Cleve Jones, legendary gay rights and social justice activist, gave a talk at my college last night. I couldn’t handle not telling you guys how incredible it was.
Here’s a man who understands what it’s like to be oppressed. He was bullied as a kid and throughout high school for being gay, and held out knowing he would one day move to San Francisco, knowing things would be better. The day after his high school graduation, he hitchhiked all the way there.
He understands what it’s like to sleep in parks and doorways, to go to bed hungry, to steal food to keep from starving, he said. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
For a while as a student, he worked closely with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Milk was a mentor and a father figure for him, and offered him a paying job when he finished school. He was assassinated before that day came. (Jones was played by Emile Hirsch in the recent movie Milk.)
He thought everything was over when Milk was killed - the gay rights movement, his career, his life. He found a support system and moved on, but not without grief. San Francisco grieved with him, reacting with a 50,000-person candlelight memorial in his honor.
One of the issues that most impacted Jones was the outbreak and discovery of AIDS in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He said he lost virtually all his friends in the span of a few years, able to pinpoint the exact locations where close friends and acquaintances had passed.
He particularly hated the rumors and, back then, misguided medical hypotheses that AIDS was the gay man’s disease. “There’s nothing going on in gay beds that isn’t going on in an awful lot of straight beds,” he said. He recalls a bumper sticker from a Republican convention that read: “AIDS is killing all the right people.” Bigotry infuriated him.
Jones was the founder of the AIDS quilt project, though his coworkers and comrades originally looked down on the idea with disdain. In front of a modest crowd last night at my school, he told stories of the thousands of people who created panels of the quilt to honor their lost loved ones. The battle against AIDS continues today: “Please don’t think this thing has just gone away, because it has not.”
Eventually, his own battle with the disease almost lost him his life, but with a little help from his friends he’s managed to make it this far. 56 years old, and he says the last 5 years have been the best of his life.
This guy has dedicated his life to making things a little bit better, and though he admits that today’s generation of youth confuses him, he knows we have a shot at keeping up the fight. He says our generation’s need for instant gratification could play to our strengths: “Only when enough of you demand something immediately do you have any chance of getting something eventually.”
He thinks marriage equality in all 50 states is a plausible goal for his lifetime, though he knows it won’t be easy. He’s not confident about the new administration’s action on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but he knows acceptance of homosexuality in this country is going up. That’s a great thing.
Most importantly, he says we should stand up for our beliefs, find causes we’re passionate about, and make things happen.
"You are a part of a broader movement that has continued for centuries," he said. "It is just one movement, and it has many faces."
"What each of us does with our lives matters."
Watching this man speak was absolutely inspirational. I encourage you all to read up a little on his story, learn about the AIDS quilt he’s worked on, and maybe even watch Milk a time or two. Whether or not gay rights activism is your cause of choice, he’ll inspire you to get active with whatever you feel passionately about.
Thanks for a wonderful evening, Cleve.