QueeReads: When We Rise by Cleve Jones

Welcome to QueeReads, our monthly review of the queer books I’ve been reading. I’m frequently asked about books that feature LGBTQA+ protagonists, themes, or authors so I’m here to share what I’ve found and what I thought. If you have a suggestion for future #QueeReads, please reach out!

I first came across When We Rise in early 2017 when ABC released a four-part miniseries of the same name. The memoir recounts one activist’s life as it became closely intertwined with the burgeoning LGBT+ rights movement.

I was born into the last generation of homosexual people who grew up not knowing if there was anyone else on the entire planet who felt the way that we felt . . . there were no rainbow flags, no characters on TV, no elected officials, no pride parades, no “It Gets Better,” no Glee, no Ellen, no Milk.

When We Rise by Cleve Jones

On one hand, Cleve Jones is an activist who was instrumental to the founding of what we know now as the LGBT+ rights movement. On the other hand—and what his memoir convincingly conveys—is that Jones is at times a mere witness and participant to that history.

In essence, When We Rise is a story about a boy searching for community. Starting with the discovery of his sexuality as a teen, Jones takes off for the progressive 1970’s San Francisco, where he dives headfirst into the culture of sexual freedom, bohemia, and fiery activism. The resulting journey for acceptance takes him across the globe (he even lives a while in Munich) and has him meeting a lot of other important LGBT figures, such as the late Harvey Milk.

What I found the most remarkable while reading this was the constant reminders of how much has changed in the past fifty years. Over his life, the political landscape transforms so frequently, between the Vietnam War, the start of the gay liberation movement, the AIDS epidemic, and later into the more recent gay marriage court cases. And with those changes, you get to hear his and other’s perspectives transform as groups of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals, and others begin to convene towards one common goal: equality.

As a piece of LGBT history, When We Rise is an invaluable account of an incredible life. His memoir, in turn, is a story of an everyday person who is undeniably human, working to produce change in small or big ways.