When We Rise: My Life in the Movement
by Cleve Jones
Hachette Book Group
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Writing a compelling memoir can be a delicate art. An author can recount an unremarkable life vividly and effectively, or a writer can do the same with a compelling and historical one. It’s all in the skill set of that writer. In his new memoir, Cleve Jones recounts the arc of one of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ most important and hard fought civil rights movements as it unfolded in California’s “City by the Bay,” San Francisco. He recalls vividly the struggle, disappointments, and many triumphs of the modern movement for gay rights from the perspective of one of its most valiant warriors, himself. Jones describes not just a movement, but a people, the many brave men and women who put everything on the line to fight and persuade an indifferent government and nation, insisting that human rights for one American meant human rights for all Americans, regardless of widely held beliefs rooted in bigotry and ignorance. He speaks of being born into the last generation of LGBT Americans who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else anywhere that felt the same way they did.
He was drawn to that citadel of social change and upheaval, San Francisco, in his late teens, arriving in the early seventies. The Summer of Love had passed into fall, but the city was still a mecca for young people from all over the country who were different, and ready to fight, to march, to demand their rights. These were heady days and many battles were won and a strong, defiant, and tightly knit community grew, centered in the city’s Castro District. There were political leaders like Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay persons to be elected to political office. He was a friend and mentor to Jones, inspiring him to activism and oration. Jones writes a loving portrait of Milk, who was a hero to him, and recalls his tragic execution and the social and political unrest that followed with great clarity and touching emotional depth.
And then it happened: There was a new and deadly challenge that had to be met. By the summer of 1982, 500 Americans, most of them young gay men, had contracted what was, at the time, called GRID. Jones and his compatriots were facing a new enemy, one it seemed they couldn’t fight—Reagan and his conservative right, yes, but a death sentence for so many so quickly? It was hard to grasp. But the men and women of San Francisco rolled up their sleeves and got busy. In November of 1985, Jones led a march in memory of Harvey Milk, where he asked those marching to hold up signs on which they had printed the name of someone they had lost to AIDS. One thousand San Franciscans had died that year. Ronald Reagan finally mentioned AIDS but did nothing. It was a call to arms. Jones took center stage in this new fight and documents its ongoing struggles with vivid recall and a compelling narrative. For all of the losses of these years, there were valiant citizens who fought on the front lines. Jones was not only a hero of the gay rights movement, he’s faced what would become our biggest challenge head-on and is still fighting for our rights today.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.