For more than 30 years, Cleve Jones has been center stage in the battle for gay civil rights. After growing up in Phoenix, unaware that other homosexuals even existed, he moved to San Francisco and befriended Harvey Milk, who would become the first openly gay man ever elected to public office. Under his wing, Jones found himself as a political activist, fighting for Milk’s election and against Proposition 6, which would have mandated the state to fire gay teachers. After Milk’s infamous assassination by San Francisco supervisor Dan White, Jones watched another crisis batter the gay community — the AIDS epidemic. At a vigil for Milk in 1985, he established the AIDS Memorial Quilt as a tribute to the friends he had lost to the disease. Today, it is the largest community art project in the world.
For 18 years, Jones crusaded to turn Milk’s story into a motion picture. Now, it is the subject of a new biopic by director Gus Van Sant, premiering Dec. 5. A young Jones appears in the film, played by Emile Hirsch, as a flippant twenty-something in glasses the size of his personality. Today Jones, HIV-positive and a self-described “cynical old queen,” is no ringer for Speed Racer, but it’s easy to see his resemblance to Hirsch’s youthful portrayal.
We met Jones on Nov. 3, the day before gay civil rights suffered disastrous losses in California, Florida and Arkansas. He talked to us about Barack Obama, Britney Spears and why he feels sorry for youth today.
Is there a particular message that you wanted young people to take away from the film?
Yeah, you know I’m real concerned about young people now and I hope it doesn’t sound condescending but I think that I feel bad for young people today. I don’t think it is a great time to be young. I think young people today have far fewer options than my generation had. But, and now there’s a study to back up what I’ve been suspecting, which is that your generation, despite this technology that is supposed to be about connecting you, has produced a generation that is disconnected, isolated, paralyzed, powerless. And I see evidence of it everywhere. So one of my new mantras whenever I’m speaking to young people is: Please, turn off your computers, go outside, make eye contact with other human beings and experience what it’s like to march shoulder to shoulder and face the people that would oppress you. And don’t think that signing a virtual petition can change the world because clicking your mouse is not enough.
Do you think the Internet has made young gay people feel less alienated because they have access to knowledge that there’s a community?
When I was struggling with coming out, one of the things that was frightening for me was that for many years I didn’t know there were other people like me. And as weird and as impossible as that may sound to you, that’s what my generation experienced. As you’re first becoming aware of why you’re different and what that difference means. There were so many times I would just cry myself to sleep thinking there’s nobody like me. So between the changes in pop culture and the internet, I think there’s very few queer kids growing up anymore thinking they’re all alone. But for those of you who spend all your time online and study online and play games online and hook-up online, I’m concerned. I mean really, cruising in person is so much more fun.
You said last night you thought of the film as propaganda. What did you mean by that?
Well I meant that in the sense that I’m not from the film world, I’m not an artist and not a film-maker. I’m a political activist and so from the beginning my concern about this film was about its ability to advance the movement. And I think that’s entirely appropriate because Harvey Milk, even when he became a candidate, always said that his candidacy was part of a movement. This film, in my opinion, is part of a movement and will go, I believe, a long way towards communicating the history and goals of our movement to a wider audience.
Were you involved in the casting process at all? Did you get to help choose who would play you?
I had veto power over the actor. But I loved Emile and I first saw him in Into the Wild and I got very lucky to have him play me. And we got very close. He’s a sweet kid, smart and a very, very serious actor.
While you worked for Harvey Milk, what made him such an extraordinary political figure?
His kindness. His empathy, his ordinariness. He was a shopkeeper; he was just a real guy. His personal life was always in disarray. He never had any money. He owned one suit. One pair of dress shoes that he got at a thrift store. He endured all of the ordinary disasters and humiliations that we all experience. There was nothing about him that was particularly lucky or brilliant — he had courage though and he would not be silent and I think he’s a great example of an ordinary person who changed the world.
One of the really surreal things about the movie is how it explores the relationship between Dan White [Harvey Milk’s assassin] and Harvey Milk so explicitly. Do you think it was an accurate portrayal?
Yeah. I knew Dan. We had hope to cast Matt Damon in that role and Matt couldn’t do it because of a scheduling problem and when I met with Josh [Brolin], I really didn’t know anything about the guy. And I remember looking at his face and thinking, “Oh it will be okay.” But when he came out of wardrobe – that scene where he’s announcing his candidacy was the first scene we shot. That was the first day of production. And my hair stood on end. And he walked by me and looked at the expression on my face and burst out laughing and said, “Hey, I guess it works!” When we broke for lunch he sat down at my table and I couldn’t eat with him sitting there. It was like, how do I eat my lunch with Hitler sitting across the table. It was so weird.
What do you think Milk would have thought about the status of gay civil rights today?
Marriage was not even on our list. I should say that I am old-school. If I had known in 1972 when I joined the movement that in 2008 we would be fighting for the right to be soldiers and get married, I think would have started dating women.
Right now you have this really expensive campaign for and against Proposition 8 in the 1970s you had the same sort of thing for Prop. 6. What’s similar and what’s different?
What’s similar is the arguments of our opponents. It’s always the same old shit. You can’t let gay people be free or they’ll do this or that towards children or this or that towards churches. I’m so tired of seeing gay people be blamed for the breakdown of heterosexual marriage. It seems to me like heterosexuals did that all on their own without any help from us, thank you Britney. The same old hysterical, hateful argument exists. If you took the campaign literature for “Yes on 8″ and compared it with “Yes on 6,” it’s the same old crap. Nothing’s changed. What is different though is that now history is on our side.
As the LGBT movement becomes more mainstream do you think there’s no longer a need for the gay ghetto, or do you think it’s still necessary to have a physical community?
I look forward to a day when it won’t be necessary. And I don’t think it’s as necessary as it was for safety. I mean, back then it was like this one block where I could walk down holding hands with a boyfriend. And now there are many blocks in many cities all around the world.
You’re well-known for your AIDS outreach. When did you first start hearing about the disease? What was the community’s reaction to it?
You know the spring of ‘79, after Harvey was killed, a couple of my friends got meningitis. By the 1980, I was aware that a number of my friends weren’t in good health. It was in 1981 that the Center of Disease Control published their three-paragraph article. I had the idea for the quilt at the 1985 candlelight memorial for Harvey Milk and George Moscone. So the stories are so intertwined. And you know that is a big part of why this story has been so poignant and bittersweet for me: Almost everybody I knew from that time is gone.