LGBT Activist Cleve Jones: 'I Am Old, But I Am Not Cynical'

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Cleve Jones remembers when being gay in America was still a crime. As a young man, he and his friends were beat up by police and harassed on the streets of San Francisco's Castro neighborhood.

The Castro has become the country's most recognizable gay neighborhood and a lot has changed there since Jones was coming of age alongside Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician who helped bring recognition to the movement.

Cleve Jones discusses the past and present of the LGBT rights movement with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson, including his belief that the AIDS crisis helped lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Interview Highlights: Cleve Jones

On the significance of the Castro District

“It’s an astonishing thing to see such change in one’s lifetime. And when I came out, when I joined the movement, it was a felony to be gay. There were no such things as gay neighborhoods – it was a very underground subculture. And today, we are a part of the fabric of society, and not only tolerated, but increasingly celebrated, and it’s wonderful. And it is my antidote to cynicism. I’ve seen change. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen real change that’s transformed the lives of millions of ordinary people. So I am old, but I am not cynical. I believe change is possible, and this neighborhood is an example of that.”

On the importance of being surrounded by other gay people

"I am old, but I am not cynical. I believe change is possible."

“People forget what it was like as late as the ‘70s. You know, it was an enormous level of violence against gay people. So if one was perceived to be gay, as I was early on, you know, it was dangerous. And so we claimed these few blocks of turf as our own and felt relatively safe, though there were a lot of problems with the police and people coming in from outside the neighborhood to beat people up. We had a little neighborhood patrol that tried to look after people. I wasn’t very interested in electoral politics until I met Harvey Milk. Harvey persuaded me to cut my hair and go to school and get involved in more traditional politics.”

Standing in a plaza that is named for Harvey Milk

“Yes, we’re standing at Harvey Milk Plaza at the corner of Castro and Market beneath the giant rainbow flag, which was created by my friend Gilbert Baker. He lives in New York today and is still selling rainbow flags. You know, Harvey was just so courageous about being out and open and a proud gay man, and during the campaigns, I watched him at the bus stops and at the senior centers, and the union halls, and just how good he was at finding common ground with people. He could begin a conversation with any sort of person you could imagine, find some sort of common ground and build on that, and that was a very important lesson for me.”

On the assassination of Harvey Milk

“The first thing that went through my mind was it’s over. You know, I was in such shock and it was a horrifying sight, of course. And I just kept thinking ‘It’s over. It’s over.’ We were trapped there in the office as the police bundled up the bodies and I just thought ‘Everything’s over.’ But then the sun went down and then tens of thousands of people gathered here at this intersection and marched down to city hall, filled Civic Center, and I realized I was, you know, completely wrong. It wasn’t over. It was just the beginning.”

On the victories of the past year and remembering the past

"We cared for each other through terrible sickness and terrible death, and I think out of that came this new mindset that would not settle for compromises, would not settle for fragments or fractions of equality."

“When I look at the achievements of this past year, I really believe that a lot of this is rooted in our experience with a pandemic. I think before AIDS, the notion of a gay community was a notion, it was hypothetical, but we were proven in a very brutal way. And another thing that happened ... was that America came to know her gay children during the time of our greatest suffering. And while some people exploited that tragedy and used it for their own political ends, a much larger number of people were moved. Their hearts were touched by it. Over those years, I met so many parents who had no clue that their son was gay until he was diagnosed with AIDS. And it forced us to build an infrastructure that we’d never imagined, it forced us to raise and spend funds that we could never have conceived of, it forced people to come out of the closet, and it also I think contributed to a new sense of resolution that after what we’d been through, how dare you say these are not families. What do you mean this isn’t a marriage? This is exactly what a marriage looks like: two people who are devoted to each other, who care for each other in sickness and in health. And we cared for each other through terrible sickness and terrible death, and I think out of that came this new mindset that would not settle for compromises, would not settle for fragments or fractions of equality.”


  • Cleve Jones, human rights and gay rights activist, author and lecturer. He co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1983 and founded The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. He tweets @CleveJones1.

This segment aired on October 27, 2015.


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