Cleve Jones landed in Colorado Springs last weekend knowing he might encounter a piece of his own past, back when being gay was something to hide, when he was attacked and stabbed, when nobody wanted to admit having lost friends to AIDS.
Times have changed, but the doors of acceptance haven't opened that wide everywhere.
As one of America's most revered gay men, thanks to being characterized in the Academy Award-winning movie Milk, Jones realized there would be no contingent of Springs civic leaders greeting him at the airport and presenting him with a key to this city. Not here in Focusland.
There was one gesture worth applauding. Mayor Lionel Rivera did sign a proclamation recognizing May 2 as "Cleve Jones Day" in Colorado Springs. Really, he did. Next thing you know, the city will approve same-sex partner — excuse me, let's be politically correct and say "plus-one" — benefits.
Regardless, that qualified as red-carpet treatment for the 54-year-old Jones, who came here for the Southern Colorado AIDS Project's annual Red Ribbon Ball on Saturday night at The Broadmoor.
It was too bad the tireless gay activist could only share his message with the fundraiser's $125-a-plate crowd, plus some interviewers on the weekend news shows that nobody watches. Too bad he couldn't have stood before our elected officials, business leaders, even some of our evangelical congregations, and hammered home his outlook on life.
After hearing Jones' powerful speech, one could only imagine how the Indiana native's brave views and observations would go over with Colorado Springs' famously intolerant right-wing masses. Jones certainly felt no fear in helping S-CAP raise money for the worsening war against AIDS. As must be the case everywhere, admirers could not hide their respect for the man who started the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now the world's largest community arts project.
But instead of relishing that adoration, Jones gave it back, saying, "Our struggle is not over, especially in a conservative environment such as this. You're still fighting the battle, and for that, I honor you and salute you."
This wasn't just fire and brimstone. Jones had 'em convulsing with his humor:
"I see some of you younger guys out there, and I remember when I was that hot. I was an idiot street kid with the attention span of a lima bean. But now I'm fat, I'm 54, and I've just had the best freakin' year of my life."
"I can't believe gays can marry legally now in Iowa and not in California. That's just wrong."
"If you had told me years ago that in 2009 we'd still be fighting for gay marriage and serving openly in the military, I would've started dating women."
Jones looked back on 1985, when he realized at least 1,000 people had died of AIDS in the small section of San Francisco where he lived, but nobody would talk about it. He recalled "wishing a bulldozer could pile up 1,000 corpses, rotting in the sun, and then maybe people would get it. ... We were trying to break through the cruelty, the bigotry, the ignorance. People died and just vanished."
He remembered that even in San Francisco nobody would mention AIDS victims' first and last names. As he said that, his listeners — mostly longtime local residents, gay and straight — obviously were thinking of their own friends and family who wasted away in anonymity, knowing the stigma attached to their affliction. Just at our table, a woman had lost her brother, a man had lost a longtime employee, and I long ago had lost a friend. Well-known across the city, he had let people think it was cancer.
Yes, there has been progress, but AIDS is on the rise again, and a true cure remains elusive. Jones, refusing to sugarcoat the issue, said of gays: "We're still second-class citizens." He lamented the lack of rights and benefits, nearly shouting at the finish, "If we think we're equal, we have to act like it. ... We certainly are all equal in the eyes of God."
The standing ovation was loud and long — and unanimous.
Yes, the battle continues. But Cleve Jones makes you believe it's a battle worth fighting to the end.