Walking the Castro with Cleve
When you walk through the Castro today, it’s hard to imagine a time when being gay in San Francisco was taboo. Unless you’re walking those same streets with Cleve Jones.
I’ve recently had the honor and pleasure of spending many weeks walking through the Castro with Cleve, first at my side and then speaking to me through earbuds, as we worked together to make a Detour in the Castro.
This new Detour is a walk through the days of the noisy and radical upheaval that transformed the Castro into what it is today: a beautiful and influential neighborhood where no one thinks twice if they see two men or two women in each other’s arms.
Cleve arrived in San Francisco right out of high school and fell in with gay rights activist Harvey Milk just as Milk was breaking into San Francisco politics and urging gay people everywhere to “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” As a college student in the late 70s, Cleve joined the team that turned a little-known fringe movement into a full-blown political transformation. After Harvey Milk was elected as a City Supervisor, Cleve was his intern at City Hall.
Cleve always says meeting Harvey Milk was the single most important event of his life and that’s because he credits Milk with turning him into an activist (and an agitator). After Milk was shot and killed, Cleve inherited his mentor’s bullhorn. And he has continued, almost without pause, to rabble-rouse. Among his most famous accomplishments is the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, now with almost 50,000 panels honoring people around the world who died of AIDS.
In this new Detour, Cleve weaves together the story of his own coming of age in the Castro and that of the gay rights revolution he helped succeed. He takes us to his favorite bar — the bar where he still drinks today — and tells of recruiting people for the movement the 70s. He shows us his first apartment in the Castro and the pharmacy where he gets the medicine that keeps him alive with HIV and where his car got crushed by a tree. We walk with him through protests of the past and to see the bullhorn he used to lead them and to pick up a penis cookie where he used to scoop ice cream.
One of the greatest pleasures of working with Cleve to make this Detour has been simply walking by his side in his neighborhood. Because everybody stops to talk. Cleve lost a lot of friends to AIDS (more than many of us can imagine losing in such a short time) and there was a time when he thought he was going to die, as well. He almost gave up on the Castro. Lucky for us, he didn’t and the Castro is where everybody knows his name.
When you walk with Cleve, you get to meet someone new on every block, around every corner. You say hello to a high school girl, you check on the health of a local grandma, you stop and chat with the celebrated novelist Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) and the admiring young woman who manages Hot Cookie.
The Castro is the only place that has ever felt like home to Cleve. And I think that is, in large part, because he helped make it what it is. It’s been an honor to walk with him and I hope, with this Detour, many more people will be as moved as I have been.
Originally published at blog.detour.com on May 20, 2015.