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Rainbow Warriors

What the leaders of the original gay rights resistance—seen this month in ABC’s miniseries When We Rise—can teach the new progressive agitators about love and war.


Cleve Jones.

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Cleve Jones in 1978.

Photo: Jerry Pritikin/Chicago

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Guy Pearce (left) and Austin P. McKenzie play Jones in ABC's When We Rise.

Photos: Courtesy of ABC

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Roma Guy today.

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Roma Guy.

Photo: Courtesy of Roma Guy

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Roma Guy as portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker (left) and Emily Skeggs.

Photos: Courtesy of ABC

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Ken Jones today.

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Ken Jones with Pam David.

Photo: Courtesy of Ken Jones

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Michael Kenneth Williams (left) and Jonathan Majors as Ken Jones.

Photos: Courtesy of ABC

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Diane Jones today.

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Diane Jones.

Photo: Courtesy of Diane Jones

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Diane Jones as portrayed by Rachel Griffiths (left) and Fiona Dourif.

Photos: Courtesy of ABC

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Cecilia Chung today.

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Cecilia Chung (second from the left).

Photo: Courtesy of Cecilia Chung

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Ivory Aquino as Cecilia Chung.

Photo: Courtesy of ABC

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It’s a late-September night in the Castro, and a thousand people are packed into the Castro Theatre to watch actor Alan Cumming (The Good Wife, Cabaret, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs) talk with longtime gay rights activist Cleve Jones.

Most of the people in the audience have come to see Cumming, the headliner and Hollywood star, but the affection the house feels for Jones is palpable. At one point, after Jones praises the younger gay generation, saying, “I don’t want to be that old queen wagging his finger and telling them how beautiful we were,” Cumming pauses for a moment and says quietly, almost to himself, “Cleve, you are such a darling.” Jones chokes up, and a man in the front shouts, “Cleve, we love you!” The audience erupts in applause.

For several decades, now 62-year-old Cleve Jones has been the best-known face, éminence grise, and beloved, cantankerous uncle of San Francisco’s gay rights movement. Now the former protégé of the late San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, creator of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, HIV-positive survivor, union organizer, and author of the recently published book When We Rise: My Life in the Movement is about to become known to a national audience.

Jones is one of several San Franciscans whose life stories will be streamlined and dramatized in the forthcoming ABC miniseries about the struggle for gay rights, also titled When We Rise. The seven-episode series, whose first installment airs on February 27, could be seen as the gay Roots (the groundbreaking 1977 ABC miniseries about slavery). While gay sitcoms, characters, and themes have appeared on television at least since the late ’70s, when Billy Crystal played Jodie on Soap, and there has been no shortage of documentaries dealing with gay themes, When We Rise is the first prime-time network docudrama about gay people. It will reach people residing in places far beyond the “bubble,” the LGBTQ-friendly, diversity-embracing, coastal-urban refuge from Trumpland that we call home. As such, it has the potential to be a cultural touchstone. “You can quote facts and cite law and science all you like, and you probably won’t change a single mind,” says series creator Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 2008 film Milk. “If you want to change a mind, you have to start by changing people’s hearts. And you change people’s hearts by telling personal stories.”

It’s not surprising that Black chose to highlight Cleve Jones’s story, which also was partially told in Milk. Jones’s new book at once provides a front-row view of the long battle for gay rights and recalls the rollicking and raunchy good times he had along the way. Jones describes how he missed Harvey Milk’s swearing-in at City Hall because he was “getting well fucked by a long-haired waiter at the New York City Deli named David Weissman.” He spends as much time describing climbing up to a tree house in Buena Vista Park for an erotic liaison as he does writing about learning the ropes in Sacramento while working in the state assembly for Speaker Leo McCarthy. The casual intermingling of the personal and the political, the sexual and the socially significant, gives the memoir a refreshing honesty (and makes one wonder whether Jones intended the title When We Rise to be a salacious double entendre). There’s plenty of outrage, passion, and pathos in Jones’s book, but not a shred of piety.

In writing his story, Jones originally planned to focus more on the later phase of the movement, in particular the battle against AIDS, but he ended up spending a lot more time on his early years. He says he realized when he began writing that it was crucial to memorialize a period not just filled with sexual escapades, carefree world travel, and couch surfing through a wild and loose San Francisco, but also haunted by persecution, bigotry, and fear. “I especially wanted younger gay people, and not just gay people, to know what our lives were like before decriminalization, before the movement grew, before HIV decimated us,” Jones says on an October afternoon on the patio of one of his favorite haunts, Café Flore on Market Street. “I wanted to try to convey how the lives of ordinary people were transformed by our movement. We went from being individuals who saw ourselves as being quite alone in the world to finding ourselves part of a community and a movement and a larger struggle. And because so many of my generation did not survive, I feel that these stories need to be told. And there will be people out there who will find these stories useful or helpful or inspiring in some way.”

For both Jones and screenwriter Black, those stories took on even more urgency on November 8, when Donald Trump’s election turned an elegiac undertaking into something far more politically pointed and urgent. “I would give anything in the world for this to be less necessary,” Black says on the phone from London, where he lives with his fiancé, British Olympic diver Tom Daley. “I’m not going to pretend like I ever could have guessed that we would be in this place politically when this series was finally completed. It breaks my heart.” But Black says the often-anguished history depicted in When We Rise provides the perspective necessary to keep the faith even in the darkest times. “As we worked on the series, the thing that became clear is the cyclical nature of the fight for equality,” he says. “Early on we use that Martin Luther King quote [from Theodore Parker], ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Well, that’s true, but when you’re on that path it feels like a pendulum, and right now the pendulum has started swinging backwards. But I hope that this series can act as a road map for folks to fight back, to see what it is that we can do at this moment to slow down their hateful machine.”

The genesis
of the series was in 2012, when Black’s agents told him that ABC was interested in making a more comprehensive docudrama about the LGBTQ movement than Milk, which was narrowly focused on the gay male community in the Castro. The fact that ABC, and not a more risk-taking cable network, was the interested party was a powerful draw for Black. “I grew up in Texas in a very conservative military community, and we as a family watched ABC,” he says. “We watched ABC because we trusted it, because it was a network that told family stories. And I thought, if I had an opportunity to tell a more comprehensive story about the LGBT movement, particularly one that focuses on families, there’s really no better network than ABC. Because there’s at least a chance that we won’t just be preaching to the choir. My family might watch this, my religious friends in Texas might tune in and learn something about who gay people are and who our families are. And I’ve always said that at the end of the day, if we just got to know each other, we’d realize that we have a lot in common.”

Black spent a year on the initial research for the project, meeting as many LGBTQ people as he could who had been involved in the grass roots of the movement. As he searched for the characters for the series, he developed three criteria. First, he wanted them to have worked in other movements, not just the gay rights movement, to show the universality of the struggle for social justice. Second, he wanted them to still be alive. “I wanted to say loud and clear that you can live your life openly, that you can live your life in service to your people and your neighbors, and you can survive and thrive,” he says. “I wanted to say to a new generation, ‘This is what your forefathers and foremothers fought for, and they did it, and look! Many of them are still around and still fighting! You can do this, too.’” Third, diversity was essential. Milk was criticized for failing to sufficiently acknowledge the role of lesbians and people of color in the movement, and Black was determined to have as broad a cast of characters as possible.

By the end of the year, Black had settled on five main characters whose stories would overlap throughout the series. All five of these people—Jones (played by Guy Pearce, best known for Memento); Roma Guy (Mary-Louise Parker of Weeds and Angels in America) and her wife, Diane Jones (veteran TV actor Rachel Griffiths); Ken Jones (Michael Kenneth Williams, Omar in The Wire); and Cecilia Chung (newcomer Ivory Aquino)—lived in San Francisco during the struggle and still live here to this day. (The latter four also all happen to be FOCs: Friends of Cleve.) “I did not intend for the series to be San Francisco–centric,” Black says. “When I was doing my research, I started with Stonewall [the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City], and I interviewed all the remaining people from Stonewall and from the [New York–based] Gay Liberation Front. And so many of them came to San Francisco after Stonewall. Harvey Milk came to San Francisco after Stonewall. When you boil it down, these were all young people, they were looking for safety, and there was very little of that at the time. San Francisco seemed to be the place where LGBT people could find safe harbor earliest.” 

The first person Black chose was Cleve Jones himself, whom he had befriended during the making of Milk. In fact, Jones wrote much of When We Rise, the book, at Black’s Los Angeles house at the same time that Black was working on the scripts for When We Rise, the miniseries. “Sometimes I would literally walk out of my office, which was littered with coffee mugs, to my living room to where Cleve was set up at my dining room table, and I would interrupt his writing to ask him a thousand more questions about things that happened in his life. That was helpful to me, and I think it was also helpful to him, to jog his memory,” Black says. 

Not entirely surprisingly, this unusual situation—two writers under the same roof, simultaneously working on two different projects with the same title—has given rise to a slight awkwardness about credit. Black says he has still not even read Jones’s memoir, a fact that renders inoperative the claim on the book’s cover that it is the “partial inspiration for the forthcoming ABC miniseries.” Black says, “The fair thing to say is that these were created in concert with each other and in collaboration with one another, and I think probably are better for having one another. It’s a far more special relationship than having simply read a book and adapted it to the screen.”

In addition to Cleve Jones, Black chose 74-year-old Guy, a longtime women’s rights activist who founded the Women’s Building in San Francisco; her wife, Diane Jones, 64, who worked as a nurse in the AIDS ward and clinic at S.F. General for more than 30 years; Ken Jones, a 66-year-old African American veteran who served three tours of duty in Vietnam and worked to integrate the navy before becoming a gay rights activist and mainstay of the International Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade; and Chung, a 51-year-old transgender Chinese American woman who was a pioneer in fighting for transgender rights. On top of their compelling personal stories, Black says, “It was really wonderful to see how many of them already knew each other. They had worked together, and they had formed a makeshift family of their own in many ways.”

Although all five of the subjects have high praise for Black and his team of writers and researchers, being involved in the project was not always easy. Diane Jones says that being the subjects of a docudrama was challenging for her extended family, which—in addition to Guy, whom Black initially approached—includes her daughter, Annie; Annie’s husband and children; and Annie’s other parent, Linda Jupiter. (Jones’s sperm donor, just to give the family an even more only–in–San Francisco twist, was gay rights activist and former assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is also portrayed in the series.) With the exception of Jupiter, this entire crew lives in the same Mission district duplex they’ve occupied since the 1980s—making the endless interviews Black and his team conducted an inescapable reality for the whole family. “Roma’s the one who agreed to do the series,” Jones says. “And there wasn’t a day that went by where somebody in our family didn’t say, ‘How the hell did you get us into this?’”

Like the other subjects, both Jones and Guy accepted with humor the inevitable changes to their actual stories required by the medium. “We felt that our lives were very dramatic, but apparently they weren’t dramatic enough!” Jones says, laughing. “When I talk to my colleagues and comrades and friends from the early days, I say to them, ‘Oh yeah, it’s gonna be the story where Diane Jones singlehandedly took care of the first 10,000 men who died of HIV, while you guys were sitting in the break room smoking your cigarettes.’” Guy says the most significant alteration she noticed was that “I agonized over my lesbianism and coming out too long. I’m not that kind of person. I agonize, I struggle, and then I say OK, and then I go and talk to my family—I do that, it happens.” She adds, laughing, “I’m like, ‘Damn! Just get over it!’”

Ken Jones initially found the research process overwhelming, but eventually he opened up to the intense grilling—with far-reaching personal consequences. “I Skyped Lance for a meeting, and there was this tremendously long conference table full of people with laptop computers hanging on to every single word I said,” Jones says. “The first sessions were a little intimidating. And I wasn’t that good a subject initially, because a lot of this stuff I had put in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to have to remember all the loss and sorrow and sickness. I resisted it for a very long time.” But Jones’s real breakthrough came at the inaugural table read (when the script is first read aloud by the actors). “I heard complete strangers reading about my life,” an experience, he says, that “was alarming and unsettling. And after it was over, I felt so relieved. I had no more secrets. I had no more shame, I had no more fear, it was all out there and I was free.”

Why would a respected 66-year-old veteran of the movement still be struggling with shame? “Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been overwhelmed with self-hatred and shame about being black, about looking black, about being kind of second-class, and on top of it another whole kind of stress I felt about this affection I felt for men,” Jones says. “That demon was there until the table read. Then it went away, and it went away for good. It’s amazing.”

With the weight of his personal burden lifted, Jones was able to appreciate the broader significance of When We Rise—and marvel at its potential impact. “I told Lance I wanted to do this for all the little black and brown kids in small towns across America who know that they feel different,” he says. “They may not know anything about gay, but they know they feel different. And they don’t know what to do with that difference. And I’m hoping what we’ve been doing will tell them, ‘Step out boldly in that difference. Free yourself. Step on out!’” 

By focusing on
the personal lives of a small group of gay people and their families, When We Rise could be seen less as the gay Roots and more as a TV version of the AIDS Memorial Quilt—a nonconfrontational way of winning heartland hearts and minds by emphasizing the things all Americans have in common. That is no small achievement. Cleve Jones says the one thing he’s proudest of having done in his life is founding the Names Project, a collection of hand-sewn quilts featuring the names of AIDS victims that was displayed across America, including at the National Mall and the White House Ellipse. “A few years into the project, when I began to get sick, I remember thinking, ‘It’s OK if I die now, because at least I did one good thing,’” he says. “And now that the decades have passed, I think the quilt really did help. I just don’t think there’s any doubt that it was a big part of the way this country changed and came to know her gay children at a time of our greatest suffering.”

If the quilt had a transformative effect on Americans who might never have knowingly met a gay person, it had an equally profound effect on Jones himself. Jones recently spoke to former mayor Art Agnos, who reminded him of how angry he used to be. That anger was necessary, Jones says, but it was becoming debilitating—both for him and for the movement as a whole. “I can’t hold on to that much anger,” he says quietly. “I learned that lesson very slowly during the pandemic, and it was part of my thought process in creating the quilt. I saw how people were being paralyzed by grief, but I also saw people being consumed by rage. And that anger can propel one only a certain part of the way. You can’t sustain a movement over decades on anger alone, because you burn out and you become cynical and you become bitter and then no one hears you anymore because you’re just wagging your finger and shrieking in the wind. People need love, and they need to get some indication that their struggle is worth it and having an effect.”

As Jones traveled with the quilt around the country from 1987 into the early 1990s, when he was growing increasingly sick, the compassionate reaction of countless ordinary straight Americans who had little to no connection to the gay rights movement had a huge effect on him. “Through the quilt, at a time when I needed it most, I received substantial evidence that not everyone in this country was full of hate for me and mine. That there was love out there in Oklahoma and North Dakota and Mississippi. I found people who embraced me and embraced the quilt and said, ‘What can we do to help?’ And that was very powerful for me.” 

Black, Jones, and the other principal inspirations behind When We Rise hope that the series will have a similarly therapeutic effect at a time when divisions in the country have never felt deeper. Cecilia Chung, who as a transgender leader belongs to a minority group subject to more violence and bigotry than most, wants audiences to identify not just with the suffering of LGBTQ people but also with their unwillingness to give up. “The most important part of the show is the resilience of the community, and how we rode through some of the harshest times in history,” she says. “We are all here. We survived those struggles and lived to tell the tale. In the end, it’s really about the triumph of the human spirit.” 

For Jones, too, the ultimate lesson of both his book and the TV series is one of affirmation. “When I was a child, I stole pills from my parents so that I could kill myself because I felt certain that I would be revealed, and then it would be over. I would have to kill myself,” he says. “Then I joined the movement, and I flushed the pills down the toilet and I came to San Francisco and I was mentored by Harvey Milk, who loved me and encouraged me. And I found his body on the floor of City Hall on November 27, 1978, and I thought it was over, and I thought everything was over. And you know, as the crowds gathered and the movement got stronger, I thought, ‘It’s not over.’ And then I got sick, and then really sick, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s over.’ And then I got access to the medications because ACT UP stormed the [National Institutes of Health].

“And after the treatments started to work and I was able to walk again and go out and drive a car, I was up living in the woods and I went to the grocery store and ran into a friend who was in the same clinical trial. He’d been near death, and now he was walking. We were in the produce section looking at melons, and he said, ‘Well, I guess we’re not going to die,’ and I said, ‘No, I guess not.’ And then he said, ‘But we’ll never be happy again.’ And I said, ‘No, we’ll never be happy again.’

“But the end of this story is, I am 62 years old, I am alive, I am strong, I am healthy, and I am very, very happy. And what I hope people might take away from my little book is that you can go through a lot and endure. You can struggle and suffer horrendous losses, but if you keep going and keep love in your heart, you can get through it. And I am living proof that one can survive and continue to love and be happy and find joy in life.”


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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