Most non-activists only know of Cleve Jones for his work with the AIDS Quilt. From his start as Harvey Milk’s “street lieutenant,” Jones has helped to create the LGBT and HIV communities. His memoir, “When We Rise,” tells that story.
Readers will find these 291 pages an easy read about a significant piece of our history. Jones’ story describes how in ‘70s San Francisco, the largely gay male Castro district in the ‘70s became a community. The story covers the fabulous “party” of the ‘70s, the very messy “morning-after” of the ‘80s, the antiretroviral breakthrough of the ‘90s, and same-sex marriage struggles of the 2000s.
Jones emphasizes two related themes that sometimes disappear in today’s LGBT politics. First, Jones places gay, LGBT, and HIV politics inside a larger peace and justice context. A belief in a narrow gay agenda would make no sense to him. In this book, Jones stressed his work with unions. He also expressed his political indebtedness to Howard Wallace, a socialist labor organizer.
Second, Jones rejects “respectability” politics. Passing for straight will never lead to the freedom to be gay. LGBT people live in communities with distinct cultures that differ from that of the mainstream. In the book, Jones described his belief that LGBT people should directly confront bias. Jones rejected vague appeals to “fairness” as ineffective. This came to a head in the debate over court challenges to same-sex marriage.
Jones did not “sanitize” this story. He has sex, “even” while HIV positive. He has done recreational drugs and he ‘inhaled,” Jones wrote. “My most intimate and long-lasting relationships have not usually been sexual.” Like the relationships in “Queer as Folk” and the HIV film “Parting Glances,” Jones’ experience of relationships differs from that of the Romanticist Ideal.
Jones insists that this book is a collection of memories, rather than a history. Unfortunately, that distinction will be lost on many readers. People could easily, and unconsciously, misinterpret this story as one of “respectability” and redemption. It moves from isolation to sexual liberation, followed by the “penance” of HIV, and is resolved in the “respectability” of marriage.
People see faces in clouds and perceive patterns where none exist. The book begins with Jones as an isolated, bullied closeted gay youth. It ends with his work to overturn California’s same-sex marriage ban, but the selection of an end-point to a living person’s life story will always be arbitrary. As Jones has become involved in resisting the current White House, another chapter in Jones’ activist life has already begun.
This book could function as a primary resource for LGBT history, but it is not always easy to link events with dates.
Despite these criticisms, this book tells a good story about LGBT history. Jones has made major contributions to that history. His story has “no apologies,” but does have the sex and the drugs.
Full disclosure: Cleve and I moved in overlapping social and political circles in San Francisco for much of this period. We were involved with many of the same events. I found no substantial errors, but I did notice two small errors. A fact-checker would have benefitted this book. Even minor “errors” can damage credibility.
One insignificant error concerned who published a New York “Underground” Newspaper, The RAT. The second error involved the dance anthem, “We are Family.” It was by the group, Sister Sledge, not the Pointer Sisters.
Before this, I had never read a memoir in which my name might appear. I was somewhat miffed that it did not. I am quite thankful, however, that Cleve mercifully failed to mention our screaming political arguments of the late ‘70s.