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When We Rise: A Love Letter to LGBT Activism

When We Rise

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Above: Austin P. McKenzie (as young Cleve, front left) and other youthful activists watch the news in Harvey Milk’s campaign office in When We Rise.

Back then, he says, they had no idea that this was in their future: where marriage equality is the law of the land, tweens identify openly as gender-fluid, and the wholesome Disney-owned ABC network is airing a miniseries about queer and trans lives.
 
“In all of our visioning, exercising, and our planning, this was nowhere on the radar,” he laughs. “And I tell you, it just breaks my heart that so many of the old gay liberationists are not with us at this moment to witness this. You know, it just makes me very, very sad. They worked so hard, and no one could have imagined ABC doing this.”

Like Cleve Jones, Ken Jones has been HIV-positive since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when he was taking care of homeless LGBT youth and other people with HIV. He cared for, then buried, his partner, losing his home and all his possessions in the process — not an uncommon experience in a time when gays had few legal protections and two men were rarely on a mortgage or lease together.

“I spent a good deal of time preparing myself to die with dignity and grace,” Jones recalls of that time. “They had initially told me I had about 30 days. So, for about five years I sat there waiting to die. And then slowly this thought kind of dawned on me: Maybe I’m not going to die. So, then I had to go through this whole kind of re-shifting of my life. From preparing to die to starting all over again, and having most of my support network and contacts dead. Starting over again, with absolutely nothing.” 

His situation “went from bad to worse” in the early 1990s. After the Rodney King verdict came in, he says, “I actually broke down, and I guess you would say I started experiencing PTSD from Vietnam 25 years later. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my house. I couldn’t cross the street. If I heard a car coming I would duck and hide underneath another car. I was totally insane.”

Jones connected with PTSD specialists at the Veterans Affairs hospital in San Francisco who helped him through this critical period of his life. As did his faith. 

He understands why many young LGBT folks turn away from religion. “It is the church that is unsafe,” he says. “It is religion that is unsafe. But it’s the spirituality and the direct connection to God [that’s important] … that private relationship you have with God. This is such a crucial discussion right now because some people think that God hates gay people. I want to have a very honest conversation because that’s not true.”

Ken Jones experienced the racism that lingered in San Francisco well into the 1990s. As a homeless 20-year-old living out of a VW bus, I recall Ken Jones fighting to develop a home for black, trans, and queer street kids in the Castro. Ironically, the gayborhood worried a shelter would draw the wrong kind of people to the gentrified area. 

“And,” Jones recalls, “the biggest opposition came from the people who would love you at 2 a.m. in the morning, and don’t want to have anything to do with you at the crack of dawn.”

But Jones continued to push, insisting that older gays needed to help the queer youth who continued to flock to San Francisco without money, support, or resources — often fleeing hostile or even violent families. All the while, Jones battled racial prejudice within the gay community, while the women fought the sexism. “We had to literally fight in order to participate.”

He says activists in those days “made a mistake. One of our misunderstandings in the beginning was, if there were eight to 10 people at the decision-making table, our thinking was since they’re all gay, white men, two or three are going to have to give up their seat for diversity. Now, they haven’t done anything wrong. They haven’t failed. They’re at the top of their game, they’re doing well, and they’re being asked to give up their seats. How crazy is that? So, some people left with a whole bunch of anger and resentment towards the people coming in taking those seats. Along the way, we realized it’s a lot more healthy if we add more seats to the table, as opposed to asking people to get up and surrender their seat for the sake of diversity.”

Cecilia Chung is one of those who earned a spot at the table, not just as a representative of diversity, but because she gets shit done. When she first came to San Francisco she was estranged from her immigrant family, experienced homelessness, turned to sex work and drug use to survive, and encountered no small amount of violence. 

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