Cleve Jones has some words for his community, and not all of them are flattering.
A historian by virtue of experience ( coming into activism under the wings of Harvey Milk, creating the AIDS Memorial Quilt and organizing the 2009 LGBT March on Washington to name a few ) , Jones is well-acquainted with the virtues and the faults of his community.
The veteran activist is making his way to Chicago this month for a keynote address at the Legacy Project Luncheon Oct. 25. Windy City Times caught up with Jones to talk about the importance of keeping LGBT history alive, why he connects labor and LGBT rights and why he has choice words for some major LGBT organizations in the wake of Wall Street protests.
Windy City Times: Cleve, how did you get involved with the Legacy Project?
Cleve Jones: I've known Victor Salvo for many years. We were introduced by Lori Cannon, who is one of my dear friends in Chicago. They asked me to help, and… how could I say no?
WCT: Why do you think the project is important?
CL: We're talking a couple of days after the death of Frank Kameny. He truly was one of the parents of our movement, and his name I think was being lost to history. And I think Harvey Milk's name was being lost to history before the film came out. I could tell as I traveled around to high schools and universities that people were losing the history of his story, of his contribution.
In the LGBT community we face a particular challenge because mainstream historians, mainstream educators have ignored us and our stories and our contributions, and we can't allow that to happen. Frank Kameny, who has justifiably received a great deal of attention this week, I'm sure that most of the LGBT folk reading the obituary of Frank Kameny were learning of his life for the first time.
WCT: Yes, absolutely.
CL: And that is sad. He was an extraordinary man. He was calling for full equality when I was in diapers. But there is a part of this that is not just important to history, it's about the future. How do we maintain the distinct identity of LGBT neighborhoods? I think that the Legacy Project is part of that.
WCT: Do you imagine what Harvey Milk would say about the state of our movement today?
CL: With each year that passes, I get more uncomfortable trying to imagine what a man who has been dead for 30 years would react to changes and situations none of us could have anticipated 30 years ago. But I think he would feel the way most people my age feel which is that we're very amazed and proud and grateful at what's been accomplished. And I think that my generation always harbors a fear that this could all be swept away with a blink of an eye.
Harvey saw the struggle for gay liberation as part of the broader movement for peace and social justice. This is one thing that I do wonder about as we look at the years ahead. Will we, as LGBT people under the law, as we achieve greater acceptance, will we continue to see ourselves as part of the larger social movement?
WCT: Part of that for you has been union work. How do you connect that with your LGBT activism?
CL: As a child growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, I knew from infancy the value of unions. Those are my values. I'm also an activist, and I want to build power for gay and lesbian people so that we can continue to move forward. We're a small population. We need allies. Who are our allies?
The passage of Proposition 8 happened to a large degree because our community failed completely to engage racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants.
My union, UNITE HERE, we represent those people. So we're fighting for those workers, and many of those workers are LGBT. But we're also a full ally in the larger struggle for equality. This was the first union to pass years ago a comprehensive resolution on record as supporting full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all matters governed by civil law. ... We do that hard work with them to help them understand and support their LGBT brothers and sisters.
WCT: What is your take on Occupy Wall Street and our community?
CL: This is a populace economic movement challenging the entire system under which we operate right now.
Now go to any of the big LGBT organizations' websites, as I did yesterday … and with only a couple exceptions….if you go to those websites, you're not going to find one mention, not a word, about what's going on. What you will find are the logos of Goldman Sachs, of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, British Petroleum. If you Google U.S. progressive organizations… If you look at all of those organizations' websites, you're not going to find any corporate branding. So you get to the gays, and that's what we're about.
WCT: Why do you think that is?
CL: Well, I don't know, but it's fucked up.
What happened to GLAAD … GLAAD suffered a huge hit. NGLTF ( National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Executive Director ) Rea Carey got caught in the same thing. They got a request from AT&T to write a letter, and suddenly the leaders of the LGBT community have put us on record as opposing net neutrality. I don't recall the town hall meeting on that one.
So that to me is the tip of iceberg. Now … I think it is perfectly okay and appropriate for us to ask for and receive contributions from corporations to support social services and to support cultural work. But I draw the line at political advocacy, including for those organizations the serve a multiplicity of purposes.
CL: A lot of this goes back to the epidemic. When the movement began… When I joined, it was called "gay liberation." Then this very young movement, in its infancy, when the numbers attending pride parades could be counted in hundreds… we got hit by the pandemic.
We had to reach out. We had to raise more money, and that is when we really started going after those corporate dollars. I guess that we had to do that, but what happened is that it created a new style of leadership that was very corporate. The new leaders were no longer people like Harvey Milk or Harry Hay or Frank Kameny … or whoever you want to remember. The new leaders were the rich, the philanthropist types who could write fat checks. They suddenly had great power, whereas before they were in the closet. … I'm not putting these people down, we need those services.
We created this new class of leaders, and these folks by nature are cautious. If you take money from the higher corporation, whether you can admit even to yourself or not, you are going to be affected. I would even go further and ask the pride committees "Do we really want our pride celebrations turning into giant advertisements for Budweiser or Absolut Vodka?" I find it troubling.
WCT: What do you think of Equality California's decision not to take Proposition 8 to the ballot box?
CL: I think that's actually probably a wise decision at this point in history. If we were going to go after Prop. 8, we probably should have already had $10 million in the bank. Given the late date, given the uncertainty of the outcome and the extraordinary cost, those factors alone would give me pause.
WCT: Cleve, Chicago is very excited to have you.
CL: I have a real connection to Chicago. Over the years that connection has only deepened.
Cleve Jones will give the keynote address at the Legacy Luncheon fundraiser Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, 17 E. Monroe St. Tickets and information are available at www.legacyprojectchicago.org/Luncheon_Tickets.html .