Cleve Jones on Harvey Milk, ‘When We Rise,’ and Fighting for LGBT Equality Under Trump
Cleve Jones saw his mentor Harvey Milk’s dead body, and has been a passionate activist for 40 years. Now mainstream stardom beckons thanks to ABC drama When We Rise.
Cleve Jones still vividly recalls the moment on Nov. 27, 1978, when he saw his friend and mentor Harvey Milk’s dead body at San Francisco City Hall.
Jones had heard Mayor George Moscone had been shot, but didn’t know by whom, or much else, as he raced to city supervisor Milk’s office. Police crowded the corridors. The 48-year-old Milk—a pioneering and uncompromising LGBT and civil rights campaigner and now a beloved icon—and Moscone had been assassinated by former board supervisor Dan White.
That day still has such a nightmare, unreal quality to it for Jones that in his brilliant memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, these moments are conveyed in italics. “It became an ongoing, recurring nightmare for me,” he tells me. “The way I remember it has dream-like quality to it. I had never seen a dead person before, and I do remember quite directly and vividly that when the police officer removed him, his head rolled back.”
There was blood, bits of bone, brain tissue, and Milk’s head was a “hideous purple.” With Milk’s body lying there in his secondhand wingtip shoes, Jones and others listened to the now-famous tape he made 10 days prior to his death in anticipation of his assassination.
Milk—his voice sounding tired and reflective, probably after a long day—knew that somebody disturbed or upset by him might try to kill him (White was certainly both). He was high-profile, out, proud, and uncompromising. He beseeched, as he had in so many of his speeches, gay people to come out, which would “do more to end prejudice overnight than anyone could ever imagine… only that way will we start to achieve our rights.”
Milk also said he wanted the tape to be made public of his debate with John Briggs, whose Briggs Initiative, also known as Proposition 6—ultimately defeated—would have made firing gay teachers, and any public school employees who supported gay rights, mandatory. Milk wanted people to know “what an evil man” Briggs was and for “people to know where the seeds of hate come from,” for people to know “what the future’s gonna bring.”
As he writes in his memoir, Jones was involved in the “No on 6” campaign, and so many others: Milk helped light his activism fire, which has stayed alight for 40 years.
There is, for LGBT people generally, and Jones in particular, so much history in the Castro. His memoir is an excellent read: warm, intelligent, sexy, honest, radical, clear-sighted, and both personal and political. It is the basis of ABC’s historic primetime mini-series When We Rise, charting the evolution of the modern LGBT rights movement through a quartet of figures, including Jones (played as an adult by Guy Pearce).
“I think that anyone who has told a story thousands of times over many decades would understand when I say that after a while one is not certain if one is remembering the occurrence or telling it,” Jones says of recalling Milk’s dead body.
We are having lunch at Café Flore, a long-enduring restaurant mainstay of the Castro in San Francisco, historic center of the city’s LGBT community, where Jones himself returned to live seven years ago after many years away. He has tufty white hair and is dressed all in black: T-shirt, jeans, and dark glasses.
It is strange, but also comforting to be back, Jones says; he has even recorded an audio walking tour of the neighborhood for the Detour mobile app. Now there are many tech kids and middle-class straight families living here, Jones says.
It was in this district that Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, owned his famous shop, Castro Camera, and honed his political identity and campaigning that led to him being elected.
It was outside on Market Street, where Milk and later Jones led so many marches to City Hall on LGBT rights issues, Milk then Jones using Milk’s bullhorn. Milk advised Jones to make his speeches shorter and not to read from scraps of paper, as it was distracting.
Those crowds marched down Market the night of Milk’s death and the night of the “White Night Riots,” which occurred after White received two manslaughter, rather than murder, convictions for the slayings of Milk and Moscone. (White would later kill himself.)
When We Rise was created and written by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Milk, the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic that starred Sean Penn in the title role and which was directed by Gus Van Sant.
Penn won the Best Actor Oscar that night (Jones taught him how to say “Gurrl”), and Black’s acceptance speech was as stirring and powerful as Milk himself would have wished.
Van Sant, along with Black, Thomas Schlamme, and Dee Rees, direct the eight episodes of When We Rise. Pearce and (as a younger man) Austin P. McKenzie’s portrayals of him are OK, says Jones, but his portrayer in Milk, Emile Hirsch—who spent a lot of time with him, perfecting even the most incidental of his mannerisms—“will always be my first.”
Jones, 62, and Black are close friends. Jones, unable to write in his Castro apartment, wrote much of the book at Black’s dining room table as Black worked on the mini-series.
He wrote Milk’s death scene having woken one night from a dream, which had a slow-motion quality to it, and so that is how he wrote it. He says he cannot read it aloud.
“After all these years it’s still…” Jones’s voice falters. “It had to be in there, not just because I saw Harvey Milk’s dead body, but this is a book about survival and endurance. I thought my life was over when I was 15 years old, when I realized I was gay. I was going to kill myself. The shame and fear were so overwhelming I started saving pills. Mom had had gall bladder surgery, dad had had spinal surgery, and the house was full of barbiturates and pain pills and narcotics. I was pilfering them. I thought my life was over before it had even begun.”
What saved the young Jones was reading an article about gay liberation in Life magazine. “I found that thing, a bolt of lightning. I realized I was not alone. There was a community and movement. There was a town called San Francisco. And I got here and Harvey lifted me up and then he’s gone and it’s over, and people gathered together and it wasn’t over. It was just beginning again. And then AIDS came and all my friends died and I thought, ‘It’s over, we’re going to lose everything,’ and then I was diagnosed as HIV-positive and got sick and almost died, and I thought it was over. But it wasn’t over, and I kept going.
“There have been so many points in my life when I thought I was done and the movement was done, and I want people to be aware of that right now with Trump. When it seems like it may be over, it’s never over.”
This span of history, this enduring, never-more-necessary passion and engagement, is the canvas for When We Rise, both in its memoir and TV drama forms.
“We lost between 1,500 and 2,500 gay men a year over 10 years,” says Jones of the toll of HIV and AIDS in the Castro. “The total death toll in this neighborhood was 25,000—half the gay men of my generation. Half died, half of us survived, and many of those who did survive are still here. That’s a lot of personal tragedy. It’s complicated emotional territory to be back in this neighborhood. I had so many friends here. They died. I had new friends. They died. I carry with me a lot of grief and loss.”
If one HIV-positive partner, Riccardo, hadn’t committed suicide—a short time before the revolutionary protease inhibitors became available—Jones thinks he would still be with him today.
His celebrity means Jones is treated “with great kindness” wherever he goes, although he accepts he is, as he has been called, cantankerous. “I have little patience for stupidity. I’m too old for it. I’ve no fucks left to give,” Jones says sharply. The last person to receive a tongue-lashing was a drinker at his favorite bar “who said things would be OK with Trump. I told him he was an idiot.”
Jones’s own significant legacy was to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and to conceive the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, on whose colorful and moving panels were stitched loving words in memory of 85,000 people who had died of AIDS. “The quilt” was memorably laid out on the National Mall in Washington in 1987 and 1996.
There was, however, a painful parting of the ways organizationally with the quilt, but had that split not occurred Jones wonders if Milk the movie would have happened. A depressing, fearful time of his life became galvanizing.
Later Jones would campaign against the infamous Proposition 8, a ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California, and for full marriage equality. Jones—who today works as a community organizer for UNITE HERE!, the hospitality workers’ union—is happy to be still immersed in activism. “It’s the only thing I’m interested in. I really enjoy it. I enjoy the strategizing. I find it fun. I don’t golf. I can’t retire.” He laughs. “I can’t afford to retire, and I would end up doing what I do anyway.”
Jones grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and then Phoenix. He was a voracious reader, loved David Bowie, and, before coming to San Francisco, had met other gays through the Quakers. He’d also had an early encounter with Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of lesbian organization the Daughters of Bilitis.
Jones’s father’s initial response to his coming out was “horrible,” based around what sexual acts his son would perform. “The assumption was that I would go to university like everyone else in the family, but my financial support was conditional on me having ‘therapy’—electro-convulsive treatment and aversion therapy and other barbaric practices.” Jones thankfully rejected those ideas, and he and his father didn’t have a relationship for a long time.
His mother, a former dancer who taught dance well into her 70s, and he had a much closer relationship. His relationship with his father got close again after Jones was diagnosed HIV-positive and became sick. “Both of them were quite perfect in every way. They went to quilt displays and marches and became activists. There was a rapprochement.”
How had that happened with his dad? Jones begins to cry.
“I, umm, hear from young people every week who have come out who are rejected by parents. I always tell them, ‘Do what you need to do to protect your heart. Maybe a bit of distance would be good, but leave the door open.’ I think what happened with my parents, especially my father, was repeated around the country.
“A lot of gay people were forced out of the closet by AIDS. A lot of families, neighborhoods, and congregations learned for the first time that gay people were part of their lives and they made that discovery while those people were suffering terribly and dying painfully. Some people celebrated that misery, but I think the far greater number were moved and my father I think was one of them. Whatever else had happened, I was his son and he did not want me to die.”
Jones’s grandmother had once read the riot act to family members at one Thanksgiving dinner, saying if anyone had a problem with Jones being gay they would no longer be welcome in her home. His father challenged a homophobic preacher at church, telling him he had no idea what Jesus Christ was talking about. His next book, Jones says, will be about his father.
Jones arrived in San Francisco in 1972, aged 17. Young men like him came to the city, which he recalls as perpetually enveloped in fog, “to rock and roll, we’d come to be gay, we’d come to join the revolution.”
Jones hustled, and slept in grotty hotels with other young gay men with no money. He met future disco superstar Sylvester in a late night café. There was a wonderful-sounding treehouse where guys met for sex and connection. Jones had many adventures, sexual and otherwise, hitch-hiked around Europe: One story about meeting a French soldier on a train is the sexiest seduction scene you will read this year.
“Yeah, I had a lot of sex, and some of it were pretty perfunctory encounters. But in almost all of them there was that element of potential. One pattern in my life is that some of my greatest friendships began with casual encounters. People have this idea that the baths, for example, were lurid and dark, but I found great camaraderie there.”
Slowly he became politicized, even if, as he notes, “In the gay community, trying to achieve consensus is like trying to herd cats.” When they filmed Milk, the set decoration was so precise a facsimile of the era, every day Jones was reminded powerfully of what his life had been like. People of all ages watched filming, and thanked him.
His parents had been involved in the anti-war movement and as a younger man, Jones says, he was interested in revolution rather than the Democratic Party. Knowing Milk changed that, and Jones would later get a job at the state legislature in Sacramento.
“I was never ever a single issue person. For me, the LGBT movement was part of the bigger movement for peace, social justice and against war, racism, and poverty.”
The established LGBT rights movement earns his scorn for being too timid in the early stages of fighting for marriage equality.
Jones also says he is “sick and tired of identity politics. If Harvey were here he’d be sounding the alarm too. Our union doesn’t do this game. We don’t have a gay or black caucus, we are one union. I’m frustrated by progressives and the left with their lists of buzzwords and catchphrases that everyone has to incorporate into everything they write. And lot of what I read today is incomprehensible: It’s so full of vague, mushy terms. At the core it seems to be about denying empathy. I’m sick to death of it.
“If you believe the capacity of genuine feeling for other human beings is defined or diminished according to skin color, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation then you need to take a good, hard look in the mirror. You are part of the problem.”
LGBT people are among the groups nervous that President Trump will target them directly. When we met, it was when a widely anticipated anti-gay executive order was expected to be announced. (It ultimately wasn’t that week, but one or more than one of a “religious liberty” law or EO, or the signing of First Amendment Defense Act, are still seen as likely.)
Jones had worried Trump might win, even as those on social media scorned the idea during the campaign.
“I travel a lot away from the coasts, and I end up in a lot of airport hotels, where I look like any other white guy sitting at the bar. I’m often in a room full of other old white men, and I heard what they were saying. I’m disturbed that people are focusing still to this day on racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. That is part of what happened, and I’m not diminishing or denying that. But the Democrats need to find way of talking to the white workers who voted for Obama twice and then for Trump. I don’t hear people on the left having that conversation.”
In Jones’s analysis “there is a lot of anger, uncertainty, and fear: The middle class has never bounced back from the economic collapse. People lost their homes and pensions. In a year when people were yearning for substantive change both parties found themselves under attack by insurgencies. The Republican establishment was swept away by theirs, and won; the Democrats successfully squashed theirs [Bernie Saunders, whom Jones initially supported before moving to support Hillary Clinton], and lost the country.”
Jones, who had demonstrated for the release of those at San Francisco International Airport in the first weekend’s chaos of Trump’s travel ban, says the new president “terrifies” him.
“Young people need to understand they’re going to have to fight back against this for the rest of their lives. I don’t see this being undone quickly or easily. The reality is this man and his party not only control all three branches of the federal government, but close to two-thirds of legislatures.”
Jones is not optimistic about change, believing the Trump administration will do all it can—from voter suppression to redistricting to curtailing freedom of speech, and patrolling people’s opinions online—to maintain its grip on power.
“This is not me saying, ‘Don’t fight back.’ Just this morning I was invited to another secret Facebook group. But I would say there are no secrets on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else—so plan accordingly.”
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of the arc of moral universe being long and bent toward justice may be correct, says Jones, “within that there can be massive swings of the pendulum.” The racial justice, gender equality, and LGBT movements “are never won permanently. Every victory is impermanent and can be swept away. Everything we have can be swept away in the blink of an eye.”
When we met, the political chill was so fierce Jones thought When We Rise could itself not be transmitted (one episode has been moved to make way for Trump addressing a joint session of Congress). “I think everything is in doubt. I don’t want to sound crazy, but I think it’s possible to wake up tomorrow morning to no internet, a media shutdown, and tanks in the street. That’s where we’re at. It’s Berlin 1933.”
Jones is reluctant to speculate about what Milk would have advised LGBT activists to do. “Harvey’s basic message was clear-cut: ‘Come out, be honest.’ Now I think he’d say, use every tactic available to you. Build coalitions. Understand it’s not just you. Be bold. Take risks.”
Jones’s memoir is honest about Milk, whose iconography can obscure the light and dark shades of a human being.
“He was not a saint,” says Jones. “For young people, as he becomes increasingly mythologized, it’s important to know he was an ordinary man in most respects. He was our neighbor. He lived down the street from me. He was a terrible businessman, his personal life was often in disarray, he was usually broke. In his lifetime he experienced so many defeats and humiliations and tragedies—the kinds of things all of us have to face in our lives. He was most certainly not a saint, and not a genius.
“He made many mistakes, but he had a vision and stuck to it. Maybe his greatest strength was his love for this city and its people—he was so genuine. We’re so accustomed to politicians making significant eye contact and telling us they feel our pain, and it’s all bullshit—and with Harvey it was so real.”
For Jones, “as something of a heterophobic kid—he seemed so much older than me, and now I am much older than he was when he died—it seemed slightly crazy to see how he would walk up to anybody and say, ‘Hi, I’m Harvey Milk and I’m running for office’ and engage them. That was always the strategy, whether it was a rich lady on Nob Hill or a homeless person or a hippie kid or a firefighter. Regardless of skin color and circumstances, he would somehow find the only thing he had in common with them and build on that. Just to watch him do it was amazing. It was very startling and disarming. He used humor and self-deprecation.”
In the memoir, Jones writes about Milk flirting with him, complimenting him on his tight trousers. Did they ever get it on? Jones laughs. “No, he was flirty with everybody. He was too old for me, I thought…” He laughs again. “… Words that have come back to haunt me now.”
At the end of the book, Jones writes that he sleeps alone, but that is not true anymore. “I met a young man in July, and he turned my life upside down in a really wonderful way. We’ve been pretty inseparable since.” Is he in love? “Yes, very much. A mutual friend said we had nothing in common but were a lot alike.”
Meeting this guy—and Jones demurs on precisely enumerating the age difference—has been life-giving. He recalls going to bed the night before he turned 40, and waking up the next morning feeling 80 years old. “I had been sick for so long, and the early rounds of HIV medication had been so toxic. They did horrible things to my body. I thought I was unlovable, and I spent a very long time thinking this would not happen again. And now it has, and it’s happened with such ease.
“He is younger than me, but he is very strong emotionally. He’s much better than I am about talking about feelings. He can read me like a book, even before he read mine. The last several months have been really pretty wonderful despite the calamity unfolding around us. He has given me a very compelling reason to stay alive and stay healthy.”
Jones felt nothing upon finishing the book, and not “much of anything” while watching When We Rise be filmed. “I wasn’t walking around crying, I didn’t cry for years. I didn’t let myself. I just felt flat. And, now that I’ve met this person, I don’t anymore. I’m not a very complicated person. I wanted love and to be loved, and it’s important for me to feel useful.”
For a long time Jones says he had a horrific feeling of vertigo when falling asleep. His father died, and he still could not cry. A month into his new relationship, Jones realized he was feeling emotions he hadn’t felt for a long time, and was frightened by it.
He walked to the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, which he had avoided for years.
His voice cracks. “No one was there. I saw all the inscriptions of all my friends and it just all came out. I sat there and sobbed for an hour or more, walked out to the ocean, took off my shoes and socks, rolled up the legs of my pants and stood there and thought, ‘OK, just keep going, at least you’re still able to feel this emotion.’”
Beyond knowing Milk, the Quilt, and fighting for marriage equality, Jones says his greatest achievement is that “I’m alive and capable of falling in love and feeling joy. I stayed there looking at the ocean and thought, ‘OK, this relationship is not going to work’ but at least dealing with it shows that I have a heart capable of falling in love. We went out for dinner that night and it turned out it could work.” Jones laughs merrily.
Is Jones’s history with Milk ever a burden? He pauses. “It’s complicated. I don’t want to be ungracious, that would be incredibly selfish of me. I don’t have a choice, and that’s probably a good thing.” Thirty or 40 emails land every day seeking Jones’s advice and inspiration.
The Castro’s streets may be crowded with strollers, and its roads now populated by Google buses, but San Francisco remains a beautiful city for him. Even with his “battered old body and sad old heart,” Jones still feels “incredibly lucky to be alive.”
He smiles. “There’s an old Peter Allen song, ‘(I’ve Been) Taught By Experts,’ whose lyrics go: ‘My body is a battlefield. / I’ve got the scars to show. / One for every ‘yes and no’ / Every yes and no.’” He’s in good shape—walking five miles a day—and thinks he looks better than he has in 15 years “and so does my honey. It’s a miracle. Love is absolutely the most important thing: It’s connecting.”
The idea of marriage seems “a little ridiculous” at Jones’s age. But he says this pummeling a piece of tissue so who knows. In the last six months he cannot remember a time having laughed and cried so much. His HIV levels have been undetectable for 15 years. He takes three pills a day: two anti-retroviral, and one for cholesterol.
Had Milk lived Jones thinks he would have eventually become mayor, and Jones would have run for Milk’s old seat. He ran for office himself but failed: It had occurred to him that it may have been useful having someone dying of AIDS sitting on the Board of Supervisors.
Milk’s successor (until December, when he entered the state Senate), Scott Wiener, earns a scowl from Jones, and a “He whose name shall not be mentioned.” The city’s neo-liberalism today angers Jones, signaling an “abandonment of core values and the working class. This is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. This is a terrible failing. There is such a stark delineation between rich and poor here.
“There are 100,000 millionaires in this town, yet people are sleeping in filth and squalor rights outside our restaurant now. You walk around and see desperately ill people, homeless people. We’re living in a Third World country here. There is such appalling poverty. The tech people drive by in their private buses and Ubers with their tinted windows, and are oblivious to the bodies they’re stepping over on the sidewalk.”
Jones is guarded in his praise of ABC’s When We Rise, which is intriguing given his friendship with Black. When I ask what he thought of the first two hours of it he had been shown, Jones pauses and says tightly, “Well, let’s just say one can be truthful without being accurate.”
Is he happy with it? “I think so. With Emile, we got to spend so much time with each other. I felt such a strong connection with him, and we are still friends. He was just so like me in Milk. I didn’t have that experience with Austin and Guy.”
He and the other real-life figures in When We Rise are “OK with details of lives being substantially fictionalized as long as the movement narrative is accurate.” He knocks on the wooden partition of our booth. “We hope it is.” What has been jarring to him is seeing Riccardo’s suicide being re-storylined. Jones was attacked in Sacramento in 1985 by neo-Nazis—that too has been altered. Interpersonal conflict between the lead characters that did not happen has been written into the drama.
Surely he has had conversations with Black about this. “Yes, and they’re always interesting.”
Jones talks glowingly of the relationship between Black and his British swimmer fiancé Tom Daley (this before reports of Daley’s alleged affair with a hunky male model surfaced). “They’re in love,” he says. “Tom is very sweet, very real, not in the least bit pretentious. I admire him for his discipline and for being a normal bloke.” He recalls texting back and forth with Daley the night that his coming-out video amassed hundreds and thousands of views. “I’m very, very proud of him. I’m not a big fan of celebrity culture, but when somebody like Tom does that he saves lives—and that’s not hyperbole.”
Generally, Jones doesn’t think celebrity comings out are as important as the coming out stories of ordinary people. “In big sections of the country, that Hollywood message is the least influential,” Jones says. “It’s the man in the church choir—these are the folks that need to be encouraged. It’s just as Harvey said. We won support during that Briggs Initiative fight, it wasn’t due to black tie dinners, media buys, and celebrity endorsements. It was ordinary people going door to door, saying, ‘I’m your neighbor, I’m gay, don’t vote for this, it will hurt me.’ That’s what worked.”
Jones goes off to the bathroom, and when he comes back makes a call in which he and the speaker at the end of the phone—one of his younger activist friends—plan the outline of a fast protest should Trump announce his anti-gay EO.
We walk to Harvey’s restaurant at the corner of 18th and Castro. On Oct. 11, 1978, the day of Jones’s 24th birthday, the venue was known as the Elephant Walk. It was also the night Milk and Sally Miller Gearhart were debating Briggs.
There was no room in the car for Jones to join Milk that night. He and others watched it at the Mission High School on a closed circuit broadcast, then came to Elephant Walk with Jones still in “a bit of a sulk at being abandoned.”
But then, just as the picture on a wall above one booth shows, Milk showed up having bought Jones a doughnut, in which he had stuck a birthday candle. Also in the picture is Jones’s then-roommate and a guy he was dating.
“And then Nov. 27 he was shot,” says Jones, looking at the picture of his younger self and Milk. “I would tease him about that assassination message. I told him he wasn’t important enough.”
He pauses. “I didn’t think he was important enough to be assassinated by the state, but we were always worried about the possibility of just a crazy person, maybe a closeted person, and Dan White really was that person. We knew Dan was troubled, and Harvey tried to reach out to him on more than one occasion.” We look at the happy picture in silence.
I say farewell to Jones outside the restaurant, and later I listen to Milk’s assassination tape again. In voicing his desire for “the movement” to grow, Milk recalled again a call from a young person in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and how he had been able to offer that caller hope.
His mission, Milk said, was “not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power. It’s about giving those young people out there in the ‘Altoonas,’ ‘Pennsylvanias,’ hope. You gotta give them hope.”
It is Milk’s most famous catchphrase, and it is what Cleve Jones is still determined to do.