Legendary AIDS activist Cleve Jones writes the memoir he’s always wanted


Activist Cleve Jones has lived an extraordinary life, filled with world-changing friends and figureheads from Harvey Milk to Dustin Lance Black. Portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the Gus Van Sant-directed Milk, Jones founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (the story of which is recounted in the documentaries Common Threads and Showtime’s The Last One) and co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He also, literally, picked up Milk’s bullhorn and carried on the LGBT icon’s fight for equality and social justice, working with a wide array of entities and causes including labor union Unite Here.

Jones revisits a wide array of incredible life moments and people — from Milk himself to Sean Penn — in his new memoir, When We Rise (Hachette; $27), which also served as partial inspiration for the upcoming ABC miniseries of the same name. (Written by Dustin Lance Black, and co-starring Guy Pearce as Jones, it charts the modern LGBT rights movement.)

whenwerise_hc-finalAlternately funny, heartwarming, revealing, tragic, and inspiring, Jones’ page-turning, fast-moving book chronicles coming out when American society was barely aware of homosexuality and, if so, hostile to it; his extensive youthful travels; sexual and romantic exploits during the free-loving ’70s; the horrific first wave of AIDS that consumed friends and lovers (some of the people in Rise also figure into David France’s must-read AIDS crisis history, How To Survive A Plague, also released this week; see story on Page 20); his own positive diagnosis and struggles with the virus; making Milk; amusing celebrity encounters in Hollywood; helping marriage equality happen; and his present life in San Francisco’s Castro district and the changing face of the city as the real estate crisis displaces populations and longtime institutions.

Filmmaker Rob Reiner (a co-founder of AFER, which was instrumental in the successful same-sex marriage rights effort) helped plant the seed for Rise, suggesting Jones write a book about his extraordinary life. Jones did just that, largely during late-night sessions at Dustin Lance Black’s dining room table. Via telephone, Jones elaborated on the book, activism, and what we can do to ensure progress keeps heading in the right direction.  — Lawrence Ferber

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2016.