Revisiting Activism, Part 1


Cleve Jones’ recent memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement comes at an opportune moment. January 2017 has seen the installation of not merely a new regime in Washington, but a regime with a disturbing approach to dealing with many of the needs of the citizens it will be governing. It’s not just a new President who’s a bully by temperament and who seems to divide people into friends and enemies according to how they stroke his ego or not, but also a Congress the majority of whose members are clearly bent on destroying public education and the social safety net so laboriously constructed over the last few decades in this country and hostile to government spending for any purpose that doesn’t fit with an agenda that denies climate change, eliminates a woman’s right to choose, and sees supporting medical care and the arts as a waste of money. In other words, it could be goodbye to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare as we have known it, the EPA, Roe v. Wade, and the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, among other government programs designed to improve all our lives. Which means a goodly number of Americans may soon find themselves in the activist trenches, forced to re-fight battles everyone thought already won over the last fifty years or so.

Enter When We Rise, a moving history of Jones’ own long activist involvement with a variety of causes over the decades. Those causes ranged from the anti-Vietnam-war movement in the 1960s-1970s to the election of Harvey Milk as San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor in the mid-1970s to AIDS in the 1980s (and beyond) to the marriage equality fight of the 2000s to struggles over workers’ rights throughout his adult life.

For anyone involved in an activist cause, there are lessons to be learned here: how you go about it and how you can maintain the momentum over what may be many years, the kinds of problems you can expect to encounter, the rewards you can expect to see along the way. So let’s visit what Cleve Jones has to say about his own activist experiences.

After dropping out of college in Phoenix, where his family lived, Jones arrived to live in San Francisco in 1973. In the memoir he calls himself a “rocker kid,” and during his early years in the city he certainly danced, drank, drugged, and partied heavily in the gay sexual liberation lanes. He was also a street kid for a time since without a college degree he was qualified only for low-paying jobs.

However, in the San Francisco of the 1970s, Jones was also surrounded by an ongoing and vibrant culture of political protest. Even as the anti-war protests died down with the collapse of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, the city was a West Coast center of the nascent gay liberation movement. Harvey Milk was gearing up for his runs to be elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, and political alliances were being forged between gay activists, labor activists, and democratic politicians.

It took a few years, but disposed to activism by his anti-war feelings and experience with a gay commune back in Phoenix, Jones eventually found himself participating in protests, especially when Anita Bryant ran her ugly but successful 1977 campaign to repeal a recently enacted gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

It was after the Bryant victory that Jones began to grow close to Harvey Milk. He describes Milk as his mentor, and working with his new friend he began to learn the methods and intricacies of activism: organizing and running marches and protests; putting up posters around a campus, a neighborhood, an entire city; speaking at rallies and to people individually door to door; forming alliances with groups whose focus might be different but where there were common aims; dealing with government officials and the police. After Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors, he even hired Jones as an intern in his office.

Three notable issues where Jones worked with Milk (among others): a boycott of Coors beer in gay bars to support labor rights at the Coors brewery in Colorado (1977), Milk’s own election (1977), and defeat of the state-wide Briggs initiative, which would have barred lesbian and gay educators from teaching in California public schools (1978)—all successful. Add one other event he witnessed in 1978, not directly related to Harvey Milk, but presaging a very important development in his own life nearly a decade later: the creation of the rainbow flag by his friend Gilbert Baker, which quickly spread not just nationwide but worldwide as a symbol of the LGBTQ community.

Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, and so did not live to see the calamity that overtook the gay world a few years later and would define a central part of Cleve Jones’ activism for the rest of his life: the advent of AIDS. But that is a tale for an upcoming second blog entry on revisiting activism. For now, I want to point out that there are already lessons to be learned from Cleve Jones’ memoir. Stated succinctly, they are:

  1. There will be much grunt work—for example, plastering a neighborhood with posters or talking to strangers about your cause. These activities can be tiring and sometimes confrontational. To sustain them over the long term, you should have a deep emotional stake in your cause, or even, as was the case with AIDS, feel like your life depends on its success.
  2. You should work at building coalitions with like-minded people and other groups with similar aims but different focuses. Allies provide support and new ideas about strategies that can help you achieve your aim.
  3. Be prepared to come across interesting people whose knowledge and enthusiasm can boost your own. Harvey Milk was clearly one such person who was crucial to Cleve Jones’ development as an activist.
  4. Know your opponents’ weaknesses and learn how to exploit them. The boycott of Coors beer in the gay bars of San Francisco and other places around the country affected the company right where it hurt: the pocket book. Another way of stating this is to learn what your own levers of power are so you can use them effectively.

Part 2 of this blog will discuss Clive Jones’ involvement with AIDS activism and marriage equality. As we’ll see, the lessons to be learned there are quite different.

When We Rise is available as a hardback and paperback in bookstores nationwide, and also as a Nook or Kindle e-book.

Notes on “Art AIDS America,” Part 2: Art + AIDS in Color

When Art AIDS America, an ambitious exhibition aimed at demonstrating the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on the making of art and its presentation to the world at large, opened in October 2015 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), little did its curators (Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, Tacoma Art Museum) or TAM itself anticipate the controversy that erupted two months later when a group called the Tacoma Action Collective (TAC) launched protests over the fact that only four of the 107 artists included in the show were black. As recounted in Larry Buhl’s article “Art AIDS America & Institutionalized Racism in Art” [A&U, June 2016], TAC saw this as a “lopsided representation of the racial demographics of the HIV/AIDS crisis when Black Americans now represent forty percent of the death toll from AIDS and Black Americans under twenty-four now constitute fifty-seven percent of new HIV diagnoses.” Buhl also quoted a TAC press release charging that Art AIDS America “largely displays HIV as a white gay crisis from the 80’s.”

In the talks that followed between TAC, the curators of the show, and the Tacoma Art Museum, agreement was reached in several areas. (1) Work related to AIDS by additional black artists would be added to later legs of the exhibition in Kennesaw, Georgia, the Bronx, and Chicago. (2) The Tacoma Art Museum commissioned a piece by black artist, writer, and archivist Sur Rodney Sur on the participation of African-Americans in the visual arts. Titled “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost,” it traces out efforts from 1969 through the TAC protests in 2015 aimed at securing a greater black presence in both American and international art exhibitions and greater support for black visual art production. (3) TAM’s senior management agreed to complete a workshop on how racism and structural racism in society oppress African- American communities.

However, not everyone was satisfied with these results. Perhaps the most notable dissenter was photographer Kia Labeija [A&U, April 2015], one of the four black artists originally included in Art AIDS America. Labeija told Buhl she was proud to be part of the show, but felt that “her inclusion was a placeholder to represent people like her,” explaining: “If I weren’t in the show there would be no representation of African-American women with HIV who were born positive. And that’s sad. I’m also the only female artist living with HIV who’s part of the show. I play all these roles. But I’m not the only one out there. I couldn’t believe that in ten years they spent [curating the show] they could only find me.”

Clearly here we see the worlds of art and politics in collision. We also see a critique of the white art establishment by black artists who feel marginalized not just as artists but in a critical part of their lives—their health—that at least for those living with HIV/AIDS has often been at the heart of much of their art. As Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” demonstrates, this is not the first black critique of the white art establishment, and it probably won’t be the last. Yet what TAC was calling for is hardly unreasonable: a fair representation of how visual artists of color have interacted with a health crisis that has impacted their lives and the lives of their communities over several decades now and that has emerged in recent years as a heavily minority crisis in the United States.


Make no mistake: Art AIDS America is a magnificent exhibition in scope and intention. Kia Labeija is quite right to feel proud of her participation in a show demonstrating the profound impact a once despised and vilified illness has had on the contemporary art world. But a situation that leaves her feeling her inclusion serves as a “placeholder” to represent people like herself hardly does justice to her art. AIDS is one disease that forces people to confront their mortality on a daily basis and in an extremely personal way, and art about AIDS should convey those feelings to viewers in extremely powerful images. In a piece like Mourning Sickness, Labeija’s art does precisely that, and should represent no one but herself and nothing other than the vision she has chosen to communicate to the world.

I personally think the TAC protests point to a crying need for a couple of exhibitions with somewhat different slants. How about one devoted exclusively to the response by minority artists to the AIDS crisis? We could title that one Art + AIDS in Color. And how about a show conceived as a dialogue between the responses of minority and non-minority artists to this health crisis? Perhaps that one could be titled Face to Face: Art Confronts AIDS from Different Angles.

Titles aside, I think Art AIDS America should be welcomed for what it demonstrates about the impact of AIDS on the contemporary art world. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room to explore art related to AIDS in other ways.

Hey curators, museums, art galleries: Anyone out there interested in taking up this suggestion?

Note: The image shown with this post, Mourning Sickness (© 2014 Kia Labeija), is used with permission of the artist, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Art AIDS America remains at the Bronx Museum of the Arts ( through October 23, 2016, then moves on to its final venue at the Alphawood Gallery (; in Chicago from December 1, 2016, through April 2, 2017.

To reach Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” online, type the words “Tacoma Art Museum Sur Rodney Sur” into your web browser; this should bring you to a result reading “Art AIDS America,Tacoma Art Museum,” under which Sur Rodney Sur’s name starts the first line of text; press on that result, and scroll down under the heading “On the Protest of Art and the Art of Protest” to the phrase “(download PDF),” which is the document you want.

Notes on “Art AIDS America,” Part 1: Message and Infrastructure

I recently traveled north from Manhattan on the B train to visit Art AIDS America, an exhibition a decade in the making now on view at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City through October 23 after previous stops at venues in Tacoma, Washington, and Kennesaw, Georgia.

It has made quite a splash in both the art and the AIDS worlds, not all of it pleasant. Co-curated by Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, Tacoma Art Museum, the show viewed from its most obvious angle is a retrospective look at American art related to AIDS from the start of the epidemic in the early 1980s right up until today. But as the exhibition catalogue essays by both curators make clear, it is also intended to support an underlying thesis: that art refracted through the AIDS crisis has altered the very manner in which contemporary artists engage in making their work and the manner in which that art is presented to the world. Quoting Jonathan David Katz directly: “In fact, I will be so bold as to argue that today’s art world is, at its core, a child of AIDS, and that forms of critical/theoretical framing and institutional display that are now taken for granted are informed more by AIDS than by any other single factor.”

Reviews of the show in publications as diverse as The New York Times, The Guardian, Burnaway,, and the Los Angeles Review of Books have been mostly positive, if somewhat mixed, including comments like “flawed but vital,” “a landmark exhibition,” “one of the most engaging exhibitions to come to Atlanta in years,” and “an exceptional exhibition.” One particularly notable criticism was by Holland Cotter in The New York Times, who faulted the show for a lack of focus, writing that it “is flawed by conflicted ideas of what it wants to be: a survey or a think piece.”

I can’t speak to the exhibition’s previous incarnations in Tacoma, Washington, or Kennesaw, Georgia, but based on what I saw at The Bronx Museum, I would lay blame for any failings of the show to articulate the ideas behind it on something much more mundane than muddled thinking on the part of the curators. Go to any major exhibition at the big league museums in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Paris, London, or Madrid, and you will find extended explanations on the walls introducing visitors to the show’s thematic and historical issues, as well as audio guides aimed at providing much the same information. You will also often find explanatory wall captions accompanying each piece of art on display. But for Art AIDS America, at least as shown in the Bronx, there are only three informational sources available to viewers: (1) (for the most part) bare-bones captions listing each piece’s title, the name of the artist, the year it was created, and its provenance; (2) the show’s catalogue, where not just the curators but many other individuals who are definitely in the know about its subject matter more than competently link together the various threads of AIDS history, art-about-AIDS history, and twentieth-century art history that make up the show’s intellectual backbone; and (3) occasional text comments about the art incorporated into pieces (the Duane Michals photo The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial is a good example), even though such comments do not necessarily speak specifically to the exhibition’s underlying theme of the impact of AIDS on contemporary art practices.


In other words, the culprit for anything muddled about the show seems to me to be a lack of funding for some of the intellectual infrastructure such complicated exhibitions require. Few casual museum-goers would be willing to spend $45 on the 287-page catalog to acquaint themselves with the ideas related to the show, and no one would be willing to carry such a heavy tome through the exhibition using it as a guide. Simpler, viewer-friendly, guideposts are required to help ensure a successful exhibition.

My own assessment of the show? As someone who’s read the catalogue essays, I found the underlying message about the art well argued and convincing. As someone who’s visited the exhibition, I found the infrastructure for conveying that message to viewers problematic and in need of development.

But note: These are not the only considerations related to this show. For another, quite different critique that all but upended the exhibition shortly after its opening in Tacoma and certainly took its curators and the Tacoma Art Museum by surprise, read my next blog entry, “Art + AIDS in Color.”

Note: The image shown with this post, The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial (© Duane Michals) is used with permission of DC Moore Gallery, New York, NY. The exhibition remains at the Bronx Museum of the Arts ( through October 23, 2016, then moves on to its final venue at the Alphawood Gallery (; in Chicago from December 1, 2016, through April 2, 2017.

Fierce Heroes

Went recently to see New York City-based artist Linda Stein’s current exhibition “Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females,” at Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. What a show! The tapestries and sculpture honor ten female exemplars of resistance to the World War II holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against Europe’s Jewish population. The art itself is fierce, as demanding for viewers to look at as it must have been for Stein to create. Yet make no mistake, it may be demanding, but it’s equally powerful.

The women honored include three well-known individuals: Anne Frank, whose diary published after the war by her father (the only member of the family to survive) was not only a world-wide best seller, but led to a Broadway play and an award-winning movie and TV miniseries; Ruth Gruber, an American-born journalist and photographer who in 1944 escorted 1000 refugee children from Europe to the United States and after the war devoted her life to rescue work; and Hannah Szenes (her last name is often Anglicized to “Senesh”), a poet and playwright who was parachuted into Yugoslavia by the British to help rescue Jews, but was caught and killed by the Nazis.

The eight remaining women, lesser known from an American perspective, but all of them deserving wider recognition, include Vitka Kempner, a resistance fighter in the Vilna ghetto (survived the war); Noor Inayat Khan, British spy and secret operative behind Nazi lines in occupied Europe (killed by the Nazis); Zivia Lubetkin, a leader of the Jewish underground in occupied Warsaw (survived the war); Gertrud Luckner, a German Catholic who smuggled Jews over the border into Switzerland (survived the war); Nadezhda Popova, a Russian bomber pilot during the war whose heroism helped defeat the Nazi war machine that killed millions of her fellow country people (survived the war); Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, who as a medical assistant in the Auschwitz-Birkenau infirmary helped save hundreds of Jewish inmates from the gas chambers and who after the war helped thousands of critically ill inmates survive; and Nancy Wake, British Special Operations and French maquis resistance fighter who was a courier for several escape networks in occupied France (survived the war).

Linda is an old friend of mine, and I’ve watched her art morph over the years from figurative to abstract then back to (largely) figurative. Her loft then and now is located in the Tribeca section of Manhattan, and she was evacuated after witnessing the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. Since then she has spent much of her time and energy seeking ways to empower the powerless through her art in a world that can be threatening to people in so many different ways and from so many different sources.

I profiled her art in the June 2015 issue of A&U magazine (story available in the archives of the magazine’s website,, where she talks about empowering women and men threatened by the AIDS specter that hangs over us all these days.

Looking at her show “Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Women,” it occurred to me: Why not honor in some strikingly public way the “fierce women” who have been involved in the AIDS movement for so many years? Of course I’m thinking about prominent individuals like actress Elizabeth Taylor, who did so much to raise public awareness of the disease and funds for research efforts. I’m also thinking of Dr. Matthilde Krim, founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). The solidarity of both these women with the AIDS community over the decades is legendary the world over. But I’m also thinking of those whose contributions are lesser known or celebrated, but still important in the history of the disease and deserve attention.

One of these is well known in her own right, but seldom mentioned in an AIDS context: Doris Day. Commentators have noted a positive turning point in the social perception of this disease with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS-related causes in 1985. But what about Doris Day’s very public embrace of her friend and movie co-star on her television show Doris Day’s Best Friends (1985-1986) when he was already near death? The show aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network and her message of love and compassion reached millions who might well have needed some enlightenment on the human tragedy caused by AIDS.

Then there are women associated with AIDS activism over the decades: for example, novelist Sarah Schulman (profiled by me in the August 2000 issue of A&U), writer and filmmaker Amber Hollibaugh (profiled in the November 2000 issue of A&U), and artist Mary Fisher (cover story for the February 2001 issue of A&U), among Americans. In Africa, Princess Kasune Zulu (“Princess” is her given first name; profiled in the August 2010 issue of A&U) became a force to be reckoned with in Zambia and (through her radio program) large swaths of southern Africa.

And let us not forget medical researchers such as Martine Peters and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (both French) or Dr. Grace Aldrovandi and Dr. Deborah Persaud (both American and both winners of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation Scientist award) who have contributed immensely to our knowledge of the disease. Continue reading “Fierce Heroes”

blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts

A blue moon makes itself known astronomically when a second full moon appears in the sky during a single calendar month.

A blue sun makes itself known mentally when one wants to shed a different kind of light on a particular topic.

blu sunne will reflect on topics from a different angle in a different light.

How does one start a new blog? Perhaps by introducing oneself.

My name is Lester Strong. I’m a writer and visual artist, with extensive writing credits in the journalism, essay, and scholarly fields and art credits in a number of genres including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, collage, and assemblage. I’ve been published all over the United States, have been translated into French, Portuguese, and Czech, and consider myself primarily a writer. I’ve been in a number of art exhibitions, but have always viewed my art as more than a hobby but less than a vocation. This blog will, over time, include examples of nearly all the types of writing and art I’ve engaged in over the years, including fiction. I’ve published one short story, and completed a novel (alas no publisher yet) along with a novella (no publisher for this either). Doubtless the problems locating publishers for fiction will be thrashed out in more than a few of my blog entries.

Professionally in my journalism and scholarly writing I’ve been fortunate to interview many individuals who have done very interesting work. A sampling of the bigger names: Edward Albee, Reba McEntire, Dennis Haysbert, John Rechy, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Linda Stein, Judy Chicago, Duane Michals, Quentin Crisp, Mondo Guerra, Cyndi Lauper, Harvey Fierstein, Lea DeLaria. With more to come. References to these and other individuals I’ve written about will crop up from time to time in these blog entries.

I’ve written about novels, visual art, fashion, history, and for many years now about AIDS and AIDS activism. Aspects of the AIDS crisis will be a recurring theme in this blog.

So there we are: writing, art, people I’ve interviewed, AIDS. My pop-up life in the arts has been and continues to be quite a journey, raising many questions and providing some thought-provoking insights. Welcome to the world of blu sunne.