Summary of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones


When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (2016) is a memoir by Cleve Jones, a leading activist in the gay rights movement. Based mostly in San Francisco, Jones was instrumental in the fight for gay civil rights that began in the mid-1970s. Jones’s story traces his childhood, his evolution as an activist, the assassination of gay political leader Harvey Milk, the harrowing onset of the AIDS epidemic, his personal battle with HIV, and his role in raising AIDS awareness.

Jones grew up mostly in Arizona. He knew he was gay from an early age, but the social conventions of the time were such that he felt isolated and miserable. In 1971, Jones made a life-changing discovery: a magazine article about the gay liberation movement. Once he understood that there were other people like him elsewhere in the world, his outlook improved immediately.

After finishing high school in 1972, Jones visited San Francisco for the first time and came out to a gay Quaker group. Reluctantly, he returned to Arizona for college, where his tuition was discounted because both of his parents were faculty members. Homosexual acts were still classed as criminal across most of the United States, but he began to find like-minded people. Jones constantly dreamed of California, and he finally dropped out of school and moved there in 1973.

Jones lacked a clear sense of purpose and direction in life but quickly became immersed in San Francisco’s gay community, which welcomed him with open arms. Fitfully employed and constantly shuffling through tenuous housing arrangements in the Castro neighborhood, Jones still felt secure and serene most of the time. He spent time in Germany with his best friend Scott in parts of 1975, 1976, and 1977. Using Germany as a home base, he traveled across the Mediterranean and beyond, often with another friend, Sue Coxsmith.

Jones began contemplating gay liberation in earnest in the mid-1970s. His acquaintance with Milk, a gay politician whose star was on the rise, began to solidify and deepen in 1977. That year Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Jones was evolving as a protest organizer and began working more closely with Milk at City Hall. All over America, more gay people seemed to be coming out to their friends and families. Jones’s friend Gilbert Baker designed the first gay pride flag, a symbol of the movement’s unity and progress.

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a disgruntled politician, assassinated Milk and the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. Just before a planned celebration of Milk’s birthday in 1979, White got off with only a manslaughter charge. The ensuing riot at City Hall was a rare instance of violence in the gay rights movement, but it was immediately followed by a peaceful celebration of Milk’s birthday.

The movement solidified around the memory of Milk, who became an instant martyr after his death. Legal battles and protests across the nation began to bear fruit. Increasingly, Jones worked with politicians in Sacramento and San Francisco.

In 1981, the threat of AIDS to the gay community loomed. For the next few years, information was scant and fear was rampant. Seemingly everyone Jones knew was sick or dead, and it appeared as though those deaths were invisible to the world outside the Castro. Soon Jones himself began to feel ill. At 31, when his HIV diagnosis was confirmed, he worried his life might be over.

Jones wanted to do something to raise awareness about the disease. He had a vision of a giant memorial quilt stretched across the National Mall. He helped make the first panels in 1987. The project quickly picked up steam, and later that year the quilt appeared on the Mall. It toured the country and continued to grow for many years while garnering plenty of media attention. Throughout this time, the AIDS crisis continued unabated, and at times Jones suffered serious health problems. He began taking a drug cocktail in 1994, and soon after that the disease’s mortality rate significantly improved.

Beginning in 1992, Jones was involved off and on in the development of the film Milk, which Gus Van Sant began filming in 2007, 15 years after he had originally signed on for the project. Meanwhile, across the country, marriage equality became a hot-button issue. It took time, but after Barack Obama became president in 2008, the fight reached new heights. In 2010, the State of California knocked down Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Soon after, more states embraced marriage equality. The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015.

Jones sees a close connection between these recent wins and his community’s lowest moments during the AIDS crisis, which made marriage equality more urgent for the gay community. Having lived through so much hard-won but resoundingly positive social change, Jones feels optimistic about the future despite large-scale problems like global warming and inequity.

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