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Written by Karen Iris Tucker
Bullies roamed his high school gym class, so Cleve Jones feigned a chronic lung ailment and retreated to the library. It was on one such occasion that he flipped through the magazine that likely saved his life. A headline piqued Jones’ interest: “Homosexuals in Revolt!” It topped a Life report on the nascent gay liberation movement that was taking root in New York and California. The year was 1971.
“I’m pretty sure that was the exact moment I stopped planning to kill myself,” Jones, 62, says in his new memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement. “I took the pills I had been hoarding from their hiding place and flushed them down the toilet.” Until then, Jones says, he had thought there was no one else like him on the planet.
From there, Jones takes readers on his thrilling, if perilous, voyage from fey, long-haired teen hitching his way from his home in Arizona to San Francisco, to becoming the mentee of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in America. Jones survives San Francisco’s viciously homophobic police in the ’70s and, later, the AIDS epidemic that took his dearest friends. In the process, he helps mobilize the anguished, fiery momentum of LGBTQ rights in the United States and also conceives the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. His life story continues to impress; When We Rise is credited as an inspiration for the ABC miniseries of the same name that is expected to premiere in February 2017. Jones was a historical consultant for the TV project but says he hasn’t yet seen it.
It seems only fitting to talk to Jones, a grass-roots political firebrand, at a time when the election of Donald Trump feels like a massive setback for progressive, pro-LGBTQ policies. Describing himself variously as “terrified” and “heartbroken” by the results, Jones is nevertheless unbowed: “The next person to tell me we survived Reagan and Bush is going to get slapped.” READ MORE
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