When We Rise is a memoir written by LGBT and human rights activist Cleve Jones, who essentially saw the gay liberation and rights movement from the very beginning. I first met Cleve when he was played by Emile Hirsch in the 2008 film Milk, which I actually only watched for the first time when I was home for the holidays last December and thought it would be a good time to watch some of the DVDs I own but have never watched, and Milk was one of them. I had always known the movie existed, but never got around to watching it and I so wish I had watched it when it came out. If you’re not familiar with the movie, which won a few Oscars including Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black, it’s the story of Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. But it’s also the story of Milk and the gay liberation movement; of the gay neighborhood in San Francisco in the 70s, “The Castro,” at a time when counterculture was taking over the world and everyone dreamed of running away and being who they really were. Cleve was mentored by Milk and worked on his campaigns for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, so he was a fairly important character in the movie.
Then, a few months later, I heard that there was going to be a new miniseries on ABC about the gay liberation and rights movement called When We Rise that was written by the same guy who wrote Milk and won an Oscar for it, so I was immediately intrigued and, let me just tell you, those four two-hour episodes WRECKED me. After I finished watching it, I discovered that the miniseries was partially inspired by Cleve Jones’ memoir, also called When We Rise, so I just knew it was going to be a book I would be buying on my next trip to the bookstore. The memoir is essentially an extension of the story that is told in Milk, but so much more. It’s Cleve’s story, and it’s the story of a movement, from the very beginning to the present day. It is about a boy discovering his identity in a time when people’s reaction to anything other than heterosexuality was to treat them for what they saw as a mental illness. It is about that boy deciding to take to the road and eventually make it to San Francisco, where he realized he wasn’t alone. He was never alone. Gay people existed and were coming together without shame for the first time. It’s about the people he fell in love with along the way, the hitchhiking to other parts of the country and journeys to other parts of the world and his adventures there. It’s about what it was like to be mentored by one of the first ever openly gay politicians with whom he was able to take part in several victories. It’s about what it was like to be one of the first people to see that politician’s body after he was assassinated. It’s about what it was like to see a disease first known as “Gay Cancer” start from the very beginning, which would soon kill almost everyone he knew in his area, and almost killed him a few years later. It’s about the continuing fight for gay rights and equality that still goes on today. If anything, it’s a portrait of an American life and I’m so, so, so glad he wrote it down and I had the privilege to read it.
I liked so many things about When We Rise, but one of the things that made it so great was the way it was written. It’s SO well written and is hands down one of the best written memoirs I’ve ever read. I know that often times celebrities and just people in general collaborate with professional writers to help them write their biographies and memoirs (the outstanding ability of being able to string words together doesn’t come naturally to everyone), and I don’t know if Jones had help with writing this, but it’s pretty much irrelevant because it’s just so top notch (I like to think he wrote this without help, because he included speeches that he wrote for gay rights rallies and marches over the years and they too were superbly written, so that tells me this book was all him). Often times, I forgot I was reading a memoir because I was so engrossed in the story, but more so the history: gay history that is out there, but doesn’t get told nearly enough. That’s a large part of what makes this book so great. It’s a portrait of an American life, but an American life that was sidelined as a minority who was and still is often misunderstood. So the fact that Jones was able to write this and have it published makes me want him to shout his story from the rooftops, because it’s so relevant and necessary. Jones and a large part of his friends were in the fight for gay rights, liberation and equality from day one. Day one. That story and history is unbelievably important and it needs to be known.
Also, on that note, there seems to be talk online that When We Rise is merely a memoir of all the men Cleve Jones had sex with during his youth and people who wrote that on Goodreads just make me want to bang my head against a table. Yes, Jones does tell the stories of the men he encountered and later slept with and looking back there are a lot of them, but some of them are relevant and part of the overall story of the gay rights movement that he is telling. Some of them aren’t necessarily related to the gay rights movement story, but this is also his memoir and he’s allowed to tell his story how he sees fit. Not to mention the fact that there were times when it wouldn’t have been possible for Jones to talk about the men he had sex with back in his youth as openly as he does in this book, which just emphasizes the importance and relevance of this story. I’m sure you wouldn’t be complaining nearly as much if some straight woman wrote a memoir with details of all the men she’s slept with. If you’re going to go on Goodreads and say you enjoy the story about what it was like in the early days of the gay rights movement but then say you can’t get through it because Jones talks too much about the men he had sex with, maybe don’t read a gay book. Maybe don’t read a book about the liberation movement of gay people if you’re homophobic. Just a thought.
The miniseries was excellent, but it doesn’t even begin to do the story and history justice and I would sooner recommend you read Jones’ book instead, just because he’s so damn great and interesting and empowering and did I mention great? It was one of those reading experiences where you want to read it fast, but you have to slow yourself down because it’s such an intricate story that you need to be sure to take your time to comprehend and savior every word. As much as I wanted to finish it, I realized after finishing it that I really didn’t want it to end! My heart is gone! This book has taken it from me! I don’t think I’ll ever get it back! Absolutely heart wrenching but oh so relevant and necessary. Oh so highly recommend.
(This review was originally posted on my personal blog, which is a place where I talk about everything from books to pop culture, TV and movies, which can be found here. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, you should totally add me as a friend here so we can be bookish together!)