Longtime gay activist Cleve Jones pens memoir

If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s Castro District, you’re likely familiar with Cleve Jones, an activist and HIV survivor who’s been part of the community since the 1970s. 

A close friend of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, whom he says was like a father to him, Jones was present for many of the most historic events in the Castro’s history: the night Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered at City Hall, the White Night Riots — the result of Milk and Moscone’s killer getting a light sentence — and the peak years of the AIDS pandemic.

Milk (1930-78) was one of the first openly gay elected officials in U.S. history. He was the first to get protections for LGBT people signed into law. When Milk and Moscone were killed, Milk had been in office for less than a year.

In 1987, Jones co-created the AIDS Memorial Quilt to honor his fallen friends. And on the night the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide, it was Jones who took to the podium to address the Castro community. 

Now, he’s written a new memoir, “When We Rise,” which looks back on his life as an activist, the decades-long fight for LGBT equality and the rights of those with HIV/AIDS.

“My generation is dying out,” Jones, 62, told PGN. “I want the younger generation to know what we fought for — I want them to know what we lost and what we won.”

While LGBT rights have made enormous strides since he first arrived at the Castro in the 1970s, Jones wants to remind people that the battle isn’t over, especially as Donald Trump’s presidency looms on the horizon. 

Many of the president-elect’s cabinet picks have long histories of fighting against LGBT equality. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented hundreds of hate crimes since Election Day, many of them against gay or trans people. 

“Trump has unleashed and emboldened some of the darkest elements in American politics,” Jones said. “He’s surrounding himself with extreme bigots, deniers of climate change, racists, homophobes and anti-Semites. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put it back.

“People should be frightened,” he added. “How are we going to protect the most vulnerable among us? Our immigrants, Muslims and transgender people?” 

But Jones’ decades of activism have also taught him not to give up hope. 

“There were many times in my life when I thought that my life was over, or that our movement had been defeated — but we endured. We’re still here, and we’re still fighting.”    

Jones acknowledged that the battle against the incoming president is going to be a long and difficult one. At a November memorial gathering for Milk and Moscone that commemorated the 38th anniversary of their deaths, Jones urged the community to look to the past for motivation.

“I’m still disgusted by the election,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to see the damage this administration will do be undone. It’s quite possible that everything we fought so hard for will be lost. We cannot be divided. We must stand together; if we can stick together we can prevail. How many times did we think it was over? But we kept fighting. It isn’t over.” 

Jones warns that it may get rough after Trump assumes office Jan. 20.

“We all need to prepare to fight like hell to protect what we’ve won, not just for our community but for our nation,” he said. “I believe our democracy hangs in the balance.”

“When We Rise” is now available. An eight-hour miniseries based on the book will air on ABC in February.