Cleve Jones by Michael Bry

Cleve Jones’ memoir says gay rights movement saved his life

Cleve Jones’ new memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, begins with a single-sentence paragraph: “The movement saved my life.”

“That’s not rhetoric, that’s not hyperbole: The movement saved my life,” he reiterated by phone. “I was going to kill myself. I was planning it when I was 15, and then I read about gay liberation and I thought, ‘Oh, there are other people like me; there is a place for me; there is a community; I won’t be alone; I will find love.’ And so I flushed away the pills I had been saving to kill myself.”

Before that moment, Jones thought he was “the only one. And it may seem silly now — for younger people it just seems odd that someone could be gay and not know there were others, because you see representations of LGBT lives all the time,” said Jones, 62. “But you didn’t, when I was young.”

Learning about the movement inspired Jones, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., to move to San Francisco in 1973, where he befriended and began to work with Harvey Milk. Here, Jones became a central figure in an effort that helped elect the first openly gay person to a public office in California, and served as a nationwide catalyst for civil rights.

He conceived of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which to this day is the largest community art project in the world; it commemorates the lives of more than 85,000 people killed by AIDS. He also co-founded, in 1982, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; the book release is to be held at the foundation’s health and wellness center, Strut.

“It’s turned out to be very timely, because of the election,” Jones said of the book, “but I felt there was an urgency to it anyway, because my generation of gay men is disappearing rapidly; half of us were killed by AIDS, and those of us who survived are getting old.

“So I wanted young people to know about that time, when it was still a criminal offense to be gay — before we had political power, before we were represented in pop culture — we did nonetheless have lives and engaged in struggle. And I want to tell that story.”

While more than half of When We Rise chronicles life before the onset of the AIDS pandemic in 1982, it also follows Jones into the present, and we see him rise from the shy, terrified child planning suicide to a leader of a national movement, marching with the quilt in President Bill Clinton’s inauguration parade; at the Academy Awards as “Milk” won best original screenplay and best actor; and through the passing, upholding and overturning of the anti-marriage-equality Proposition 8 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in 2015, that legalized same-sex marriage.

“I think at this point in history, when we’re facing such horrendous challenges, and so many people are so deeply cynical, and frightened, and uncertain,” Jones said, “it’s important to remember that we are not powerless. No one is powerless. And I hope that is what comes through this book.”

“When We Rise” is the partial inspiration for the forthcoming ABC miniseries of the same title, written by Dustin Lance Black, produced by Gus Van Sant and starring Guy Pearce as Jones.


When We Rise: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3. Free. Strut, 470 Castro St., S.F. (415) 437-3400.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Michael Bry

Other book events

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera reads at UC Berkeley’s Lunch Poems series (12:10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, 101 Library Court, Morrison Library in Doe Library, Berkeley, free).

Bay Area poets celebrate the life and work of Max Ritvo, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 16 and died this year at 25, on the occasion of the publication of his collection of poems, “Four Reincarnations” (Milkweed Editions) (7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, Amado’s, 998 Valencia St., S.F., free).

Quarterly series Babylon Salon hosts Jewelle Gomez, Anne Raeff, Jason Bayani, Vanessa Hua and Zach Wyner (6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, the Armory Club, 1799 Mission St., S.F., free).

The third annual Howard Zinn Book Fair brings together authors, academics, zinesters and other critical thinkers for a day of readings, panels and workshops “exploring the value of dissident histories towards building a better future.” The more than 40 sessions include everything from “Radical Approaches to Early Childhood Education” to “Abolishing Corporate Rights Through Politics and Art” (10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, City College, 1125 Valencia St., S.F., free).

Bazaar Writers Salon presents Tess Taylor (“Work & Days”), Grady Chambers and Peter Thomas Bullen (6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, Bazaar Cafe, 5927 California St., S.F.