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Cleve Jones, AIDS Quilt Founder, Still Working for Full Equality for Homosexuals

  • Rosanne Skirble

Cleve Jones joins to dedicate a San Francisco street car in the memory of his political mentor, Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected public official – Milk was assassinated in 1978

Cleve Jones joins to dedicate a San Francisco street car in the memory of his political mentor, Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected public official – Milk was assassinated in 1978

Gay rights activist who worked with Harvey Milk, started iconic AIDS memorial to bear witness to lives lost and raise awareness about HIV

As a teenager growing up in the American Southwest in the late 1960s, Cleve Jones remembers how isolated and lonely he felt. But he says his life changed one day when he happened to read a magazine article in the school library on the gay liberation movement. "That was the first word that I got that not only were there other people like me, but that they were organizing and demanding rights," Jones says.

After graduation, Jones headed to San Francisco to discover what it meant to be gay. "Every day there were hundreds and hundreds of young gay and lesbian people arriving from all over the country." He says he was, "participating in something that was really brand new."

Jones joins political gay rights movement

Jones met Harvey Milk, an openly gay politician campaigning for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He also worked with Milk to defeat a state ballot initiative that would bar homosexuals from working in California public schools. "We got out, like Harvey Milk taught us, and came out of the closet [publicly avowed their homosexuality] and we walked door-to-door, and we introduced ourselves to our neighbors and said, 'Please don't vote for this it will hurt me.' And that was how we won," Jones recalls.

Harvey Milk was the first gay elected official to hold public office in California. A year later he was dead, assassinated in City Hall along with the San Francisco mayor. Jones followed Milk's lead by forging coalitions among racial and ethnic communities, trade unionists, women's rights advocates and environmental groups. "They found common ground that would lead ultimately to them taking power in that city," he says.

Jones becomes an early advocate for AIDS research and treatment

It was in the early 1980s, when Jones was working for the California State Assembly on health issues, that the first cases of AIDS hit his San Francisco community. "I spent the first five years really of the 1980s just struggling so hard to alert people, to warm people to try to pressure the scientific community, to try to pressure the federal government," he says.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed in its entirety for the last time in 1996, Washington, DC

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed in its entirety for the last time in 1996, Washington, DC

Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, an advocacy group for people with this strange and deadly new disease. AIDS is caused by HIV, a potent virus that's transmitted mainly through sexual contact and that cripples the body's immune system. In the 1980s, getting AIDS, or an HIV-positive diagnosis, meant almost certain death.

Jones says during those early years of the epidemic, San Francisco allocated more funds than the federal government for AIDS research and treatment. "[Ronald] Reagan was president then and didn't say the word AIDS aloud until more Americans had died of AIDS than had died in the entire Vietnam War," he says.

The genesis of the AIDS quilt memorial

The Names Project Foundation sponsors workshops like this one to help families create AIDS Memorial Quilt panels

The Names Project Foundation sponsors workshops like this one to help families create AIDS Memorial Quilt panels

By 1985, 1,000 people in San Francisco had died from AIDS. In the annual memorial vigil for Harvey Milk that year, Jones invited marchers to write the names of loved ones on placards and he posted them on the gray stone façade of the federal building across from San Francisco City Hall. "I thought what a perfect symbol!" he remembers.

That symbol blossomed into the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. In 1987, 19,000 cloth panels – each 1x3 meters - had been stitched together and put on display in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The quilt, which eventually grew to 45,000 panels, spent many years on the road helping activists to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic. Jones says it also was a powerful education tool. "We could get into school districts that no AIDS educators of any kind could get into, and we were able to begin a conversation about the new epidemic with very young people," he explains.

Jones says bearing witness has helped save lives. In the early 1990s Jones, who is HIV-positive, stepped down from leadership of the Names Project because of poor health.

Jones wants full legal protection for gay rights

In better health in recent years, Jones has rekindled his efforts to address persistent anti-gay attitudes and is working to fight prejudice in the labor union movement. He recalls that when he addressed tens of thousands of supporters at the Gay Rights 2009 National Equality March in Washington, he spoke about what the movement demands of the nation's political leaders. "We demand equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states," he says.

Jones has seen many victories for gay rights over his lifetime in communities across the country. But he says those victories will remain, "both incomplete and impermanent" until full equality and civil rights for homosexuals are written permanently into federal law.

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