Bil Browning

Cleve Jones: The Man Behind the Curtain

Filed By Bil Browning | September 01, 2009 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Cleve Jones, Equality Across America, gay history, National Equality March

I had the opportunity to meet veteran activist Cleve Jones Sunday during his recent visit to Chicago. Readers left questions for Jones in the comment section and sent in more via Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail and I did the interview on their behalf. The response was overwhelming.

CleveJones.jpgI read the questions from my iPhone to keep their voices intact. It was their interview so I simply asked what was submitted and tried to get through as many questions as possible. We'll be paraphrasing the questions in the videos, but there will be a full written transcript of all questions and answers soon.

This isn't the interview I'd have done, obviously; Projectors' questions ranged from supportive to almost hostile. Instead, I wanted to share my reflections about meeting Jones and spending time watching him interact with Chicago activists - a prologue, if you will, for the Q&A we're prepping.

One outstanding impression was simple and all encompassing. Cleve Jones is no gay God; he has feet of clay.

I've met many of the LGBT big wigs through the blog - heads of big national organizations, entertainers, and lifelong respected activists I can only hope to emulate. With the exception of my first time meeting Kate Clinton, I'm never really starstruck or, honestly, in awe of their Super Queer powers.

For all the massive egos and self-importance, they're people just like you or I. They put on their socks one at a time like everyone else.

The Man Behind the Curtain Is Just a Man

We met Jones at a Join The Impact Chicago meeting held in a young straight couple's home. By the time we arrived, the official meeting had ended and people were milling about and socializing. Jones was in the back yard swinging the couple's tow-headed toddler up in the air and smothering him with kisses.

CPCleveBillHillary.jpgMany people only know Jones because of the movie Milk, but he stands out in my head because of the AIDS Quilt. I've sewn panels for the Quilt; I have friends and a former lover who's lives are represented on a small square of fabric decorated with my needlework and tears. Most of the young activists in the home's yard, however, knew the veteran activist solely from his relationship with Harvey Milk as portrayed on the big screen.

Both glimpses of Jones' life, however, are simply shades of the entire man. As with anyone who's dared to step into a leadership role within our community, he has been both praised and denigrated. I was there to ask him Projector's questions, but I also wanted to satisfy my own curiosity about which role was more accurate - Wealthy Dilettante or Super Gay.

Maybe I imagined something more Christ-like. Would I walk into a half circle group of wide-eyed acolytes worshipping at the feet of their chosen celebrity? Or perhaps I expected yet another older activist who'd survived the AIDS crisis and insisted on being held in high esteem for the length of time he'd outlived his friends and peers.

Instead of a wannabe demigod, the man I met was entirely human. He laughs often, smokes cigarettes, talks too much and stops to play with children. He is charming, middle-class and disorganized.

Who Speaks For the Everyman?

It become quickly obvious that the diverse group of young people weren't hanging around to idolize a celebrity activist, they were there to learn how to effectively organize their community. The group didn't want fundraising pitches or bumper stickers; they wanted knowledge on how to change the world. They meant business.

They're not your usual armchair activists that make a small donation to a national or state-level group and click a mouse button a few times a year to send an e-mail to a member of Congress. They're opinionated, racially and gender diverse, and active in many progressive issues. They also feel alone and unsupported by the community in general.

These young men and women don't feel connected to the national movement. Some of them don't feel like they're a part of their local equality organizations either. They shared their frustrations at local community members lack of motivation and team building.

They're radicals looking for a slot to slide into; they have a role to play in the fight for justice but it hasn't been clearly defined. These future leaders are fending for themselves. They're not connected to the power brokers and LGBT old guard who tend to be more cautious and calculating.

Who speaks for them? They do.

Enter Cleve Jones

Like the young activists, he's not wealthy, he's not on a first name basis with all the members of the queer royalty, and he's not a professional political wonk - either inside or out of the LGBT community. He's a labor organizer now who helps to negotiate union contracts for hotel staff and other workers.

Jones is over 50, not in the best health, and still seems a little in shock at both his recent celebrity status and the vociferousness of some of the attacks launched his way after he became the march's public face. CleveJones2.jpgHis years leading the NAMES Project hardened him to the challenges of working inside the LGBT community, but his decade out of the spotlight allowed him to recharge and refocus.

His experiences - whether the time spent at Harvey Milk's side, his years as the head of the AIDS Quilt and the subsequent battle for control of it, or his semi-retirement to the California desert - have shaped Jones into the gay community's Rodney Dangerfield. He's always been around, wears his heart on his sleeve, talks constantly, and gets no respect from the establishment.

"My only gift worth anything is my ability to talk," he says and the truth of it is soon self-evident. "There seems to be an overwhelming belief that I'm fabulously wealthy and hang out all day by the pool with celebrities and gay leaders. I don't. They say I'm trying to position myself to be the new gay leader, but I'm not. I just want our community to see us we're entitled to equality. We don't have to ask for our rights; they're in the Constitution."

Jones, with all of his flaws and baggage, is not King of the Gays. He's an everyday foot soldier with name brand recognition.

Like the group of young people meeting in Chicago, he feels the need to step forward and demand equality on his own timeline instead of a pre-determined time table established by Gay Inc. He doesn't feel the community has reached out to those like him and isn't willing to wait for the crumbs the establishment drops occasionally - like cocktail parties at the White House - while stalling on issues of importance like employment and housing protections, Don't Ask Don't Tell, or relationship recognition.

Accepting Responsibility For Our Own Leadership

As more and more members of the LGBT community grow impatient with the slow advances we've gained, the ranks of disaffected - and imperfect - activists will continue to swell. This ragtag army of eager volunteers are straining at the leash society has put around their necks.

They're not satisfied with incrementalism and platitudes. Promises without end do not interest them.

America's sea change on LGBT rights hasn't happened in a vacuum. The call to "come out" has been answered and LGBT people are regularly portrayed in the media, given positions of authority, and accepted by their families and friends without prejudice for who they are.

groupshot.jpgHarvey Milk started the clarion call to come out. Thousands of us have continued that mantra and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

One man's idea has turned into the largest benefit the LGBT community has ever had. A man who smoked pot, had multiple sex partners, and tilted at windmills pointed us in the right direction despite his flaws and inconvenient timing for the power establishment.

Is it the right time to have another march on Washington? Of course not. There's never a "right" time; there's always going to be a reason to stick with the status quo.

There will never be a gay Martin Luther King. Even Harvey Milk was a simple man who stood up for his own rights and ours. There is no LGBT royalty.

It's just us. If we want what we're entitled to, we have to demand it. We have to stand up and challenge authority and tradition. We can't count on allies and celebrities to do our work for us.

When we have the full equality to which we're entitled, it will be because of the work of the average, the poor, and the flawed. It will be achieved by the work of the many and the everyday citizen.

And Cleve Jones, for all his flaws, is one of us. He has feet of clay - as do we all.

The King is dead. Long live the Everyman.

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You said you asked him questions. I don't see them here.

The Q&A was all filmed, Monica. They'll be in the videos we'll be putting up shortly.

I screwed up, Bil. I missed the sentence about the Q&A coming later.

(Insert image of Monica hanging her head in shame.)

To give a local SF perspective... Cleve, even at the height of his San Francisco notoriety (the AIDs quilt) was unable to even win election as a city supervisor representing the Castro District—nor did he even come close. That says something about his 'power base' and how he works with people. It wasn't because of Gay Inc. but because his ego and sense of condescension rubbed local activists the wrong way (and his politics were actually more conservative and machine-driven than other candidates). This is not to negate his past effectiveness in some very important projects but to give a reality check about who he is and why he wasn't able to take up the mantle after Milk's death.

Thanks, Gina, for this perspective. I've been curious about Cleve Jones's career before the march brouhaha began, and am intrigued by some of the recent descriptions of him as Harvey Milk's "protege." For that matter, I've been curious about the recent painting of Harvey Milk as some kind of radical gay hero.

None of this should detract or distract from the work of each man, but historical perspectives and jolts of reality are critical if we're to consider how queer history keeps getting rewritten.

Concerning the National Equality March -

Please. PLEASE. At the march, have a sign with a number:

The number of LGBTQI Americans who WANTED to attend but could not because they are mentally or physically disabled, or living well-below the poverty level, etc.

I would be on that list. We feel as if we do not matter to the "activists", and feel as if we are never represented.

I am crying right now because I CANNOT fight this fight with money or marches or "activism" outside of my home. It feels as if NO ONE wants to protect us from a country over-stepping its bounds when it comes to voting on civil rights.

John: Your plea touched my heart. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those rich gays you see in OUT and other publications. I've lived through most of the gay struggle being a Queen of 72 but I understand your words so very well. My question is, God, how long will it takes for us to have equal rights and will I live to see it. John, you and those like us are not forgotten except by our gay brothers. We don't matter anymore. I am so glad you said something. Donn

I had lunch with Cleve once while visiting San Francisco. A complete stranger -- a young man -- came up to Cleve and gave him a kiss on the head and then scantered away. Whatever misgivings you may have about him Gina, he has captured the imagination of the young energetic future of our movement, and for that I am grateful.

It saddens me that anyone willing to dedicate so much of his life to help our movement continues to be the subject of vicious attacks from our own community. We can be our worst enemy more often than not.

I don't think the beef with Cleve was that he is King of the Gays, or that he is rich and poolside. The issue is that no one individual, any individual, should be making momentous decisions for an entire community singlehandedly.

Say what you will about the national organizations, but at least they have a constituency and answer to somebody. But the successful national GLBT marches have been run by grassroots coalitions who meticulously consulted and liassed with local communities across the nation before it was ever decided to have the march, and then to form the structure of the organization, the march demands, outreach, and speakers.

If it weren't for his celebrity as a gay activist, his call would have gone nowhere fast. And it still remains to be seen if is going anywhere with it.

Bil -- I love that for this interview you took questions from the audience that had a range of issues/agendas that represent the various pointe of view of your readership/the Bilerico community. Look forward to seeing the videos.

*(meant to write POINTS of view)


Let me second Gina's comments. As someone who has been on Cleve's bad side- you don't want to see it.

I was an ally, what I thought was a friend. And I've never had a friend scream and yell at me the way this guy did over a political misunderstanding.

There are very few people that I refuse to work with- but Cleve is one of them. Never again will I work with him- on anything.

I would expect to be talked to and treated that way by a religious right crazy, but not from a supposed leader.

The sad thing was, I was warned by friends of Cleve's reputation, but didn't want to believe them. Now I know.

@ Rebecca

Sorry you had a bad experience. I personally have not and agree with Bil on this post. Cleve is the salt of the earth and our community needs to support him.

The man has given his whole life to fighting for our cause.

The negative attacks are b.s. and distract from our fight for full equality.

If you don't have something good to say about the march on Washington, then STFU...we are marching whether you like it or not.


Excellent essay, Bil ... especially with the comments, it really captures Cleve's complexity and multi-dimensionality. Thanks as always!


With all due respect to his actual accomplishments, Harvey Milk did NOT start "the clarion call to come out." By a lonnnnnng shot!

There were others doing that before he publicly came out HIMSELF.

Oscar Wilde bookstore founder Craig Rodwell told Milk biographer Randy Shilts that when they were dating in New York, Harvey was petrified Rodwell's activism would result in someone from Harvey's family or job figuring out he was gay. Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Jack Nichols, and others were picketing the White House for equality when closeted Harvey Milk was still mourning the fact that Barry Goldwater wasn't living in it.

Thank you.

Thanks for the interview with Cleve.

When the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was housed in SF, I was a volunteer there (in the late 80s, early 90s). I did not work directly with Cleve, but I did work with many of the NP staff. Some of them siad that he could be a diva but all of them respected him. Of all the places I have volunteered, the Names Project was the only organization where the E.D. (Cleve) made it a point to learn the volunteer's names. The next E.D. that followed him did not bother (the NP later became bloated with staff as it became a "professional" organization. The Quilt is now just a memory or a bit of history in SF. Sadly, many young gay people have never experienced seeing it). Cleve has always been a grass-roots organizer.

Cleve could not win a supervisor seat as he was not part of the SF democratic machinery that had come to dominate city (and state) politics. If you don't have that backing, you don't have the money, you don't win. He wouldn't play their game and he was too progressive for the machine. To blame it on Cleve's "ego" or whatever, betrays a complete naivete about SF politics.

Reading the interview, it becomes clear it was not one individual making the decision about the march.

(Some say that Evan Wolfson pushed marriage to the front of the movement - who appointed him? should he be vilified for his efforts?)

As to Harvey Milk - his biggest contribution (one that Cleve echoes in the interview) was one of building coalitions outside the LGBT community. Milk reached out to labor - something that most gay leaders had not done. He brought labor's boycott of Coors beer to the Castro. (Given the homophobic and racist organizations the Coors family had funded, it was a perfect fit). Much of labor has been in the forefront of change regarding LGBT folks. It is the vision of being part of a larger struggle for justice that we need to remember.