Longtime LGBT-rights advocate Cleve Jones was asked during a Nov. 6 appearance at Sidetrack bar what set him on his course to be an activist. Jones replied that two events had the most profound impacts on him.
"Meeting Harvey Milk and losing Harvey Milk," he said.
Jones, who was promoting the recent paperback release of his 2016 memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, described his relationship with Milk, for whom he worked as an intern and with whom he was close friends throughout the 1970s. He admitted that their relationship could be fraught and said that Milk "thought I was a brat, but a useful brat." But Jones also recalled how much Milk contributed to his own sense of self-worth: "He was the first one to tell me that I was just fine the way I am."
Jones was interviewed by local author and occasional Windy City Times contributor Owen Keehnen. The event was co-sponsored by Center on Halsted and Sidetrack.
Jones has recently been especially involved in union activism lately, and works for UNITE HERE, a hospitality- and garment-workers' union, on LGBT-related issues. He noted during his talk that rising inequality and inequity threaten American cities and especially gay-centric neighborhoods. Jones acknowledged in a candid moment that he'll likely lose his longtime rent-controlled apartment in the Castro soon and he may be forced to leave San Francisco, where he's lived for decades.
"When we lose the 'gayborhoods,' we lose a lot," Jones said, adding that among the facets lost are political power, cultural vitality and "specialized social services that are vital to the people in our community."
Jones also recounted his despair over the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, but added that it was ultimately a moment like many others, where it initially seemed like there was no hope.
"Many times, I thought, 'It's over,'" he recalled. Among similar times were his realization that he was gay, Milk's assassination in 1978 and the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. But with each of those experiences, he said, others helped him overcome his despair.
"I am thinking about the future. The past is with me," Jones said. "… But I'm not done. We're not done. The struggles aren't over."
He added, "Every one of you should look inside yourselves and figure out what it is that you bring to this fight."