When We Rise – Cleve Jones’ Memoir of the LGBT Movement

Cleve Jones grew up during gay liberation in the seventies, survived the AIDS crisis and then was part of the campaign for same-sex marriage which was enacted by the US Supreme Court in 2015. He was a political activist throughout the period, working for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor in California, during the late seventies. Then during the AIDS crisis, he started the NAMES Project, where the families and friends of those who died from AIDS-related illnesses created a tapestry of quilts with their loved-ones’ names. After this he spent time recovering, away from front line activism until his health improved. Then he was back as a union activist, advisor on the film MILK and part of the movement to get same-sex marriage recognised. It’s quite a life he has lived, and you can hear all about it in his memoir.

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There were many striking aspects to the book (which I listened to as an audiobook). It is difficult to know where to start. The first is how the book introduces gay culture and its part in a wider struggle for civil rights, women’s and worker’s rights. Throughout Cleve Jones sees himself as not only a gay activist, but an activist for other struggles as well. The second aspect is how he combines this with his life as a gay man. He has had many lovers and love interests during his life, and many of them intersected with different periods of the movement. A third is his view of LGBT history, and the fact that the AIDS epidemic created a gap between the older generation and the new generation. In some ways this is what prompted Cleve Jones to write the memoir. He recognised that many gay people do not know their own history, so he shared his.

I found it well-written (spoken), and interesting. I listened to it late into the night. Even though I knew the backbone of his story, I found I had to keep listening into the next stage. I think I got through it in three days. There were some points where I lost track of the names, or the exact progression of events, but I was happy to be lost. There were other points where I was surprised, such as when he retreated from public life due to ill health, and almost allowed himself to be forgotten. But I also found it riveting, and by the end I wanted more. Not necessarily more from Cleve Jones, but more about life in the movement, about the AIDS crisis and the continuing struggle. If anyone wants to learn about the gay movement in America from a first-hand perspective, this is a good place to start.

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