Harvey Milk’s Birthday: Chatting With Cleve Jones


Tomorrow is Harvey Milk’s birthday. It’s an official holiday in California for the first time (signed into law last year by the Terminator), and will be marked here in the city by a march beginning at the GLBT Center at noon.

Runnin’ Scared spoke to the real-life Cleve Jones on the phone (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the 2008 film Milk) about Harvey’s birthday, the Prop 8 trial, Jones’s new project Equality on Trial, and founding the Names Project.

How will you be celebrating Harvey Milk’s birthday tomorrow?

I’m going to be on Castro Street for the unveiling of the new plaque, which will be placed on the sidewalk where his camera store was. Last night I spoke to the students and families and staff at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, which is an elementary school in the Castro neighborhood.

When you think of Milk, what’s the first image that comes to mind?

His grin, as he extended his hand to meet someone. He was quite fearless that way, you know. Whatever boundaries or barriers might be perceived by others, he was quite eager to cross. I really think that was his strength. In most respects, he was a very ordinary man. He wasn’t a genius or a saint. His life was full of failures and challenges that we all face, but he had courage to face them, he had a big heart, and he loved the city and all of its people. And he wouldn’t back down.

I want to ask you about your new project. But first, you set the bar pretty high with the Names Project. Did you envision how large it would grow?

I believed in the quilt and thought it would be enormous. But I didn’t really understand what that would mean. In terms of the hundreds of thousands of people — ultimately, millions — whose lives were affected by that project, I had no idea. I knew it would be huge, but I had no idea what that would involve.

Tell me about Equality on Trial. Do you see this as a continuation of the work Harvey did?

It’s a total continuation of a Harvey approach, which was to come out, and then reach out with your own truth. [After Prop 8 passed] I knew we have an organizing problem. We don’t have a national movement. This is a side effect of the state-by-state strategy. Another organizational problem for me is that I’m 55, so the Internet to me for all of its benefits is also a peril. I’m sorry, you’re not going to win a revolution by clicking a mouse. I think when people click on online petitions, it needs to lead to some offline action. The Internet is most useful when it hooks people up online and they meet online.

So that’s what we’ve got with Equality on Trial. There are three phases. The first phase is using re-enactments of the trial, in an effort to get the words of the trial out through guerrilla theater. People can watch them, or make their own. It’s a creative, positive, fun action. It requires people to meet offline, put together a cast and crew, do the performance, and have the camera person to record it and upload it. This will help people to understand the issues being explored in the trial.

But it’s the second phase that I’m even more excited about, and that will be the depositions. The witnesses on our side were so brilliant … but there were important voices no one heard. The testimony of ordinary Americans, gay and straight, who have experienced homophobia. People can upload their own testimony to our site. We want to tell those stories, and it means people have to work together offline, too. You can upload your testimony alone in your apartment, but we hope you’ll get together with others to do it.

The third phase is to present this body of evidence to the Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court in ways that are appropriate and effective.

How big do you think this project will grow?

I am very excited about it. It’s a real interesting situation we’ve got right now. Even as people here in California are talking about going back to the ballot to repeal Prop 8, there are ongoing struggles across the county in states and localities for fractions of equality. But this trial, however, has the potential to transform everything. And I think that’s why I’m so concerned about this. Look at Prop 8 specifically. We have a situation where the state has already granted to same-sex couples all the rights that the state can grant to couples. And that’s the legacy of Harvey’s successors in public office. Over many years, they’ve passed legislation that essentially gave gay and lesbian couples all the rights that the state can grant.

But those of course don’t include the most important rights of all. Those come from the federal government, not from the state. In discussing the state, even if Prop 8 had been defeated, same-sex couples would have remained second-class citizens in California — as they are in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, D.C., and Iowa. This trial has the potential to change everything. Potentially not only Prop 8, but the Defense of Marriage Act, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and all of the hateful state constitutional amendments that Republicans have successfully used as wedge issues. So it’s a big deal.

How disappointed were you that cameras weren’t allowed into the courtroom?

I was very disappointed. Not surprised, but disappointed. I was privileged to sit in the courtroom the first week, and to witness the first week of testimony. I kept thinking, if only people could see this, if only people could see this compelling, funny, heartbreaking, and poignant testimony.

Most importantly, our witnesses proved that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. Our opponents and their allies proved they were motivated by hatred of gay and lesbian people. So now here’s the situation: We’ve got closing arguments coming up soon, we’ve got a protracted process that I believe will ultimately end up in the United States Supreme Court. The challenge before us is how to communicate to our fellow citizens what we saw in that courtroom? How do we build and maintain an interest in the trial and its implications? And how do we try to come up with strategies that might reasonably be useful in reaching the hearts and minds of the Supreme Court justices, the president, and the Congress? This effort is part of a transformation in the strategy of the movement, which has been under way for 18 months, as more people understand only true equality can come from the federal level.

By a change in strategy, do you mean giving up a state-by-state strategy?

Yes. Until the Prop 8/Barack Obama election, the strategy has been unchanged for decades, of fighting county by county, city by city, for fractions of equality. And even when we won, those victories were incomplete and impermanent. They were incomplete because they didn’t include the big-ticket items from the feds — immigration, social security, military, taxation. I feel that this has been a failed strategy — but I don’t mean any blame. This is what we had to work with. I’m 55, I joined the movement in ’72. The reality is that all we could hope for were rights in liberal enclaves — Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Berkeley, Madison, Santa Cruz. We could hope for protection from eviction, limited job protection, maybe the right to visit our partners in the hospital. I don’t recall conversations before about full equality. I don’t recall anyone articulating what full equality meant.

How did you change your mind about what you were seeking?

I was with Dustin Lance Black, the young man who wrote Milk. We became close friends working on the film. In the months leading up to the election, we both left California to campaign for Obama. I spent a long time in Nevada. I work for Unite Here, which represents hotel and restaurant workers. I went off to Nevada, and made the decision that it was more important to leave California to fight for Obama than to stay in California and fight for Prop 8. I thought Prop 8 would be defeated, until the last months.

Lance and I were having these conversations about these endless ping-pong games. Even if we defeat Prop 8, the right wing will put it back in the ballot! My character has a line in the movie that “they can collect enough signatures in Orange Fucking County,” and that’s the reality! Even when we win, those victories are incomplete and impermanent. And we’ve seen how easily an electorate can become inflamed, and can vote away people’s rights. We see this over and over again.

So Lance and I were having these conversations: So what is the dream? We keep fighting for these crumbs?! There is no such thing as fractions of equality! One is equal or not equal! So we were struggling for a while to conceive what’s the one sentence that describes what we want. That will articulate the dream. And that sentence was, We seek equality protection in all maters governed by civil law, in all 50 states.

What happened after the election?

I was skeptical when I heard the kids calling it Stonewall 2.0. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of blips and bursts. There’s been so many times people have said, “Here comes the new generation, and the revolution is about to begin again,” and the new energy would dissipate and disappear. That first week of November was really important, because that was when America came to understand change was possible. And I don’t care how cynical you are about Obama — and I’m pretty damn cynical myself — one simply cannot overstate how important that election was. And then on that same day, this young generation of LGBT people got smacked upside the head with the reality of Prop 8 taking their rights away.

And just three weeks later, the film Milk came out, and reminded my generation what we had fought for, and informed the new generation of a history they’d never been taught in school — and showed an example of a statewide campaign in California that won! Thirty years before Prop 8, without spending millions of dollars!

So it was an eye-opener for sure. My sole focus since has really just been to focus people on the need for federal action, to apply pressure in all 435 congressional districts, and not just in the liberal states.

Another thing we bring up, I put this cautiously: There are similarities between the civil rights movement and the LGBT movement. There are differences, but there are some parallels. I think where we’re at is very similar to where the civil rights movement was in the early 1960s. When Dr. King and others would have to fight in places like Selma and Montgomery, but when they started to set their sights on Washington, D.C.

I was born in 1954 — the year of Brown v. Board of Education — and my earliest memories of the civil rights movement are of ’62 and ’63, when they were beginning to reject gradualism. They had started to focus on the feds, and focused on passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Now did that end racism in the United States? Of course not. But it established in the law of the land in all 50 states that race-based discrimination was illegal.

So I think we’re at a similar point in our movement, and this federal challenge to Prop 8 was enormously important. Because within this trial, we have seen all of the same, tired, bigoted, stupid arguments. The same lies and hypocrisy of our opponents.

They’re even trying to rescind some of their testimony from the record, I understand.

Right, it’s so embarrassing; they’re trying to remove some of their evidence from the record! It’s frustrating that more Americans aren’t aware of what’s going. So that’s the challenge. How do we get the word out? How do we support our community? And we came up with this idea. I’m hopeful it can make a real difference.

When you began as an activist, did you think marriage would someday be a goal? Was that even on your radar, or was marriage too hetero?

I’m old-school. I joined the gay liberation movement in 1972. If I had known that someday I’d be fighting for the right to marry or the right to join the military, I probably would have started dating women. [Laughs.] It’s about choices. Marriage is something that I probably wouldn’t seek out. And I’m a pacifist, so I probably wouldn’t be joining the army. But it’s about equal protection under the law to make these choices.