Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Arts + Culture Culture Generations of activism: Checking in with Cleve Jones

Generations of activism: Checking in with Cleve Jones

The LGBTQ civil rights leader on powerful George Floyd protests, the importance of the AIDS quilt, and vanishing gayborhoods.


The LGBTQ community has already survived the tragic loss of Harvey Milk, the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the AIDS pandemic, and decades of discriminatory legislation.

But lifelong activist Cleve Jones, the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, is worried that the demise of “gayborhoods,” like the Castro, may be the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Q-munity.

“I think a lot of us are ignoring something that really frightens me for the future of our community,” says Jones, who’s set to receive the Gilbert Baker Pride Founder’s Award for his monumental contribution to the LGBTQ movement, later this month. “This was an issue before COVID-19, and now it’s even more urgent.”

I spoke to Jones — who appears as part of The Commonwealth Club’s virtual Lavender Talks (Thu/25) event with his fellow awardees, author Gabby Rivera and artistic director Mike Wong, and then also at the Generation Pride: Reclaiming Our Radical Roots event (6/27)— about celebrating Pride 50 virtually, what young queers can learn from their predecessors, and why the preservation of the gayborhoods is literally a matter of life and death. (You can read more about Pride’s virtual events here.)

48 HILLS What does it mean to you to be the recipient of the Gilbert Baker Pride Founders Award?

CLEVE JONES It’s a nice honor, but also very sad because Gilbert Baker was a very dear friend of mine and there’s not many of us left from the early days. I miss him every day.

48 HILLS How do you feel about Pride being celebrated virtually this year?

CLEVE JONES It’s frustrating. I will be curious to see how the online version of Pride plays out, but I am going to miss the real thing. More than that, I want to be out in the street protesting the murder of George Floyd and supporting all the young people who decided to push for police reform. But I’m in the high-risk group, so I’m sheltered in place.

48 HILLS As a longtime activist, who’s taken part in myriad protests and led the 2009 National March for Equality in Washington, D.C., have the recent Black Lives Matter protests inspired you?

CLEVE JONES I am inspired by seeing these enormous and diverse crowds led by young people, especially young people of color and young queer and trans kids. It does my heart good.

48 HILLS Looking back, what’s the legacy of the incredible work you did in launching the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the AIDS Memorial Quilt?

CLEVE JONES I am proud of not just the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, but all the AIDS organizations around the country. It’s quite a remarkable story how all of these HIV/AIDS organizations that grew out of grass-roots volunteer-based efforts then became institutions.

I don’t think there’s any question that the quilt helped change the way America looked at AIDS and, to some extent, the way America looks at gay people. I think it helped connect communities, revealed the humanity behind this disease, globalized resources, and condemned the government’s inaction.

48 HILLS You wrote your first book Stitching a Revolution 20 years ago, consulted on Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning 2008 film, MILK, and published your own memoir When We Rise, in 2016. You were featured in Randy Shilts’ classic book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, and the 1995 documentary The Castro. What early-AIDS-era stories have still not been told?

CLEVE JONES There have been so many stories that were lost because those people didn’t live long enough to tell those stories, so there was an unfortunate disruption in the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

But another thing that has been lost is how our movement was born out of anti-war movements and the civil rights movement, but it was a sexual liberation movement. I hear young people speaking about Stonewall and they speak about it with such certainty, but it doesn’t bother me. I just accept that they don’t really have a clue about what they’re talking about. I don’t fault them for that. I think there’s not much understanding of our roots.

48 HILLS What can today’s younger LGBTQ generation learn from those who preceded them?

CLEVE JONES Probably not much. [Laughs] They’re busy creating their new world — and I think, every now and then, I have some advice to offer — but the most important thing is that they have to endure. The changes we want to see in the world, they’re not going to happen at once.

So when I am asked for advice, I tell them to find a way to contribute that they enjoy. I fucking love what I do. I do it because I love the work, which has enabled me to endure a lot of tragedies and horrible stuff.  I think that is very important, especially for young people who are now committed to overhauling the criminal justice system. That’s a huge undertaking and the resistance is going to be ferocious.

48 HILLS Talk to me about your work with UNITE HERE!, which fights for hotel and restaurant employees. I have to imagine that many members are struggling right now in light of all the recent closures, due to COVID-19. 

CLEVE JONES I haven’t seen the numbers for this week, but well over 90 percent of UNITE HERE!’s members have been laid off. With that layoff, also comes a loss of healthcare. So our members are eager to get back to work and the industry is eager to put them back to work.

But it feels coercive because the threat is if you don’t go back to work, you’re not going to get unemployment anymore or health insurance or be able to feed your kids. And, by the way, we can’t guarantee that your worksite is safe. So all of us are grappling with this and the workers in industries UNITE HERE! represents.

What keeps me going with UNITE HERE! is we take on some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world and we win by organizing immigrants, women of color, and LGBTQ people. When we win those victories, those workers go home with more money in their pockets, better healthcare, and safer working conditions — and are treated with more dignity and respect.

48 HILLS Are LGBTQ people particularly vulnerable to discrimination in these industries?

CLEVE JONES Before shelter-in-place orders, I was involved in an organizing drive for the people that work for HMSHost, which had the exclusive contract to run airport food services for Starbucks.

So here you have a company like Starbucks, which projects a queer-friendly/trans-friendly persona, but we did a survey of hundreds of HMSHost/Starbucks workers at airports across the country and discovered many people, including cis-gendered heterosexuals, complaining about homophobia and transphobia in the workplaces, which is why we’re organizing.

Before the Supreme Court’s momentous decision last week, in places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana, there were no protections for LGBTQ people from discrimination for their orientation or identity. Through UNITE HERE!’s collective bargaining, we negotiated a contract that provided protection from discrimination and harassment.

48 HILLS What are some of the other issues LGBTQ people should keep their eyes on over the next year?

CLEVE JONES A movement like ours is never finished because the victories we’ve won can always be undone and we have a president today who’s doing everything he can to undo the progress that we’ve made, whether it’s respecting trans kids in schools or permitting same-sex couples to adopt. There’s an attack on so many fronts, so it’s important to be vigilant.

Also, gayborhoods are going away. Just looking at our city, I’d say there are less than a quarter of the venues that used to exist. Now with this new disaster, of all the businesses that are shuttered in the Castro, for example, how many of them are going to be able to reopen?

When we lose the gayborhood, we lose political power, cultural vitality, and access to the social services needed by the most vulnerable among us, including people like myself who are HIV positive, transgender people, our kids looking for a safe place, and our elderly, whose own biological families may or may not have continued their affection for them.

The physical neighborhood is a terribly important part of saving our lives and building a culture that, at 50 years old, remains very new, young, and fragile.

Thu/25, 12pm, online
More info here.

Sat/27, 11am-5pm, online
More info here. 

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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