When We Rise has been hailed as the best LGBT+ drama on network TV since Angels In America. Cary Gee talks to activist Cleve Jones on whose memoirs the show is based…
“Some people witness history; others actually make it happen,” said Armistead Maupin in a review of Cleve Jones’ memoir When We Rise.
Subtitled My Life in the Movement, Jones’ remarkable and deeply moving account of his journey from small town Arizona to San Francisco where he became a lynchpin of the modern LGBT+ rights movement has recently been turned into a major primetime US miniseries starring Guy Pearce as Jones.
Of course, Jones is far from the first young gay man to flee his conservative upbringing, but does he think his flight to the big city resonates with young LGBT+ people nowadays?
“I think it’s still a very typical pattern. Even though San Francisco has become so expensive it makes it difficult for young people to come here you still see young people fleeing the hinterlands and arriving all the time. We make a mistake if we think things have become that much easier for young people. I meet young guys who have grown up in quite liberal parts of the States who are going through every bit as much trauma as I experienced.”
But surely, thanks in part to crusaders like Jones, today’s generation of gay men must look forward in a way that Jones’ own could not?
“Well, ironically, as our new president beats the drums of war they have national service to look forward to! The obvious legal rights are very important of course, but as importantly, fewer and fewer queer kids are coming of age feeling they are completely alone. That experience is completely buried in the past. Hopefully forever.”
When We Rise has been hailed as the most important LGBT+ drama on network TV since Angels in America. How much of the action is based directly on Jones’ actual experiences?
“My story is interwoven with the stories of a number of other people, many of them close friends of mine. The TV series is heavily dramatised. There are composite characters, distortions of time and place. It’s not terribly accurate but manages to remain truthful! For example, one scene shows me in San Francisco hospital recovering from a stabbing. And then I meet Ricardo, the man who became my partner. Actually I met him in an entirely different time and place. I don’t think the details are really consequential’.
There is a lot of sex in Jones’ book. In fact he has sex everywhere from treehouses to bath houses. Did that present a problem for network TV?
“Obviously there are restrictions on what can be shown. But given that ABC television is known as the ‘family network’ the show is remarkably frank. There are depictions of sexual behaviour, loving behaviour. I was surprised at how much is actually shown.”
Filmed largely in Vancouver, Jones spent time on set as historical advisor, a role he reprised from the Oscar-winning biopic Milk, about his former mentor, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978.
In Milk, Jones was played by Emile Hirsch. Whose version of him does Jones prefer? Is Hirsch or Pearce the better actor?
“I won’t go there but I will say that Hirsch was my first!’
Was it at all weird seeing his life recreated on set? “It’s beyond weird,” he says, “a very peculiar experience. Many of my closest friends and greatest loves didn’t survive so it was a very emotional experience reliving it.”
Jones begins and ends his memoir by crediting the LGBT+ movement with saving his life.
“That is absolutely true. It’s not hyperbole. I tried to kill myself when I was 15. I did not want to be homosexual. I felt I would be condemned to a life of misery and loneliness. Then I read an article about gay liberation. I realised there was a community, a movement, a place called San Francisco. I survived. We all know LGBT+ children continue to commit suicide at an appalling rate. It’s a sad reality of our existence. Then later, when I became sick with HIV, I came very close to dying, but because of the movement, because of Larry Kramer (of ACT-UP) and so many other heroes who lobbied to get funding for research I got access to medication that saved my life.”
Jones describes his health now as ‘Good. I’m very healthy and strong and work full time. I’m profoundly grateful to be alive and aware every day that I owe my life to the movement.”
Jones describes the process of writing his book as hard. But were there particular episodes, or even decades that he found more difficult than others?
“Absolutely. The chapter about losing Harvey Milk I put off for months. Every time I tried to tell the story I’d get overwhelmed by the memory of it. When I started writing the book I imagined two equal parts. The time before AIDS and the time after AIDS. Then I discovered I really enjoyed writing about the 1970s, a time when we were still marginalised, still illegal. It was a pleasure, but that time is largely forgotten because so many people didn’t survive. I’m fortunate to interact with a lot of young people today. And I’ve become aware that they have no clue what life was like for us back then. I think these stories are worth preserving and passing on to the next generation.”
One of the greatest acts of remembrance is the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Conceived by Jones in 1985 to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, it is the largest community art project in history, bearing the names of nearly 100,000 people who died and weighing in at an estimated 55 tons.
“People thought it was most stupid idea they’d ever heard,” he recalls.
Although Milk was not the first openly gay candidate to win an election Jones believes that the timing of his election was important. His election coincided with a right-wing campaign against us led by Anita Bryant. Although his election, and subsequent assassination garnered a lot of media attention “even Harvey was in danger of being forgotten until Sean Penn won the Oscar playing him. His Academy award reminded us of the power popular culture has to change public opinion and to inform us.”
Would more highly visible LGBT+ officials make a difference to the public discourse in the US?
“Visibility remains a very important issue. The fact my story is being shown on network television in this country is a really big deal.
People live such compartmentalised lives, where access to LGBT+ issues) is restricted. For something like this to reach every single home is huge.”
Given the huge strides towards equality made under Barack Obama, who celebrated marriage equality by flooding the White House in rainbow illuminations – it was actually a close friend of Jones, Gilbert Baker, who first designed the rainbow flag in 1978 – has the battle for equality finally been won?
“I don’t believe this kind of movement has ever finally won. The pendulum swings back and forth. Everything we have won, everything we have achieved can be swept away. In this country, and in yours, there remain very real threats to our freedom.
“To prevent this from happening we must stay engaged in the political process, not take anything for granted, and inform our young people with the knowledge and resources they need to continue the fight. Right now, across the western world we’re seeing the emergence of very troubling ideologies. These are complicated times’.
If there is a message Jones would like people to take from his book, it is that, ‘especially in the light of the political situation…. it is possible to endure great defeats. So many times I have thought my life was over. That the movement was over.
“But if you persevere, and love life, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. We have managed to change the lives of millions of people. We did that because we believed in each other and loved each other, and kept fighting.”
Does the movement still exist? “It better. Or we’re doomed,” he laughs.
Jones still lives in the Castro area of San Francisco, but warns that we must protect our gaybourhoods from gentrification which has seen San Francisco “develop an appalling dichotomy between extreme wealth and grinding poverty. We need to pay attention to what this change means to our community.
“The reality is that the concentration of gay people in specific neighbourhoods brought political power, cultural vitality and specialised social services so needed by our most vulnerable. We need to protect that.”
It would be easy to forgive Jones if, after half a century of activism he ever decided to take a well-earned break. But the idea of putting his feet up is clearly anathema to this remarkable and seemingly indefatigable campaigner.
As we celebrate Pride in London and around the UK, Jones warns that “This is not a year for parties, but for organisation. A time to be as strong and supportive of each other as possible.
“Of course people should have a good time, but remember we are in a very grave situation. Everything we have won could be lost if we do not remain vigilant and stay strong.”
When We Rise by Cleve Jones is published by Constable. £14.99