Last week I had the opportunity to interview veteran LGBT activist Cleve Jones about the upcoming National Equality March and his role inside the community. Instead of doing a standard interview, I asked our readers to submit questions and I simply asked the questions they provided.
I've put all three videos into one post. You can click next to the video to jump directly to the transcript. You can also catch any of the interviews you might have missed and see them all flow into each other.
Here's the first part of the interview.
Bilerico Project's interview with Cleve Jones: National Equality March questions
Bilerico Project's interview with Cleve Jones: National Equality March questions
BB: So all these questions came from the Bilerico Project's Twitter and Facebook account. We decided we were going to allow them to ask their own questions, instead of just me asking them.
BB: So your main justification for the march is that people will be able to network and organize. When are they supposed to do this? Are they supposed to do it in the street in the couple of hours they have after the march or before they have to leave to go home?
CJ: Well, that's not really a true representation of what I'm trying to do. We're trying to change the strategy of the movement. We believe that the strategy that we have followed thus far - which was what made sense at the time and a strategy that was advanced by good, dedicated, hard-working people - is nonetheless a failed strategy. I am tired of fighting state by state, county by county, city by city, for fractions of equality. I am tired of compromises and I am tired of the strategy that divides us from each other. It is time for us to unite across state boundaries in a truly nationwide movement to win full, actual equality, which can only come from the federal government. That's not my opinion. That's a fact. If we want to be equal under the law, we must now - as the great heroes of the Civil Rights movement of 1963 and 1964 showed us - turn our attention to the federal government.
BB: At the march, will you commit to making an effort to raise money for the fight in Maine?
CJ: We have already made that commitment and are going to do everything we can, but I want to emphasize again that the fight in Maine, the new attempt in Iowa by the religious conservatives to overturn the decision, the upcoming likely fight in Washington, the incredibly expensive battle that we're about to go through again in California, these fights will continue indefinitely until we achieve equality under the law recognized by the federal government. I am tired of this ping-pong game. Every time we go around and around with this it costs millions of dollars that could be spent on HIV education, on senior programs, on programs for queer youth. We have to stop this. And win.
BB: What is the plan to train the grassroots? We hear about the march, but not about the core value of the event.
CJ: You know, it's so important that we unite across our state boundaries. And I think what we hear from people like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank and the LGBT folk that are working within the Obama administration, when they tell us things like we're not being realistic, or now is not the time, I think what they're telling us is that we don't have the votes. So everything we're doing is about encouraging people to work in all 435 congressional districts. During the weekend, we are going to be working with a whole bunch of organizations on practical political trainings. Obviously there's not a whole lot one can do in a weekend. What I hope very much to do, and believe that we will succeed in doing, is encouraging people, inspiring people, and getting them to think about the reality of how our government works. That we will not have equality until we get those votes in Congress. Clearly we want Obama to do more, and we want Obama to keep his promises, but Obama alone cannot rewrite the laws. We need those votes. You know, I believe we can do this, and the march alone obviously will not accomplish that. Writing letters alone will not accomplish that. Making contributions to friendly candidates alone will not accomplish that. But if we do all of these things, we can change some of those votes in Congress, and we can win.
BB: What can those of us do if it's impossible for us to travel to Washington? How can we be included?
CJ: You know, I just got emails from people in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and Vancouver and Toronto who are going to organize solidarity rallies at US embassies in those countries on October, 11. I want to encourage everybody to come to Washington, DC if at all possible, but of course we know that even during times of prosperity it's not possible for everybody to go, and we are not in a time of prosperity. So I think October, 11 is National Coming Out Day, and it would be my hope that everyone who cannot attend the march would organize support rallies in their own local communities, preferably at federal buildings or at the offices of their members of Congress or perhaps even the residences of their members of Congress. But there's all sorts of actions that could be taken on that day that would support the overall call for full equality under the law.
BB: The National Equality March has issued a list of priorities and goals around which it expects people to go back to various districts and organize. Why is HIV not on that list of priorities? Cleve and the National March are in a perfect position to prevent a repeat of the deaths, disease, and destruction of the LGBT community as a result of HIV. Is Cleve okay with abdicating the ability to harness this event's power to reconnect HIV as a gay community priority?
CJ: I understand there are people who are saying that I don't care about AIDS, which I find ironic considering I have AIDS and have been living with HIV for longer than some of these people have been alive. I put a good twenty years of my life into fighting the pandemic. I was a co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. I was the originator of the NAMES Project/ AIDS Memorial Quilt. I got arrested at ACT UP demonstrations in Washington, DC. I care deeply about this issue. This is a march for LGBT equality. And it is my belief that when we win the legislative equality, that when we win this battle in Congress, and the President signs these bills or the Supreme Court rules in our favor, that it will free up resources that we can put into this fight. I also believe that the stronger we become politically, that the more we unite across state boundaries to focus on Congress, that we will be in a much better position to fight for funding. As I think most people know, we're organizing this in a very short window of time, but we reached out two months ago to the HIV/AIDS activists, we reserved the Ellipse for Saturday night so that there could be a HIV/AIDS specifically focused event. Most of the people that are on our team felt that they didn't have the, that their level of knowledge of current issues facing the HIV community was not adequate to take leadership on that. So we reached out to ACT UP Philadelphia, to a whole host of HIV/AIDS activist organizations around the country, this was coordinated by a group called CHAMP. As of today, they have not been able to pull something together. We haven't given up. But we wanted to come up with one demand, one demand that we hope will unify all of our people and focus on the issue of equality under the law. When we achieve equality under the law it will open the door for us to do a great many more things, and show the power that we have to make that happen. I think the decision to stick with one demand was a wise one, and I do not regret it.
BB: Would you ask about the expected outcome? The impact of this year's march? Reaction to the supposedly recent post-AIDS era of media attention? And expected progression of same-sex marriage initiatives?
CJ: Well, I just have to come back to what I hope. I mean, if the question is, as I understand it, what do we hope to get out of this, and where things will move afterwards, I hope to galvanize and reenergize the movement and link us across state borders to create a truly national movement for true, actual equality. I want our people to stop accepting second-class citizenship, to reject incrementalism, to reject compromise, and to reject delay. If people feel that they're equal, I think it's time that they act that way. And a free and equal people would not accept the kind of crap that we're hearing from our own leaders and from our elected representatives. We are tax-payers, we serve in the military, we build strong neighborhoods and healthy communities, we are equal in our ability to parent, we are equal in every respect, and we need to act that way and build a movement that reflects that. That's what I hope will be the outcome of this.
Cleve Jones interview: The non-March questions
Bil Browning: Cleve, why do you care? I mean seriously, the people that have nothing better to do but complain are attacking you for taking action because, they think, I don't know for sure, let's say they say think you should be doing something else.
Now I don't think the carping second guessing devil's advocate types will agree on anything that should be done but that won't stop them from piling on, so honestly Cleve, why do you bother?
Cleve Jones: (laugh) I love this work, I mean our community can be really difficult from time to time, you know, but you know I love this work and I think it's very exciting, I'm 54 years old, I've seen enormous change and great progress and I want to see more.
I love connecting with all the different segments of our community, all the different kinds of people who are doing this work. There are days that are frustrating, days when I go to bed very tired and angry, but most of the time I enjoy it, I really do and I think it matters and I think that we can win.
Bil Browning: Do you think that any of our LGBT rights leaders/organizations will ever organize a massive act of civil disobedience that will force our government and fellow citizens to take us seriously? So far the protests we've done for the past few decades have barely registered on most straight peoples radar and we seem afraid to appear too angry or too entitled.
Cleve Jones: I think it's unlikely that any of our national organizations or leaders will push for that but I do believe that non-violent civil disobedience is a very important and useful tactic.
I grew up during the days of the anti-war movement and civil rights movement and I believe that there is a place for civil disobedience in this movement and I have over the past year or two been working with people to try to come up with strategies to remind people of that history and how those tactics work but I grew up with that tradition and believe that it is very useful and I want to encourage that, yes.
Bil Browning: How important is the support of the straight community and what are some ways to let them know that?
Cleve Jones: I think support of the straight community is very important and I think there has been a profound shift in public opinion seen reflected in many ways. We do not need straight people to speak for us but we do want straight people to stand with us.
Again I go back to the parallels with 1963, 1964 when white America really became aware of the brutality of segregation, the cruelty of the apartheid system which existed in the south. Then white people began to get on the freedom buses and travel to the south and be part of the voter registration drives and they... some of them were beaten and some of them were murdered but they stood with the African-American community and the civil rights movement.
It's time for straight people to do that today and it is time for us to insist that they do that today and I think we are going to see a great deal of straight people participating in the march and in the actions that will follow.
Bil Browning: What advice would Cleve have for a young activist like myself who finds it very challenging to motivate myself or let alone others in hard times.
Cleve Jones: I hear a lot from young people who want to be activists and you know the first thing I always say is that I hope you do it, we need you, we urgently need new leadership.
I think to be effective it's really important to love the work and If it you get to the point where you're feeling like you're making a sacrifice to do this work you probably should re-consider.
To be effective requires a commitment of many years of work and it can be grueling it's often thankless. Our community can be really mean sometimes you know and you've to to have a thick skin. If you can do that I think there's a role for everyone.
I love this work, despite all the crap I love this work, I find it exhilarating and exciting and it connects me with so many wonderful people. Beyond that I would also say, you know to, you know, to tell your own story, to to to to speak to people from where you're really and what your own experience is. All of us, I think have examples of how homophobia has hurt us, hurt our families, hurt people that we love. Keep it real, keep it personal and be fearless and know that what we're doing is... and maybe this is the most important thing, to see our work in this movement as part of something bigger. It's not just about us. Any social movement that seeks to benefit only it's own members I think is a shallow movement and probably doomed to failure. So, during those days when you're exhausted and during those days when you're frustrated, during those days when you're being attacked by your own people for doing what you think is right, remember you're part of a progression that goes back a long time of ordinary people who are doing their best to make it a better world.
This is a part of a broader movement for peace and for social justice and we are taking our rightful place among the ranks of all these ordinary men and women today and generations before us who've committed to do this work.
Bil Browning: For those of us in flyover country why would we - everything is east coast, west coast in LGBT life the way it is. The east coast is getting their gay marriage the west coast is got it taken away, now there's a tantrum let's go have a march. What speaks to us in the middle to help to help bring those of us that are not in driving distance to D.C.
Cleve Jones: Well as you know now Bill, my family comes from Bee Ridge, Indiana, I am also a Hoosier, I grew up in the Midwest and while I do live in California, I spend most of my time on the road and I spend a great deal of time in states like Indiana where there is little hope for any substantive progress from the state legislature.
That is why from the beginning I said don't make it be just about marriage equality. Prop 8 was very important to our community, less so about marriage than about permanence of the victories we are able to gain at the state and local level. What was important to me about Prop 8 to me was not so much marriage specifically, but the fact that the younger generation who was taking an awful lot for granted, learned that all they thought they had could be taken from them in the blink of an eye by a popular vote of fifty percent plus one.
I also want to say something. I am old school, I joined the gay liberation movement in 1972. If you had told me in 1972 that in the year 2009 I would be campaigning for the right to join the army or get married I think I would have started dating women at that time.
I have no personal desire to get married whatsoever and I certainly have no desire to be a soldier. I'm old school, I'm from gay liberation, we wanted to end war forever and smash the patriarchy and these are values I still hold dear but, I believe that any person who wants to get married should have that right and I know that Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people serve with distinction in the armed forces, and that when they are killed, supposedly serving our country in these wars, that I personally do not support, their partners back home do not receive death benefits so...
Personally, in my life I don't want to get married and never wanted to be a soldier but that's not what it's about, it's about the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution and the basic civil rights to which all people including our people are entitled.
Cleve Jones on the origins of the National Equality March
BIL: So tell me how the march got started; what planted that seed?
CLEVE: I had no intention of doing any of this. [laughs] I had a totally different plan for myself for this year. But, um, I think that it really started back in October, and my friend Lance--Dustin Lance Blank--and I both were talking about whether we should go to Nevada to campaign for Obama or stay in California to campaign against Proposition 8.
Now at that time, you know, during the summer we were told that Prop 8 was going down to defeat so, uh, while I did do my best to raise money and support the campaign during the summer months there was no sense of urgency--we thought we were going to win--and we made the decision to go to Nevada.
[1:00] And you know, I think it was the right decision; I don't regret it. I walked precincts and canvassed, in Reno and (not sure) and we won Nevada.
And then I came home. I heard one of the robo-calls from "Yes on 8" and it was "Please listen to an important message from Democratic Presidential candidate, Barak Obama," and then there was Obama's voice saying "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman"
And that just felt like such a slap in the face and three days later the election came down and Obama won and we lost. And uh, you know and I was just really, really distraught over it. I just felt really betrayed.
So we wrote an essay that we published, uh, saying "Now's the time to push. We've got this window of opportunity, we've helped to elect Obama, we've got Democratic majority--strong Democratic majority--in both houses...
[2:00] "If there was ever a time in the history of the United States where we might actually get something out of the Federal Government, now's the time--let's rally around this and focus!"
Then three weeks after the election, the film came out. Nothing prepared me for the onslaught--you know--just thousands and thousands of emails, mostly from young people. And many of them were angry that they'd never been taught this history many of them had questions but a great many of them said that they wanted to march on Washington. And I said 'no.' I said 'I think its a bad idea.'
Partly was that I looked at the idea of a March on Washington through the lens of previous marches; which, as most people know, where very complicated very time-consuming, very expensive and some of them had scandals with money going missing. Many of them turned into sort of Lollapaloozas with multiple stages and...
[3:00] Celebrities being flown in and entertainment and the rest of it; all of it I felt diminished the power of it.
And also I had such high hopes for Obama and Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid the Democratic Majority and I thought now we can win--let's just sit tight and see, you know, maybe he's gonna deliver.
And then Inauguration day came and Rick Warren gives the benediction. And I felt in the pit of my stomach when I read that Rick Warren had been invited to do the benediction; I felt in the pit of my stomach it was like "What?"
And then I don't remember the exact date, but shortly after that, Speaker Pelosi gave an interview to the Bay Area Reporter, the gay newspaper in San Francisco, where she said that repealing the Defense of Marriage Act was not a priority.
Also, I've worked in politics for a long time...
[4:00] And I think that, um, it's pretty clear to me that if we don't get anything out of Obama in the first two years we probably won't get it, because in the second two years they will be focused on reelection, and they're not going to want to make waves.
So I think the time for decisive action is now. We see from the polling in Massachusetts, for example, that even the most vociferous opponents of Same-Sex-Marriage calmed down after the fact.
You know. The state did not explode, did not burst into flames, did not slide into the Atlantic. Uh, Massachusetts seems to be doing alright, Canada is still functioning, the corn-fields in Iowa are still growing, you know.
So it just seems clear to me, that if you want that bold step, you want to do it early in the administration, give the electorate the opportunity to calm down and deal with it.
So I started getting more and more concerned. I still wasn't thinking in terms of a March though. I was just thinking "Damn, they're gonna do it again!"
[5:00] Um and I've been a Democrat all of my life, but I'm well aware that the democrats have a long tradition of taking our votes, taking our money, taking our volunteers and then after we help them get elected, they turn around and walk away.
David Mixner posted on his website, "A Call to March on Washington." It was a very clear, explicit call, he said "Now is the time, we have to march on Washington," and I read his essay and I thought, 'he's right. He's right. And Now's the time to do it.'
But I didn't agree with some of things that he said. He was calling for a National Marriage Equality March, and he thought it should be in November and I was concerned about both of those.
I didn't want it to be just about Marriage Equality. We have a great many issues and as I've already said, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we create this laundry list, and then bargain and prioritize and put time-lines on all of them.
[6:00] And then also he wanted to do it in November, which is cold and raining, and close to the holidays. Whereas the Columbus Day weekend is a three-day weekend for Government Employees and for students and some other people as well. Its generally favorable weather and it is National Coming Out Day. It is the 30th Anniversary of the very first March for LGBT Rights on Washington.
So I posted a response to Mixner's column saying "Okay, you've convinced me. I think you're right. We should march, but it should be in October, rather than November, the call should be for full equality under the law--14th Amendment--not just Marriage Equality. And that its got to be Grass Roots, Grass Roots shoe string budget; no Lollapalooza, no multiple stages. You can't justify that, and even if we could afford it...
[7:00] It diminishes and distracts from the political message that we want to make.
So I posted my response, and then I don't know, a week later or something he gave an interview to the Advocate saying that, "Yes, we're going to be moving forward with the march" and then saying he wanted Cleve Jones and Tori Osborn to run it.
Well he didn't talk to either of us before he did that! You know? We didn't know! We were completely blindsided by this! Tori Osborn has a full-time-job, I also have a full-time-job, and I have some health issues of my own, and I had not planned on doing this, but you know, within 48 hours all Hell broke loose.
And I just started collecting all of these names, and I started reaching out to young people I know that I considered to be up-and-coming young leaders and good organizers, and said "Will you take this on, will you help?"
[8:00] And That group has grown and grown and grown and now we have a steering committee of about a hundred people from all over the country, young and old, black and brown and white, and rich and poor and there's a few Republicans and Libertarians and Democrats and Socialists and um, it just keeps going and it just has snowballed!
Thanks to Jenna, Jim and Phil for transcribing the Bilerico Project's video interviews with Cleve Jones. Transcription is a tedious job and not for the faint of heart!