Ken Jones

Ken Jones, the first African American co-chair of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration committee, died in January of bladder cancer. He was 70 years old.

photo of Ken Jones

I knew Ken in the early nineties when he was working with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He cofounded the Stop AIDS Project, doing peer-to-peer safer sex education by going out on Castro and Polk Streets with clipboards and condoms. I met him through the Needle Exchange Coalition, which was working to legalize a lifesaving AIDS prevention strategy then being conducted underground by Prevention Point. I didn’t know that he was a Vietnam War veteran and a veteran anti-war activist, or that he had been one of the first to demand that gay organizations in the Bay Area make space for queers of color and women. I just knew him as a sharp wit, an attentive listener and someone who didn’t tolerate bullshit. All my favorite qualities in an activist.

Ken was the first person I ran into on October 6, 1989, the night the cops tried to shut down an ACT UP march and ended up rioting and declaring martial law in the Castro. He was sitting on a wall by the San Francisco Federal Building, smoking a cigarette (he usually was, in those days), and he muttered, “Everyone here has their own personal pig.” That was my first warning something was different, and wrong, about what was looking like an ordinary, boring demonstration.

Ken grew up in New Jersey. He joined the Navy and served three tours in Vietnam, before being assigned to Treasure Island in 1972. In San Francisco, he met Cleve Jones and Harvey Milk and gradually became part of the anti-war movement and came out. When he realized how segregated and racist the gay movement was at that time, he decided to confront it. He was part of protests at gay bars that demanded multiple forms of ID from people of color, especially Black men, and demanded that organizations “from the Jon Sims Marching and Twirling Corps to Shanti to San Francisco Pride to the political clubs” give up seats on their leadership bodies to people of color.

“Some of the white men were infuriated by having to give up their treasured seats to absolute nobodys,” he told the BAR. “Many of them spent hundreds of hours to make sure we failed at every opportunity.”

In the 1990s, he worked with trans activist Cecilia Chung to create a safe environment for gay youth who had survived the foster care system. After Oscar Grant was killed by BART Police, he was appointed to the BART Police Citizen Review Board.

Ken was one of the central characters in the 2017 television miniseries  “ When We Rise,” portrayed by actor Michael K. Williams. After the movie came out, he briefly became a media sensation and relished introducing people to the lesser-known history of the LGBTQ movement in the Bay. “The day always went well when we took LSD or mescaline,” he told one journalist, taking them to a corner where he once crashed his car while tripping. “My partner was an acid dealer. We were well-known for our acid punch parties that started on Friday night and ended Monday morning.”

“Before 1981, it was party, party, party,” he says. “Then AIDS came through and cleared the house. People were dropping like flies. One day, I went through my phonebook—everyone was dead.”

After his HIV diagnosis, Ken moved to Ocean Beach where, he said, he “spent ‘a DECADE preparing to die with dignity,’ only realizing ‘slowly, very slowly’ that he ‘might not be dying after all.’” He battled some demons after that realization, dealt with PTSD from both Vietnam and the AIDS crisis, and left the Bay for a while. Ultimately religion helped him find his way back and he was ordained as a deacon in his church. “I now believe that God created me just like I am, healed, perfect, and whole,” he said in a 2017 interview.

He never stopped fighting for Black and queer lives. Shortly before he was hospitalized for cancer in 2020, he wrote in a Medium.com piece:

“I’m getting old, growing weary and getting tired of waiting. Truth be told, I’m about to explode. I’d like to make a pact to always include two words when we proclaim that Black Lives Matter…… to me. “Black lives matter to me.” Black Lives Matter (to Me!). What does that mean?

It means that we must demonstrate it in our hearts. We must own it and make it part of our luggage as we travel daily from here to there. Let’s commit to lead a life that speaks loudly that Black Lives Matter To Me. Live it and let it rest upon your heart. One of the more important lessons I’ve learned on this journey is that Legislation, White Papers, Proclamations and Executive Orders can not and do not change peoples’ hearts.

We change peoples’ hearts — not through any Herculean interventions — we change peoples’ hearts when we are present, when we are authentic, and when we are transparent. Present, authentic, and transparent.”

Rest in Power, Ken Jones.

by Kate

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is www.lagai.org.

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