(#29 in a series of people who changed the course of my life)
I catch myself sometimes wistfully reminiscing for the early days of the modern gay rights movement—the Castro in the 70s—a time when gay men and lesbians really began to publicly express their sexuality and would galvanize to fight a system that not only tried to ignore them but was also hell-bent on keeping them down.
Now, I realize that to reminisce about such a time means that I have to take the bad along with the good. I know it was not easy then. I know gay men in particular were victims of hate crimes long before anyone would acknowledge our murders as crimes of hate. I close my eyes and imagine the grief the gay community experienced the day Harvey was killed and their anger at the verdict rendered for his assassin by a milquetoast jury. And I acknowledge that to live in such a time would mean living—possibly dying—through the AIDS crisis.
Yet so much good came out of that time—a revolution was born! A movement as much (or more) about sexual liberation as it was gay rights brought together gay men and lesbians, bravely bursting down closet doors and taking the necessary risks to be open and out about who they were, refusing to accept anything less than fair and equal treatment.
One of the people who came of age, so to speak, during this movement was Cleve Jones. For many of us, Cleve is a role model in every sense of the phrase. Cleve has survived—endured—through many heartaches, and sickness, and bullshit–yet still presses on.
Cleve and others bravely fought the system and established their political and economic power. And then, when victim after victim after victim fell to the AIDS pandemic, Cleve refused to let these men’s lives (and women’s and children’s lives) pass into oblivion or allow the world to ignore what was happening. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was his idea and is among the most meaningful monuments I have ever beheld.
I was fortunate enough to meet Cleve, break bread (er, chips and queso) with him, and even do a dramatic reading of the night he came up with the quilt idea, excerpted from the play Dear Harvey by Patricia Loughrey. (Talk about pressure! You can see Cleve sitting on the second row on the right side of the aisle. Note: Cleve does not have a Texas twang.)
Not only does the quilt memorialize almost one-hundred thousand lives lost to HIV/AIDS, it represents a generation of human beings who did not get to live fully into their lives. The quilt endures as the legacy of those who would not let the memory of the dead pass–particularly those whose families had them cremated and disposed of—no funeral, no tombstone–erased.
But Cleve did (does) not stop there. He continues to work not only within the gay community on a variety of issues and calling out detractors and missives, but he is also a visible activist within the broader labor movement, fighting for an end to job discrimination—the next frontier for true equality.
The man never stops.
If you have a few minutes, watch his sermon from October 2013 at Cathedral of Hope:
During this sermon, Cleve bared his heart and the wisdom gleaned from the harsh realities his generation suffered and from the legacy many of the survivors preserved:
“We who were mostly young and white and gay had succeeded in creating this work of art that had found this old woman alone with her grief in the hills of Appalachia and connected her and her son and their love and their struggle with all of us, all the many kinds of people all across this planet who in the course of fighting back against this disease have come to finally understand what a tiny planet it is that we inhabit and how irrevocably all of our lives are linked. That is a lesson that must be learned. That is the message of the quilt. And that is the message of this church, and this congregation, and it is is the message and the knowledge that you carry in all of your hearts.
Much of what I know as a community organizer, I owe to what I’ve learned from Cleve. I can still hear his words, becoming the clarion call of my budding activist self:
“It isn’t over.
It is just beginning.”
He saw something that needed to be done, and he did it.
He tells stories so that we will not forget.
And he does not quit advocating, does not stop fighting for the full equality of all of us, and will not relent, I suspect, until his last day of his life.
I could not be more grateful to call Cleve both mentor and friend.
I’ll see ya’ in the Castro soon.
Note: Many of these images came from SAN FRANCISCO: THE MAKING OF A QUEER MECCA, curated by Julia Haas with the assistance of Jonathan D. Katz.
30 & 29. sheroes