Cleve Jones: The Man Behind the Curtain
Bil Browning Editor-In-Chief of The Bilerico Project
From Huffington Post - 09.02.2009
I had the opportunity to meet veteran activist Cleve Jones Sunday during his recent visit to Chicago. Bilerico Project 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.
I 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.
Many 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 worshiping 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 becomes 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. His 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.
Harvey 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.