When he took the stage, I expected him to immediately dive into a persuasive case for his cause. Instead, the audience was treated to stories from the life of a man who has become a legend in the LGBT activist movement. His opening line was “For those of you who expected Emile Hirsch, I am sorry to disappoint you. But I just want to say, I really was that hot.”
Clearly, I am talking about Cleve Jones. Friend of Harvey Milk, creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and currently an organizer for the National Equality March planned for October 11th in Washington, D.C.
For the next almost two hours, Cleve told us stories from his life, weaving them together in a way that helped us to understand the man before us. Funny stories, painful stories, hopeful stories, strong stories.
He talked about being in high school and the day he pretended to be sick so he could skip gym class. He was in the library, reading Life magazine, and came across an article that said “Homosexual Revolt: The Gay Liberation Movement.” He quickly closed the cover and glanced around to see if anyone had noticed him reading the article.
And then he stole the magazine and put it under his mattress at home. He would take it out after he was certain his parents were asleep, “as if it were porn.” At the end of high school, he came out to his parents and his father, a clinical psychologist, did not react well. Cleve hitchhiked to San Francisco, lived on the streets and met Harvey Milk. Harvey was like a father to him and encouraged him to go to school. When Cleve went to work with Harvey, as an intern, Harvey told him to wear the tightest jeans possible when he came to City Hall. To be himself. Cleve said his jeans were so tight he was pretty sure that everyone could tell that he was circumcised.
Talk about warming up an audience. Then he talked about Harvey. Finding Harvey’s body. Harvey’s feet were sticking out of Dan White’s office. He knew it was Harvey because Harvey had only one pair of dress shoes. Wing tips, with holes in the soles. Cleve felt that everything in the gay movement was over. That it could not possibly go on without Harvey.
But it did. Thousands marched in silence with candles that evening to mourn the loss of Harvey Milk, a ritual that still occurs every year on the evening of Harvey’s death.
He spoke about AIDS and how no one would do anything about this illness because it was a “homosexual disease”. He remembered a bumper sticker at the time that said “AIDS: It’s killing all the right people.” The audience was so silent that you could hear a pin drop. Cleve could barely speak and fought back tears. I’m sure he has told his story many times but the pain never disappears. I know because my best friend from high school was a gay man who had AIDS.
When he started the AIDS Memorial Quilt, it was with fabric stolen from a theatre group and a can of spray paint from a protest march. That was used to make the first square.
Cleve told so many fascinating stories, that it is tempting to convey all of them. But I want to get to the part where Cleve talked about this march, including his comments on the controversy surrounding it. Here is the logic. The fight for LGBT rights has gone on for at least 40 years. People being patient, people being afraid, people asking nicely. After Prop 8 passed, after the movie Milk, after the achievements in the states that have legalized same-sex marriage, it is still all up for grabs. There will be challenges in Maine and Iowa. People are arguing about whether California should put a referendum on the ballot in 2010 or 2012. And where will we be? Continuously taking this fight to states, counties and cities? Fighting for one right at a time in one small place? It will never end until the laws are the same in every state.
We have a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress. What is missing are people demanding that Congress do something. Without this pressure, President Obama cannot get the votes needed. Cleve made the point that the Civil Rights movement took off when Martin Luther King organized a march in Washington. Instead of continually pouring money and energy into every local battle, it is time to demand full equality now. It is only when Federal Law’s are changed that LGBT individuals will have full rights. Cleve made the point that marriage in California isn’t any different than the domestic partnerships in California. Neither state marriage nor domestic partnerships provide any access to Federal rights such as social security for your spouse.
In Cleve’s words “If you think you are equal, act like it. You have to take risks. When a door cracks open, kick it open. If you think there’s a natural slow progression to winning, you are wrong. Only when large numbers of people demand everything immediately is there any hope of getting anything eventually.”
Whether or not you can attend the March in Washington, I believe that Cleve’s strategy is the right one. Forget fighting for rights within a city or state. It needs to become national law. Cleve asked who in the audience was 54, his age. I think I was the only one who raised their hand. He pointed to me, nodded, and then said “I am tired of waiting. We demand equality now.”
During the question and answer session, which lasted half an hour, one person asked how to persuade others. His response reflected his maturity. “Respectfully and honestly tell your story. This is NOT about sex. It’s about economics and all the legal benefits of marriage and family. Tell someone that your partner cannot get your social security if something happens to you. Tell that person that you cannot visit your partner in the hospital. Search for common ground. People of faith are not necessarily like their leaders. “There’s no one sentence or I’d be putting it up on every billboard.”
He ended the evening by saying that Harvey Milk was an ordinary man. His personal life was in disarray, he was not a genius. We are all capable of what he did. “Live a life interesting enough to have a film made about you.”
If you don’t speak up for your rights, who will? If you don’t speak up for the rights of others, who will speak up for yours?
The National Equality March is October 11th,Sunday in Washington D.C. It is the 30th anniversary of the first gay rights march in Washington D.C. It is coming out day. It is the day before Columbus day, which many people have off. If you can go, go. If you cannot, donate to the cause. Support a person who can go. Many groups are organizing buses at very affordable prices, especially student organizations. (more…)