Gay Rights Activist Urges Younger Generation to Continue Harvey Milk's Fight for Equality
"If you think we are equal ... then demand equality in all areas"
BERKELEY - Gay rights activist Cleve Jones, who is portrayed in the movie "Milk," spoke at UC Berkeley on Thursday, urging the younger generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to continue the fight for equality that Jones' friend and mentor, Harvey Milk, began more than 30 years ago.
"In 1972, when I came to San Francisco, if someone had told me that I would be fighting for the right to get married or join the Army in 2009, I think I would have started dating women," said the 54-year-old Jones, jokingly.
Jones, the founder of the AIDS quilt, the world's largest community arts project that now contains more than 40,000 panels dedicated to people who have died from the disease, and the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was equally comedic and serious during a 90-minute talk and question-and-answer session for several hundred students and community members Thursday.
"I think it's very important that there be more connections between the generations, so here I am from the gay Jurassic (to share some insights)," he said, at the start of his talk.
Jones is portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in the film "Milk," which has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture. "I love Emile. He's such a sweet boy. I was taller ... but I was that cute. I had that big silly hair and those big glasses, and I was that hot for about six weeks in the mid-1970s." The crowd roared with laughter.
Jones said he met Milk at Castro and 18th streets shortly after hitchhiking in 1972 from Arizona to San Francisco to join the gay rights revolution. Jones, who was a teenager at the time, said he didn't immediately like Milk, who was in his 40s at the time. But as he watched him speak to people at bus stops and in Bingo parlors, he said he quickly learned that the politically campaigning Milk had "the ability to connect to ordinary people" and spur change.
Jones took a job as a student intern in Milk's office while studying political science at San Francisco State University, and the two worked together on gay rights and other issues. In 1977, Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "He had courage and he spoke the truth," Jones told the hundreds of people who packed Heller Lounge at UC Berkeley Thursday afternoon.
In November 1978, less than a year after he was elected to office, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down by Dan White, a fellow supervisor who had resigned and wanted his job back. White was convicted of manslaughter and spent five years in prison. He killed himself in 1985, two years after his release.
The killing of Milk changed Jones' life, and he has gone on to become a well-known and respected gay activist, said Leslie Ewing, the executive director of the Pacific Center, which co-sponsored the talk with the Gender Equity Resource Center and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
Now 54 and living in Palm Springs, Jones said it has become his mission to encourage young people to continue the fight for equality.
"We (gay people) didn't ask to be separated out, but that is what has happened. If you think we are equal to form lasting and loving relationships, if you think we are equal to parent and foster children, if you think we are equal to serve our country, then demand equality in all areas," he said fiercely from the podium.
He said young gay rights activists need to reach out to immigrant communities and work with labor unions because true activism takes all types of people. Labor unions are also historically organized, he said.
"If you think you are going to bring about social change by clicking a (computer) mouse or signing an online petition or going to a black tie dinner, you are wrong," Jones said. "If you really want change you've got to work - build committees, build allies, build coalitions.
Jones said it took him 30 years to get the movie of Milk's life and work made. He said he read dozens of scripts over the years and all "were awful." Four years ago when he read what writer Dustin Lance Black had written, he said he was "stunned at how much Black new about Milk." Jones and Milk director Gus Van Sant had long been friends, and Jones worked as historical consultant on the film.
Jones said Milk dedicated his life to exposing and fighting homophobia.
"Now it's up to young people to continue his work," Jones said.