friends to the epidemic?

JONES: I'm still learning. I think anyone who goes through that kind of experience with that kind of - the enormity of the loss, you know, it's similar, I think, to being in a war. And I think of my friends every day. There are some days when it is so painful I really can barely function. But I have to, and I do. And I find that I get my strength from my community and my friends. And I am surrounded by people who went through that time with me. And we support each other, and we love each other and are grateful for every bit of laughter and joy that comes our way.

GROSS: Cleve Jones, thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you all best and good health.

JONES: Thank you very much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Cleve Jones speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. His memoir is titled "When We Rise: My Life In The Movement." He is now an organizer with UNITE HERE, a labor union for hospitality workers. Panels of the AIDS memorial quilt will soon be on display through a partnership with Vivent Health. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.