.Cleve Jones: An Activist for All Seasons

Cleve Jones came striding across the lawn toward the outdoor patio behind the Russian River Senior Center. The legendary gay activist had included our interview in a daily constitutional around his Guerneville neighborhood.

“Right on time,” I said. “I knew you would be.”

“That’s how I keep it together,” he replied.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

And keep it together he does. Miraculously pushing 70, having nearly died with AIDS more than 30 years ago, he says he is semi-retired, but is involved in enough projects to make a 30-something’s head swirl.

Jones began his lifelong career as an activist in high school, where he joined an anti-Vietnam War organization and organized a student walkout. But he hadn’t yet come out as gay.

“It was a different time entirely,” he said. “When I was 12 or 13, the kids used to bully me, call me a faggot, even before I knew what that word meant. I didn’t have feelings for girls, and I did have feelings for other guys, but I had to go to the library to find out what I was.”

During Jones’ early years, his mother took him to Quaker meetings, “probably preparing me to avoid the draft,” he recalled. And it was at a Quaker conference in Moraga where he met lesbian icons Phyllis Lyons and Del Martin, and came out of the closet.

Back home in Arizona, Jones told his parents that he was gay, and they were “horrified.” So he quickly made plans to leave for San Francisco.

He hitchhiked across the country, with $20 or $30 in his pocket and all his belongings in a knapsack on his back. When he arrived, he was just another homeless gay youngster living on the streets in the Tenderloin, with no education and no job skills.

“I nearly starved,” he said.

But he had Lyons’ and Martin’s phone number, and they connected him with some of the “real pioneers at that time,” like Jim Foster, who had founded the Alice B. Toklas Gay Democratic Club. He took odd jobs, found a place to live with some other young men and eventually secured a lucrative position selling Time Life books over the phone.

It was the early 1970s, a blissful time for a “happy gay hippie boy,” as Jones described himself. He showed up for marches and protests, but was mainly having a good time dancing in the clubs and hanging out in the park.

Jones met Harvey Milk, who owned a camera store in the Castro, thought he was “a nice guy,” but didn’t take Milk seriously because he wasn’t leftist enough for him. He also connected with Howard Wallace, a union organizer and gay man.

April Fools’ Day, 1975, Jones decided it was time to see the world. A roommate drove him to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Jones stuck out his thumb. Through a series of happy circumstances, Jones ended up in Europe, where he came upon Barcelona’s first gay liberation march. The letter he sent to Howard Wallace and Milk describing the march was published in the Sentinel, the San Francisco gay and lesbian newspaper at the time, and Jones returned to San Francisco as a celebrity.

When the city elected Milk as its first openly gay supervisor in 1977, he brought Jones with him as a student intern.

And it was in Jones’ capacity as Milk’s aide that he was one of the people who discovered Milk’s body after disgruntled former San Francisco supervisor Dan White killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978.

“Harvey was my mentor, my father figure. I was traumatized and had nightmares for months and months,” said Jones.

The following May, an all-white, all-heterosexual jury found White guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, and Jones recalled, “The city exploded.”

Shocked by the verdict, people began marching toward city hall, where Jones quickly jumped onstage and addressed the crowd that rapidly grew from 500 to 5,000. This was the infamous “White Night Riot” which left behind it smashed windows, burned police cars and dozens of rioters and police in the hospital.

Although the riot was a spontaneous happening, the newspapers labeled Jones the instigator, both a problem and an opportunity, as it turned out.

That year, Jones was part of a country wide organizing committee that planned the First National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. It was held on the last day of a three-day conference that began Oct. 11.

Not a coincidence, said Jones, who was born on Oct. 11.

“I pushed for Oct. 11 because I had a crush on a cute bartender in D.C., and I wanted to be there on my birthday,” he remembered.

In commemoration of this march and a second march in 1987, Oct. 11 is annually celebrated as National Coming Out Day.

Back then was a heady time for LGBTQ folks, who had spent so much of their lives in fear and disgrace. But the bubble was about to burst.

A year later, as state Assemblymember Art Agnos’ legislative consultant for health issues, Jones began reading disturbing magazine articles about a mysterious disease syndrome that seemed to be affecting gay men. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Jones teamed with Dr. Marcus Conant to found the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation, which later became the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“By the fall of 1985, everyone I knew was dead, dying or caring for someone with HIV/AIDS,” said Jones.

That year, Jones announced his own AIDS diagnosis on televisions’ 60 Minutes. By 1992, he was close to death and decided to move to Villa Grande on the lower Russian River.

“I didn’t want people to see me sick,” he said.

But through his connections as an AIDS activist, he was able to sign up for the early trials of the miracle drug combinations that became known as the “AIDS Cocktail.”

“We were counting our lives in six-month increments, looking for the next medication because they only lasted for a few months. I put chunks of butcher paper on the wall for tracking each new treatment,” he recalled.

Over the years, Jones has moved back and forth between San Francisco and the River. He has finally come to call Guerneville his home, although he still spends time in San Francisco, where his partner lives.

“Being in ‘Cleve in the Castro’ is freaking cool. But when I reach the middle of Golden Gate Bridge on my way back to Guerneville, I feel my shoulders relaxing. This place is good for my soul,” said Jones.

And he has been working for the past 18 years with Unite Here, an umbrella organization for several unions, primarily composed of service workers.

“We work together,” he explained. “Right now, we are mapping out a strategy to save democracy in the next election, because someone has to do it.”

Summing up a life in activism that is far from over, Jones said, “The most meaningful important thing that I have learned is that ordinary people really can change the world. There is no limit to what we can do if we work to cross the boundaries that divide us.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. It’s ironic that. no where in this article was Harvey Milk’s bullhorn or the “Quilts” he is creditd with creating are mentioned. I happen to remember Jone’s when he was more on Polk St. I remember Jone’s back then… and recently he lost for sub-letting his rent control apartment., because he was livibg in Palm Springs( not mentioned in the article.) However, Jone’s claims Harcey Milk gave him the now famed “bullhorn”. I knew Harvey as a friend, and my was my iconic image of Harvey, that 1st appered on the Associsted Press Photo wires on 6/7/77 that was orange Tuesday… and the source of identifying with Harvey.

    Harvey was a natural publicist and the fact that the bullhorn was last seen on the day Harvey was shot, by a local A.P. reporter… and was in Harvey’s office and Cleve Jones was also in Harvey’s office shortly after Milk was shot. I doublt that Harvey gave him the bullhorn, because it would be a great image of Harvey passing the torch(bullhorn) on to a younger generation of gay rights Activist. There are no images or Press Release from Harvey… that would of great P.R. if he did.

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