Sunday, March 12, 2017

Not as it was advertised.

So, after sitting through 8 hours of ABC's When We Rise, which while good, also had a whole host of issues, I decided to take some advice and read the source material, or at least part of it, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones.

Which, one would think based on the cover blurbs, had more to do with the history of gay liberation and less of being Cleve's memoir. It's really a bit of both, although some of the problems inherent in the movie version aren't present in the prose. But, since this is a book review, and not a picking at the 80's cereal commercial disguised as a story about gay rights, let's get back to the book. I'll do my best to keep the movie out of this, particularly since of the two other focus people in the movie, one gets one mention in the book, and the other is never mentioned at all.

By far the biggest problem with the book, particularly for those of us coming in expecting a history lesson, is that the first 100+ pages are life in San Francisco and (briefly) Maricopa county, Arizona, prior to much of anything gay rights related. Cleve arrives in 1971, two years after Stonewall, but again, nothing is really happening, beyond him joining a few college groups that really don't do much of anything. We hear about Cleve doing drugs, we hear of Cleve cruising the city (and later Europe) in search of sex. Or searching for sex and drugs. Or generally not doing much of anything but being a gay hippie in 70's San Francisco, Germany, Turkey, etc. I mean, eventually, he sort of ties in some of what I was actually reading this for, discussing a gay rights near riot in Barcelona. Which also seems to be about the only point in the first half when he thinks of being gay as anything that doesn't involve his penis or anus. (I'm not trying to slut shame him here. I'm merely stating that going in looking for stories of the revolution and finding Jackie Collins is not what I was expecting. Not to mention, it gets a bit dull reading about how many men he woke up next to with his face buried in their chest hair.) This doesn't exactly change much in later chapters, as we hear of him skipping a speech in Austin because he met a hot guy in line for a water fountain.

Anyway, things do start to improve after Harvey Milk's election and inauguration (which Cleve skipped because he was in bed with his barista.) It's about this point where Mr. Jones actually starts to get involved in the community. Admittedly, some of the references he throws in are well before my awareness started (he discusses Rev. Jim Jones and the People's Temple a few places, as well as some guy fasting to death in Northern Ireland), but it's fascinating hearing first hand perspective on life in San Francisco during that period. (Mr. Jones goes a bit more in depth than say, Armistead Maupin in Tales of the City.) We hear about the campaign to stop Anita Bryant, and the defeat of the Briggs Initiative. We hear about Milk's plan to try to stop something akin to the Watts riots from happening in San Francisco. (Which basically amounted to keep em marching until they're too tired to riot.) This works out fairly well until Dan White gets convicted on Manslaughter charges, which in turn sets off the White Night riots.

Eventually, we move into GRID and AIDS. While Randy Shilts' ...And the Band Played On is a better book on the subject (and I'll add in here that when I got to college there was a bit of a joke that every gay man got handed a copy as soon as they came out), it also has a larger focus. Cleve here gives us a much more personal view of life when the obits are 3 pages long every day; you make friends, they die, you make new friends, then they die. (On a side note, there's a poster mentioned that a gentleman made with pictures of his KS lesions to warn other gay men what to look for under the heading "Gay Cancer?" (I tried a Google Image Search to find it, but trust and believe me that googling Gay Cancer is not a good idea.)

Soon enough, we get into Mr. Jones's big claim to fame, the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt. And unlike the movie, Mr. Jones goes more in depth about his mildly adversarial relationship with Larry Kramer, who founded ACT UP. (Kramer tells Jones he should burn the quilt. Jones tells Kramer only if Kramer rolls himself up in it first.)

And on and on, we learn of Jones being one of the first to get the new cocktail that lets him survive AIDS.

And we move into the making of Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant's version of Milk. While most of the narrative from this point on tends to get shamelessly name droppy, there are a few funny bits within, like his unsaid comment to Sean Penn about being married to Madonna and not knowing much about gay culture.

Much of Jones' involvement in big developments ends with the repeal of Prop 8 and the striking down of DOMA at the Supreme Court, with the last chapter reflecting on Obergefell vs Hodges.

All things said and done, there are quite a few gems and a good story within the pages. Problem would be the amount of chaff one has to sort through to get to the wheat. I really wish they had been more honest with the advertising on the cover, so I didn't go in expecting things to start off as more than Mr. Jones being everything the Daughters of Bilitis accused gay men of being at the outset.I can also say that after reading this, I can more firmly point the finger of blame at my issues with the movie being due to people other than the author of 1/3 of the source material. Mr. Jones comes off as a bit too self-absorbed to worry about the Boomer vs. Millennial crap that seems to be all the rage.

Also, I'm a bit sad that the best quote in the book is not something the author wrote himself, but rather a line by Harry Hay that better sums up one of the divides in gay culture, about how gay people must decide for ourselves if we're like the rest of society except for what goes on in the bedroom, or if we're different from the rest of society except for what goes on in the bedroom.

It's a readable book, and I'd be inclined to suggest it to folks looking for an introduction to the movement, followed by other sources that cover more or more in depth the topics within. Then again, the author has also sort of avoided something that Harvey Milk suffers from, which is that his memory is really influenced more by the people that knew him than by his own words and deeds.