When We Rise (Review)

Cleve Jones writes that his book is not an autobiography, rather it is a memoir.  What an incredible memoir it is. It’s a personal book of memories in which nearly every member of the LGBT community can find something to relate to. I didn’t hesitate for one second to pick up When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, after I spotted it in the New Books section.

Among a few other activists, I’ve been following the activities of Cleve Jones throughout the post-Stonewall era. Jones has been a shining light to many of us boomer gays who lived through the years when the LGBT civil rights movement came onto the political and social scene in the US. Jones is along side with Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovitch and Harvey Milk when it comes to people who put themselves into the movement.

The book recounts the legal and political battles that he and other activists fought tooth and nail to win. I couldn’t help but relate it to the present day as our adversaries are working to undermine and undo the hard work of the LGBT community done during the past years.  Jones’ words are a poignant reminder that society must continue to move forward and not surrender to those who wish to throw our sacrifices into the trash heap.

This memoir is fascinating to those of us who were on the outskirts of the movement, who fought our own battles with acceptance, coming out, and sometimes graduating to advocacy.

The first few chapters of the book recall Jones’ early years of his sexual awakening paired with historical events with which he was not personally connected. He equates his personal view of linking gay liberation with his own sexual freedom. This was a strong, subversive way of life back in the bad old days when same sex activity was illegal in much of the country.

In 1977, Jones meets the “Mayor of Castro Street” Harvey Milk. This marks the true beginning of Jones’ political awakening. He works first as an organizer in the San Francisco gay movement.  Following the assassination of Harvey Milk, Jones recovers and finds work as a political aide to a California Assemblyman in Sacramento. These are the experiences that give Jones the know how to advance ballot initiatives and legislation.

The last several chapters of When We Rise include the dark years of the AIDS crisis.  Jones remembers the thousands of people who died and who were disowned by their own families, society, and our own government. It was through tireless organizing and activism that progress was made to awaken people to the severity of the crisis.

This led to what is perhaps Cleve Jones’ most innovative piece of activism. He conceived of the “NAMES Project” popularly known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt. This heart-wrenching part of community organizing helped to further humanize the suffering and loss that AIDS had wrought on humanity, regardless of sexual orientation. The epidemic became personal for Jones after he received his own diagnosis of HIV positive.

Jones was one of the first patients to respond to the then new AIDS drug “cocktails”. He pulled out of the tailspin of diminishing “T-Cell counts” and lived to talk about it.

The book was a pleasure for me to read partly because Cleve Jones is two years younger than me. It was a reminder that Jones’ life has served as a barometer and an inspiration to LGBT people like me through the years. It is inspiration that is much needed in these harsh years of the upsurge of anti-gay sentiment in the world.  It is a reminder that we will continue our struggle for full human rights and we’ll never surrender.

{ When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones; 304 pages, published November 2016 by Hachette Books; ISBN: 978-0-316-31543-2 }

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Cleve Jones. “During those days when you’re exhausted and during those days when you’re frustrated, during those days when you’re being attacked by your own people for doing what you think is right, remember you’re part of a progression that goes back a long time of ordinary people who are doing their best to make it a better world.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Books, Controversy, cultural highlights, History, Politics, religion, Youth and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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