Cleve Jones: Corporate Money Has Too Much Influence on LGBT Movement

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 4, 2012

Longtime activist Cleve Jones told EDGE during a wide-ranging interview in Boston on Monday that he fears the LGBT movement may be losing its way and that corporate money has too strong an influence.

A close friend of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor assassinated in 1978, Jones was portrayed by Emile Hirsch is the Oscar-winning 2008 movie "Milk."

He went on to found the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. The project grew to become the world's largest community arts project, memorializing the lives of more than 85,000 Americans who died from HIV/AIDS.

Jones has been on the staff of UNITE HERE, a union representing workers in the hospitality and related industries in the United States and Canada, for the last six years. He visited Boston to speak to Local 26 members and MassEquality and described his mission as strengthening the coalition between the LGBT and labor movements.

"One of the most important and central questions is whether or not we are a progressive movement and whether we care about other communities and other issues," said Jones. "The big philosophical question is what kind of movement we want this to be now that we appear to winning. A movement that seeks to advance only its own members is going to accomplish little. I want to be in a movement that transforms the lives of millions of people."

Jones said he worries about corporations that pour large amounts of money into the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and other national LGBT organizations. Citing HRC's appointment of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein as a spokesperson for its national marriage equality campaign, he expressed fears that LGBT groups have become beholden to corporations.

Jones said the move shows HRC is "either remarkably tone deaf, is incredibly cynical or it was maybe bought and paid for." The activist also pointed to the brouhaha over the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's initial endorsement of AT&T's decision to merge with cell phone service provider T-Mobile.

Then-GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission supporting the merger. The organization ultimately withdrew its endorsement and AT&T has since cancelled plans to buy its competitor.

The firestorm of protest "cost Jarrett Barrios his job, pretty much ruined his career and was a body blow to GLAAD," said Jones. "This would not have happened had it not been for AT&T's influence."

He also cited the Hyatt Corporation, the hotel chain that he said is marketing "very aggressively to the gay community, offering sponsorships and deals and claiming to be this great place for gay people to work." He further contends that the company "brutally exploits immigrant women, has a very high rate of on-the-job injuries and non-union Hyatts require workers to endure conditions that I would find intolerable."

He cited examples of hospitality workers and LGBTs working together to effect change. These include successful boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego after its owner made a substantial donation to the group that successfully placed Proposition 8 on the ballot in California. Workers' calls to boycott the Sheraton Anchorage prompted the Imperial Court of All Alaska to move that state's largest LGBT fundraising event out of the hotel after 40 years.

Jones said the soul-searching and finger-pointing that followed Prop 8's passage taught the LGBT movement a valuable lesson.

"We needed to do a better job in communicating our message to working families, immigrants and people of faith, a population we haven't been particularly successful in reaching," he said.

He noted that all labor unions support LGBT rights and fight for protections during contract negotiations.

Jones is no longer involved with the NAMES Project, which fired him over a disagreement in the organization's direction. The parties reached a settlement after he sued, but he said it's violated the deal.

"It breaks my heart," he acknowledged. "The quilt panels live in a storage facility in Atlanta. I'm disappointed in the leadership. I feel they decommissioned one of the most effective weapons in the war against AIDS. But in many ways my own personal rupture with the foundation ended up moving me in new directions, which are extremely positive."

Jones acknowledged that ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) will observe its 25th anniversary on April 25.

"Obviously it played an enormously important and positive role," he said. "There's been a bit of a tendency to mythologize ACT UP, which should be revisited, but its contribution was incalculable."

Asked about whether President Barack Obama will endorse marriage equality before the November election, Jones said "I kind of doubt it." He went onto say that he's been among those who have harshly criticized Obama "not just on LGBT issues."

"I will vote from him, I will campaign for him," added Jones. "With all of his problems, he is infinitely better than what the other party has to offer."

In spite of these criticisms, he said LGBTs have made enormous strides under the Obama administration.

"They have reached out to us and have publicly embraced us," he pointed out.

Jones specifically pointed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech on global LGBT equality in Geneva in December as further proof of this commitment. "I don't think people really understood how significant that was," he said.

"We don't have that kind of solidarity as a community where leaders would emerge," Jones replied when asked why the gay movement never produced leaders as happened during the early days of the civil rights movement and women's movements.

Part of that is that members of the movement don't share a common history, Jones added.

"Gay people are born into every sort of family one can imagine: every color of skin, every faith tradition, every political ideology," he said.

As others have, Jones described the LGBT community as dysfunctional.

"We are incredibly and viciously cruel to anyone in our community who accomplishes anything," he maintained. "It's a pathology."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].