Cleve Jones is an important figure in the fight for equality for the LGBT community in the USA. He is also a survivor who lost hundreds of friends during the most horrific years of the AIDS pandemic.
This is his memoir and as a record of life in 70’s/80’s San Francisco this is about as good as it gets. So much so that a six part TV series has been made of this book which has recently been shown in America. On board for direction duties is Gus Van Sant and the screenplay has been written by Dustin Lance Black. Both these were Oscar nominated (Black won) for their work on “Milk” (2008) about another very notable San Franciscan activist and politician, Harvey Milk who was murdered in 1978 and was very much a mentor for Jones. Dustin Lance Black appears in the later years of Jones’ memoir and is well known in the UK as the partner of Olympic diver Tom Daley. This promises to be a major television event and is currently apparently available to view on Netflix. (I don’t have a Netflix subscription but am considering it on the strength of this alone).
Dustin Lance Black, author Cleve Jones and Tom Daley
Jones is now 62, which makes him part of the generation who grew up with few acceptable gay role models leading to isolation and a belief that no-one else was like them. Moving to the larger cities, especially in the USA, they developed a sense of community which, by strength of numbers, saw a beginning to challenge unfair laws and attitudes. There were the short-lived decadent days of disco followed by the decimation of those communities by AIDS. Jones is ten years younger than Armistead Maupin, this memoir feels contemporaneous to the novelist’s “Tales Of The City” series and those who relish Maupin’s San Francisco will want to explore Jones’ factual examination.
What I liked about this book is its celebration of Jones as a survivor and his unassuming approach to playing such a significant part in American Gay History. The workings of US politics is somewhat of a mystery to me but Cleve the activist details his achievements in stopping a law prohibiting gay people working in schools, improvements in the access of medical treatments and wider issues affecting those working in the hospitality industry. These achievements were largely brought about by mobilising the community. There is an awareness throughout of what else is going on in the world and he comes across as intelligent, impassioned and strong even when the odds are very much stacked against him socially, politically, economically and medically. Cleve Jones also originated the NAMES Quilt Project which provided the first real memorial to those lost to AIDS, one of the most touching and sobering things I have ever seen. Cleve was also around when the Rainbow Flag became adopted as a symbol, the relating of this being another high spot in his memoir.
At the end of “When We Rise” Jones states; “My generation is disappearing; I want the new generation to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost and what we won.” So much was lost but finishing this book leaves this reader with a great sense of how much was won.
When We Rise was published by Constable in 2017