The Organizer: Cleve Jones

In a year when Cleve Jones saw his critical role in gay history portrayed on the big screen, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the pioneer had just sat back and basked in the glory of all the attention. But Jones instead continued making history.

A Castro Street compatriot of Harvey Milk’s in the 1970s and the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the ’80s , Jones cochaired this year’s National Equality March and is endeavoring to strengthen bonds between the LGBT movement and organized labor.

Over the past year, several factors created perfect timing for the march, Jones says—including Obama’s election, Democratic majorities in Congress, and the passage of Prop. 8 in California. “We saw that real change is possible for America, and we saw how easily rights can be taken away.” Then, energizing new and veteran activists alike, came the acclaimed film Milk, with Emile Hirsch playing Jones, and the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. “This is a rare moment of opportunity, and we need to seize it,” Jones says.

National gay rights efforts are important, Jones says: “If you want equality before the law, you need to focus your attention on the federal government.” While Obama and Congress have been slow to act, Jones believes action will come if LGBT people keep pressing.

He’s pursuing new allies as director of the LGBT community program for the labor union Unite Here, which represents workers in several industries, including hospitality. In 2008 it initiated a boycott of Southern California hotels owned by Prop. 8 supporter Doug Manchester, costing him more than $7 million in convention business, Jones says.

While gays and labor have cooperated fruitfully since the 1970s Coors beer boycott (in which Milk was a key player), Jones says, the Prop. 8 battle drove home the need for further LGBT outreach to immigrant working families.

Of the Milk biopic, Jones says, “I’m very proud to have played a part in bringing that story to the screen.” What would Milk be doing today? “He would be telling us to push as hard as we can.”