When We Rise: My Life in the Movement

Cleve Jones is the Forrest Gump of the gay liberation movement. Harvey Milk? Mentor and buddy. A bunch of dudes sitting around trying to come up with a symbol? He was there as they decided on the rainbow and dyed the first strips of fabric. San Francisco AIDS Foundation? He co-founded it. The memorial quilt? That was all him. But in When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, Jones captures not just landmark moments, but the feel of an era that lives on in the memories of a select and dwindling few.

When We Rise

Reading Jones’s description of his childhood feels like a fireside chat with anyone who can count decades on more than one hand, except that person has a way of capturing sexual desire in words (e.g., “Among the authors one could frequently find was Mary Renault, whose novels about ancient Greece and Alexander the Great included stories of bold and loyal and muscle-bound warrior lovers that kept me awake at night, squirming into my mattress) and an epic coming out story:

Dad bought me a new bicycle that afternoon, and as we drove beneath the palm trees into our driveway on Calle del Norte I took a deep breath and broke the news. He was silent, staring straight ahead over the steering wheel for a long moment, then turned to face me. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because it’s important, Dad. You need to know. I’ve joined the gay liberation movement and I’m not going to live in secret anymore.”

His face got red and he snarled back, “Great. Tell me all about it. What do you like best, getting fucked in the ass or sucking cock?”

As Jones’s adventures begin, the book’s descriptions retain both simplicity and vibrancy:

Another active member of the group was Jim Briggs, a short, balding, rotund little man who lived in a trailer park nearby. His place was so filthy with cats and food debris that it made me uncomfortable, but Jim regularly entertained impossibly good-looking guys, so I got over my discomfort and hung out often. Jim taught me how to speak like a queen. He loved gay jargon, was the first person to call me Mary, and demonstrated that the word “please” has at least two syllables.

Throughout, Jones manages to place the reader right there in the moment and at the same time to lend it historical perspective:

I was born into the last generation of homosexual people who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way that we felt. It was simply never spoken of. There were no rainbow flags, no characters on TV, no elected officials, no messages of compassion from religious leaders, no pride parades, no “It Gets Better,” no Glee, no Ellen, no Milk.

In San Francisco I had stayed with Gary and Ron on 16th Street just a few blocks from the Twin Peaks Tavern at the corner of Castro and Market Streets, with its bold plate-glass windows overlooking the busy intersection smack in the center of the city. I’d never seen a gay bar with windows before.

The baths back then were really pretty great. The only diseases we had to worry about were easily treated with a shot or a handful of pills, and it was a point of pride for all of us to go down to the City Clinic at 4th and Mission to get tested every month. We’d get a ticket with a number and wait for a bit in the lobby…. Everyone saved their City Clinic exam tickets and you’d see them on refrigerators and bathroom mirrors, taped up as proof of responsible behavior and reminders for one’s next visit…. My routine was to check in, shower, wander the hallways and mazes, have some sex, then shower again and sit in the hot tub.

The book isn’t perfect, in some places recounting details that resonate only with the author and in others lacking the specificity needed to keep the reader engaged (there are only so many times it’s interesting to read about charged eye contact). And Jones arguably attempts too much, adding in snippets about the labor movement, geopolitics, and more throughout in a way that feels jarring and unfocused:

The Quilt was on tour again but I had less and less to do with the running of the NAMES Project…. Mike and the core group kept things running despite the terrible attrition rate of our volunteers. Many of those who had been there to help us with the first display were dead now. Their shoes were filled by another wave of volunteers. Then they died. That’s how we lived then. Our friends died; we made new friends; then they died. We found new friends yet again; then watched as they died. It went on and on. In Eastern Europe the Soviet Union was breaking apart.

Bush took the nation into war in August 1990. We marched in the giant protests against the Gulf War with our signs, “Money for AIDS, Not for War.” The death rate soared. Every Thursday morning we would pick up the Bay Area Reporter at any of the local gay bars and businesses. The obituary section grew to fill two, sometimes three full pages. Every week, almost everyone in the neighborhood would read that someone they knew had died. We lost over a thousand people a year, just in San Francisco, every year for over a decade.

But his generation’s experience of battles on all fronts, of not knowing how to begin to fight back against the many wrongs of the world, might be something Jones intended to impart to readers by leaving us reeling. Perhaps rather than explain the sense of overwhelm, he passed it on, much as he made the AIDS death toll more poignant than even his vivid statistics allow by acknowledging the death in the second half of the book of almost every character introduced in the first. From that perspective, Jones achieves precisely what he sets out to accomplish: “I want new generations to know what our lives were like, what we fought for, what we lost, and what we won.”

Gripes aside, modern history lives, breathes, loves, and dies on the pages of When We Rise.

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