Gay-rights activist Cleve Jones urged a Chicago audience last week to join the National Equality March planned for Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C.
Jones reflected on a lifetime of work on behalf of LGBT people and proposed strategies for moving forward to a packed auditorium at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater on Aug. 29.
The event, called "An Evening with Cleve Jones: the Struggle for LGBT Rights," was co-sponsored by Join the Impact, WBEZ and Young Chicago Authors. It was emceed by local organizer Keeanga Taylor, who said that the event was "one of poetry and politics, but it is also a call to action." Along with remarks by Taylor, the evening began with readings from local young poets Lamar Jordan, Tim Henderson and Ashley Hart.
Jones, who said that he was surprised by the sudden spotlight cast on him by last year's movie Milk, began by recounting his personal history within the movementwhich began when he hitchhiked to San Francisco after high school. ( Referencing his character in Milk, played by Emile Hirsch, Jones joked that the audience to take away from the movie one thing: "I was that hot." )
In San Francisco, Jones went to work for Harvey Milk's successful campaign to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "Harvey was the most empathetic person I've ever met," said Jones. "At that time, I needed a dad, and Harvey was the most appropriate gay father figure for me."
He remembered the response to Milk's assassination as "just the beginning" of the gay-rights movement: Tens of thousands of people flooded with streets of San Francisco with candles the night Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were killed. When their assassin was found "not guilty," Jones said, the angry crowd did not carry candles. "We were carrying torches and clubs," he said.
Years later, in his capacity as consultant to the California state legislature, where he worked for the health committee, Jones remembered the moment in 1981 that he read the first reports of gay men dying of a strange new disease: "I knew immediately that this was bad."
"By 1985, everybody I knew was dead or dying," he said. "It was a nightmare, and it went on for 10 years." In the midst of the 1980s AIDS crisis, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Project; later, he conceived the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Although he talked about the evolution of his political viewsin the 1960s, he said, "we were about smashing the patriarchy and ending war forever"he affirmed his commitment to equality and said that now is a fortuitous time for political change. He said that he was inspired to recruit people for the National Equality March after seeing the seemingly spontaneous outpouring of public activism following the passage of the anti-same-sex-marriage initiative Proposition 8.
Jones noted that the movement which has grown out of that responseincluding Join the Impacthas been dubbed "Stonewall 2.0."
He said that most gay-rights organizations are pursuing regional agendasstate by state, city by citythat "I believe to be a failed strategy." The most important rights that LGBT people can obtain, Jones said, are federal.
"This isn't my opinion," he said. "It's a fact. The time has come now to state clearly what the dream is." Jones said "the dream" can be encapsulated in a single important addition: the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Jones, and many in the crowd, expressed disappointment with Democratic political leaders: "The Democrats have been betraying us for years and years and years." He singled out President Barack Obama, who has not fulfilled campaign promises regarding the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and the Defense of Marriage Act ( DOMA ) ; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who Jones said recently described repealing DOMA as "not a priority"; and Rep. Barney Frank, who refused to include housing protections in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Democratic leaders, he said, recognize that the chances of actualizing such a legislative agenda as slimthey recognize that they don't have the votes. Jones said that this is why gay-rights activists need not look to political leaders for power, but to take it themselves, taking their cues from the civil-rights movement. "Look back to 1963 and 1964," he said.
More information about the National Equality March can be found at Equalityacrossamerica.org .