The story will be a familiar one to many readers. In rural Arizona, a white high school student is flipping through a popular magazine one afternoon while hiding from gym class in the school library and comes across an article about LGBT organizing. The son of leftist academics he’s spent his childhood marching picket lines and passing out leaflets, but until reading the magazine article this seventeen-year-old had never been given language to speak of his desires. The year was 1971, the article “Homosexuals in Revolt!” and the teenager Cleve Jones. And in his memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (Hatchette, 2016), Jones tells a story that is historically specific yet also gestures toward an experience that many queer youth across generations have lived through: that of growing into adulthood without the language to describe your sexual desires, of somehow stumbling into queer community, of finding both individual love and a broader sense of solidarity within a self-conscious political movement. When We Rise is a passionately written and thoughtful addition to the growing body of memoirs from those who came of age during the Gay Liberation years.
While it touches on the plague years — we’ll get to the 1980s below — Jones makes a conscious decision not to focus on the trauma of the AIDS epidemic when a diagnosis came with a life expectancy of six months. While he began the project thinking to focus equally on the two halves of the story — before June 1981 and all that came after — in the end he discovered that “the stories [he] most wanted to tell were of the years before the plague, when we were still young and unaware of the horror” that AIDS would bring (291). As a result, readers are treated to a lovingly-rendered, finely-detailed portrait of Jones’ twentysomething decade of couch-surfing activist life in a unique moment in U.S. history where (white, middle-class) kids could drop out of college without the burden of student loan debt, the cost of housing in major metropolitan areas was relatively cheap, and a young white man could hitchhike through the United States and Europe with relatively low fear (or perhaps simply overweening hubris) of threats to their physical safety.
Having been introduced to San Francisco both by the national media and a lover, met at Quaker meeting, Jones makes do with local gay liberation networks in Arizona until the summer of 1973 when the siren song of California pulls him west. Once there, he couch-surfs through a series of living situations punctuated by extended visits to Europe where he meets up with a friend and lover who lives in Berlin. Through the pages flit many storied denizens of the San Francisco activist scene: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Harvey Milk, Anne Kronenberg, and Armistad Maupin. Wage work is picked up and abandoned as opportunity appears and movement action requires. Eventually, toward the end of the 1970s, Jones is offered a position in professional politics as a staffer working with Assemblyman Art Agnos in Sacramento.
Jones is still working for Agnos when the CDCs Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report begins to report the first signs of the syndrome that would eventually be named AIDS: deaths from pneumonia, rare forms of cancer, and opportunistic infections. The chapters of When We Rise that cover the plague years take on a more choppy, impressionistic style that helps to convey the way that AIDS decimated the nascent community that Gay Liberation had made possible and fundamentally altered the terms of our national discussion about sexual identity and desire. In the midst of grappling with his own near-death from AIDS, Jones was also one of the visionaries behind the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The AIDS story, as seems fitting, has no easy resolution: the chapter recounting the period during which he prepared to die and then slowly … didn’t, ends with an exchange Jones had with another survivor where they mutually conclude: “We’ll never be happy again” (238).
The final chapters of Jones’ memoir brings the narrative up to the present, a whirlwind recitation of recent political struggles (Proposition 8) and victories (Obergefell) that will be familiar to most readers. Still a resident of San Francisco, where he works in union organizing, Jones served as historical consultant on the film Milk (2008) and this memoir is, itself, being used as inspiration for a television miniseries. When We Rise is, in the end, both a celebration of the incredible progress that queer activists have made in the past seventy years, and a sobering reminder of both the loss of life and the tireless efforts it took to reach this point.