Legendary LGBTQ Activist Cleve Jones Remembers Finding Harvey Milk’s ‘Dead Body’ & How It Changed Him Forever
03 May 2022
For Cleve Jones, author and longtime renowned LGBTQ activist, the first time he realized his life’s purpose was the day he saw Harvey Milk’s corpse lying on the floor of San Francisco’s City Hall. Milk, a gay rights pioneer and city supervisor, was shot and killed in the City by the Bay in 1978. Since then, Jones has given a voice to the voiceless, organized the struggling and disenfranchised and inspired activists through his amazing work.
In a recent interview with the Daily Kos, Jones shared his story of that horrible, life-altering day when California’s first openly gay elected official was gunned down, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Jones worked in Milk’s City Hall office as an intern until Milk’s assassination. He looked up to Milk and considered him a mentor. And, in lots of ways, a father figure.
During his time at City Hall, Jones was in awe of Milk’s talent to connect with everyone. It was a lesson he took to heart. “He taught me how to choose vocabulary that's accessible to everybody,” Jones said in an interview with the Daily Kos. “This is something I think progressives ought to be paying attention to. I find that the level of jargon within the progressive movement is mind-numbing at this point, and it's very elitist. All that guarantees is that the message is not heard from the people who I think we would hope the most would hear it.”
Throughout his career and activism, Jones has definitely been heard. Jones currently works as a community organizer for UNITE HERE, the international union representing hotel, casino, foodservice and restaurant workers. He came to labor activism already a hero in the struggle for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, and a fearless champion for those living with HIV.
Jones has been a driving force behind the most important gains made by the LGBTQ+ community over the last five decades. From his early days in the “gay liberation” movement with Milk to co-founding the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, founding the AIDS Memorial Quilt and fighting for marriage equality, Jones has made history as part of one of the most effective human rights movements of all time. He was portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the Oscar-winning film Milk, for which he served as a historical consultant. Jones was also prominently featured in the critically acclaimed miniseries When We Rise, which was inspired by his award-winning 2016 memoir of the same title.
Today, Jones continues the fight. Besides his work at UNITE HERE, he’s been speaking out on everything from “the full-frontal assault on democracy” to war in Ukraine to the attacks on the rights of the marginalized to saving the environment.
“I believe in the global movement for peace and social justice,” he said in his interview. “And so that includes the voting rights fight. It includes equal rights for women. It includes trans rights. It includes union issues, the fight to save the planet. These are all part of the larger movement of ordinary, decent human beings to take on the rich and the powerful who exploit the planet and the people for profit. I am opposed to them and will always fight them.”