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As Criticism of Obama Mounts within Gay Community, Gay Rights Pioneer Cleve Jones Calls for March for Equality on Washington

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On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum to extend some, but not all, benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Comprehensive healthcare, for example, is not included. President Obama’s promise to work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, Wednesday came one week after his administration filed a controversial legal brief supporting DOMA, an action which greatly disappointed activists fighting for marriage equality. We speak with Cleve Jones, one of the giants of the gay rights and AIDS awareness movements. He is the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In the 1970s, Cleve Jones was a friend of the gay rights leader Harvey Milk. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryOct 13, 2009The Fight for Equality: A Look at the State of the Gay Rights Movement
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In recent days, many in the gay community have been sharply critical of the Obama administration’s positions on some of the hot-button issues affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer Americans across the country. On Wednesday, President Obama signed a memorandum to extend some, but not all, benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Comprehensive healthcare, for example, is not included.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I’m proud to issue a presidential memorandum that paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation’s pursuit of equality. Many of our government’s hard-working and dedicated and patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy for one simple reason: the people that they love are of the same sex.

    Currently, for example, LGBT federal employees can’t always use sick leave to care for their domestic partners or their partners’ children. Their partners aren’t covered under long-term care insurance. Partners of American Foreign Service officers abroad aren’t treated the same way when it comes to the use of medical facilities or visitation rights in case of an emergency. And these are just some of the wrongs that we intend to right today. […]

    It’s a day that marks a historic step towards the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step. Among the steps we have not yet taken is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. I believe it’s discriminatory, I think it interferes with states’ rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s promise to work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, Wednesday came one week after his administration filed a controversial legal brief supporting DOMA, an action which greatly disappointed activists fighting for marriage equality.

In a strongly worded letter to President Obama on Monday, Joe Solmonese, the president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said, quote, “I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones.”

The President also has been criticized for not pushing more strongly for an end to the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Taken together, the administration’s actions have angered a number of gay rights activists. Some prominent voices in the community have decided not to attend a gala LGBT fundraiser for the Democratic Party next week, which Vice President Biden is expected to attend.

Well, I’m now joined by one of the giants of the gay rights and AIDS awareness movements. Cleve Jones is the founder of the NAMES Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In the 1970s in San Francisco, Cleve Jones was a close friend of the pioneering gay rights leader, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. In fact, he found his body under his desk as he was shot dead in his office. Cleve Jones worked as a student intern for Milk after he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

More recently, Cleve served as a historical consultant to Gus Van Sant’s award-winning film MILK, and he works with UNITE HERE to strengthen the growing coalition between the labor movement and the LGBT community. Now Cleve is planning a national equality march on Washington for October 11th, National Coming Out Day, to call for equal rights for the LGBT community.

Cleve Jones, Welcome to Democracy Now!

CLEVE JONES: Thank you. My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: There has been a lot of action in the Obama administration in the last few days. Is it really because there’s this big fundraiser planned and some of the leading gay rights activists and donors are pulling out?

CLEVE JONES: Well, of course, I can’t get inside their heads, though I’ve wanted to very much over the last couple of weeks. I think the people pulling out of the fundraiser is part of it. I think the momentum building for the march on October 11th is part of it. I think that they understand that the anger and frustration is not diminishing, it’s getting much stronger.

We’re really baffled by this. You know, we voted in enormous numbers for Obama. We want very much to believe that he has our best interest, as well as the entire country’s, in his heart. But he seems to be continuing this really hurtful policy of doling out increments of rights, fractions of equality. And I think our movement is really beyond that at this point. We’re tired of this state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city struggle for fractions of equality. And this latest thing, this is really just crumbs. And it’s disheartening to see so many of the leaders of our community standing there behind him while he sprinkles out these crumbs.

AMY GOODMAN: One of those who was there was Tammy Baldwin, well-known lesbian Congress member. She will not be boycotting the fundraiser. She said she’ll be there, but she’ll bring the concerns of those who are boycotting. And she, too, is deeply concerned.

This memo that he signed, it was late in the day. Not to be confused with an executive order, it means whatever of the limited rights that were granted expire on the day President Obama leaves office. And we’re not talking about healthcare here for federal employees who are gay or lesbian — visiting rights, I guess he said, to the hospital.

CLEVE JONES: Well, it feels like Clinton all over again. You know, Bill Clinton gave wonderful speeches and told of his vision of a country, a vision that he claimed included us, and what we got out of that was the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So, what we’re getting now from President Obama are flowery proclamations, probably a few key appointments for some of our more powerful community members, and very little for ordinary people.

And on this issue of healthcare, I think it’s ironic that this memorandum does not extend healthcare benefits. But that’s also an example of an area where my community could be very helpful, I think, in helping to build support for the President’s healthcare package. My community cares deeply about access to healthcare. So much of the impetus for marriage rights has really come out of our experience with the epidemic, so we certainly would be a staunch ally in his efforts to provide affordable healthcare to all Americans. So I feel that he’s burning some bridges rather rapidly.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip from this past year’s Academy Awards. Actor Sean Penn, who won an Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk in the film MILK, talked about equality and gay marriage in his acceptance speech.

    SEAN PENN: For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sean Penn, who played Harvey Milk, won the Oscar for that. We’re going to be talking about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in a minute.

We’ll be speaking with the first African American Secretary of the Army, Clifford Alexander, who is a strong proponent of Congress repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But I wanted to go back in time a bit. Actually, Harvey Milk graduated from my high school, from Bay Shore High in Long Island. But you met Harvey decades ago. You have devoted your life to helping to fulfill his dream. Can you just talk for a moment about what that dream is, and your experiences with Harvey, how you met him, the assassinated San Francisco City Supervisor?

CLEVE JONES: Well, I met Harvey on Castro Street back in 1975. I was pretty much a street kid. He got me off the street. He got me to go to school, got me to cut my hair, get a job. He was a great father figure.

AMY GOODMAN: When was this?

CLEVE JONES: I got to San Francisco at the end of 1972. I met him in passing but didn’t really pay attention to him until probably ’75. And then, when I came back from a couple of years of hitchhiking around the world, it was 1977 and his last campaign and the campaign against the Briggs Initiative. And that’s when we got close.

AMY GOODMAN: Which was…? The Briggs Initiative?

CLEVE JONES: The Briggs Initiative was a really hateful initiative. It was a referendum to require the dismissal of all gay and lesbian schoolteachers —- or actually, not just teachers, anyone working in the school district, plus any heterosexual who supported their rights. It was a bitter fight that we won statewide in California thirty years ago against many of the same people who opposed us with Proposition 8 this past year.

And, you know, Harvey had a message of liberation and equality, but he also was very critical of the established gay leadership at the time and said that they were all too willing to accept crumbs, to accept compromises. I think Harvey understood clearly that every time our community accepts compromises or delays, we are really participating in undermining our own humanity. No other group of people would settle for fractions of equality. There is no fraction of equality. You are an equal people, or you are not. So, I am -—

AMY GOODMAN: He was the first openly gay elected official in the United States?

CLEVE JONES: Actually, I want to correct that. He is known to be the first openly gay, but in fact I believe that honor goes to a woman named Elaine Noble, who had been elected to the Massachusetts state legislature two years prior. And then there were two members of the Ann Arbor city council who came out after they had been elected. But he was, I think — I think his significance was as our first really shared public martyr. There are many martyrs to this cause, but he was the one whose name became known.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain, for those who aren’t familiar with what happened to Harvey Milk — extremely outspoken fighting for gay rights, as well as just for everyone in San Francisco — the day he was killed and who he was killed by.

CLEVE JONES: Yeah. He predicted his death. In the film, when you see him making this tape recording predicting his assassination, that wasn’t contrived. He actually believed that. I used to tease him about it and tell him he wasn’t important enough to be assassinated.

But he was killed by a former colleague, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, a former police officer, a man named Dan White, who was very troubled and, I think, clearly confused about homosexuality, homophobic. I don’t want to claim that I have any great insight into what was going on in his mind, but he was very troubled and very much in over his head in the day-to-day dealings of the Board of Supervisors. And he assassinated both Harvey Milk and our mayor, a wonderful man named George Moscone, on November 27th, 1978.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was you who was walking towards Harvey Milk’s office, when you saw?

CLEVE JONES: I was outside of City Hall when the shootings occurred and was frightened by all of the confusion over towards the mayor’s office, which is on the other side of City Hall. And I let myself in through the back door to the supervisors’ chambers and found his body there. And then —

AMY GOODMAN: Recognized his feet?

CLEVE JONES: Yeah, Harvey only had one pair of dress shoes, these old battered wingtips.

You know, it was terrible. It was terrible. And I remember thinking all day long, it’s over, everything’s over. You know, he was really a father figure to me. I’m very close to my actual father, but at the time I was estranged from my family. And he was so kind to me, and he was our leader. And all day long, I just kept thinking it’s over, until the sun went down, and San Franciscans, gay and straight, young and old, black and brown and white, began to gather by the tens of thousands and lit their candles and marched down to City Hall. And then I knew it was really just beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: And now, decades later, you are organizing this march on Washington. You were also the co-founder of the AIDS Quilt. And talk about the significance of that and how it’s led into this mass march.

CLEVE JONES: Yes, I’ve had a lot of experience organizing protests and demonstrations. But, you know, back in the ’80s when the pandemic was so horrifying and so many of my friends were dying, I was struggling with new ways to try to communicate to the media and to the public and the politicians about what was happening to my community. And I was also obsessed with the reality that most of my friends were dying, and it seemed to me that we were all going to die and leave no trace. And my friends were brilliant people. You know, had they lived, they would be taking home Emmys and Pulitzers and Nobels and sitting in the Senate and the House of Representatives. And so, I was struggling with a way to break through the stupidity and cruelty and ignorance, that still hampers our planet’s response to this pandemic.

And I was at a protest where we climbed up the walls of the Federal Building in San Francisco and covered it with names of people who had died. And as I looked at that patchwork of names, I thought it looks like a quilt and thought immediately of my grandma, my great-grandma back in Bee Ridge, Indiana. And it worked.

I think it’s important to go to Washington. And we’re going back on October 11th. We’re not taking a quilt. We’re not having a rock concert. It’s not going to be Lollapalooza. It’s going to be a demonstration, a protest. It is not against President Obama. It is for equality. And it’s for shifting the strategy.

Back when Harvey Milk was alive, we had no choice with the strategy. There were only a few pockets in the entire country where we could gain any rights at all. When I came out of the closet, it was a felony to engage in sexual behavior with another person of the same sex. People went to prison. People committed suicide. People were arrested regularly and prosecuted. For young people, it may be bizarre to hear this, but it was illegal for us to dance. Two people of the same gender were forbidden by law from dancing. You could be arrested for that. So, in the ’70s, we took whatever we could get. In a small college town like Ann Arbor or Madison, you know, you might be able to get some kind of job protection.

But that was a long time ago, and we’re not putting up with that anymore. We want full equality, which I define as being equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all fifty states. It’s the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. That’s what we want.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Cleve Jones, who’s organizing a mass march for gay equality on October 11th in Washington, DC.

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Former Army Secretary Clifford Alexander Calls on President Obama & Congress to Repeal Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy

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