Cleve Jones has devoted a lifetime to LGBT rights. An isolated teen who contemplated suicide, while flipping through a copy of Life magazine, he discovered there were other people like him, in fact, an entire movement and so he moved to San Francisco in his early 20s.
It was there that he would find himself in the center of the gay rights movement and some of the most critical moments in LGBT history. Jones found a mentor in activist Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials, and was nearby in 1978 when Milk was assassinated in City Hall by a fellow city supervisor.
Years later, as the AIDS epidemic struck San Francisco’s vibrant Castro neighborhood, he co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1983 and two years later, conceived the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the world’s largest community art project, memorializing more than 85,000 people killed by the disease.
Like many of his friends and neighbors, Jones was infected, but fortunate to gain access to the earliest formulations of antiretroviral medicines, thanks to the efforts of ACT UP and other AIDS activists of the time to expedite clinical trials and approvals.
His book, “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement,” was the inspiration for Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black’s critically-acclaimed four-part miniseries broadcast on ABC earlier this year.
On Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m., Jones will come to South Florida to discuss his experiences as part of the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center’s AIDS History Series at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.
SFGN spoke with Jones recently about his life in the movement:
SFGN: What will you be talking about when you’re here in Fort Lauderdale?
Jones: People are always interested in hearing stories from the past, from the early years of our struggle, but I’m also eager to talk about the future. Many of our victories still hang in the balance. I’m also looking forward to seeing the AIDS Museum. Larry Kramer was there earlier this year and he said it’s fantastic. He’s not one to lavish unwarranted praise.
How does it feel to have been an eyewitness—and participant—at so many crucial moments in our history?
It’s quite extraordinary. Do not doubt that change can happen. I’m 63 and have seen an enormous amount of change in my lifetime. We’ve not reached full equality yet, so I like talking about what strategies work.
At the time, did you realize you were making history?
I think all of us were aware that we were participating in something that was important…One didn’t have to be an activist or political or all that educated to see that this had not happened before, that what we were doing could change the world. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were so electrifying.
You frequently discuss how the gay rights movement saved your life. In what ways?
I begin my book and end my book with the statement that the movement saved my life. When I was a teen, I was stealing sleeping pills from my parents because I was going to kill myself. I was a homosexual. Then I read about gay liberation in Life magazine and flushed the pills down the toilet and moved to San Francisco. Later, when I was dying of AIDS, activists stormed the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and changed the way the drugs were tested. Once again, I’m only alive because the movement changed the way the drugs were tested and then (pushed for) access to drugs that weren’t available before. It’s not a slogan I made up.
Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors have some of the highest concentrations of LGBT residents in the country and a growing senior community. Many residents can relate to your experiences.
In my travels, one of the things I’m noticing is that the gayborhoods, as we knew them, are going away very rapidly. There are two places that don’t follow that trend, Palm Springs and Wilton Manors. These concentrated geographic neighborhoods in urban centers are largely being dispersed. There are many factors, including technology and greater acceptance, but it’s really economics. These neighborhoods are now the playgrounds of the wealthy. When we lose them, some of the younger people roll their eyes and say, “Cities change,” and I roll my eyes back and say, “Duh.” When we lose that concentration, Dupont Circle (Washington, D.C.), Capitol Hill (Seattle), the Castro (San Francisco), we lose political power, cultural vitality and the targeted services that are so important to the most vulnerable. It’s an interesting time.
Were you aware that South Florida infamously has one of the highest infection rates in the country?
Yes, I’m well aware of what’s happening in Florida and in Georgia and parts of Texas, as well. We’ve done well in bringing down the transmission rate in all sorts of categories. In San Francisco, we’re getting close to zero. We only had 200 new infections last year, so that’s tremendous. What we see among certain subsets, particularly black and brown youth…are unacceptable transmission rates, young people showing up in (emergency rooms) with immune systems that are totally collapsed. There’s a complicated set of factors there—race, sexual orientation, gender identity.
What can we do, in your opinion, to eliminate HIV/AIDS?
It’s a different world and I’m grateful for the advances. What people need to understand right now is that we still don’t have a vaccine and we don’t have a cure. Even with those, it’s all about treatment, treatment, treatment. Individuals such as myself now know that we can’t pass on the disease (with undetectable viral load). People at risk can take one pill a day and prevent the spread of HIV. In my day, the slogan was “Silence = Death” and today it should be “Treatment = Prevention.”
It’s been several years since the AIDS Memorial Quilt was last displayed. Do you think we’ll have another opportunity to see it again, like it was displayed on the National Mall?
The quilt is sadly still growing, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the entire quilt unfolded again. It’s too fragile. Some of that fabric was sewn together over 30 years ago and we need to take care of it.
In addition to your lifelong advocacy for LGBT rights, you’re also working as a union organizer. In what ways are you making a difference for workers?
For almost 15 years now, most of my work has been with the labor movement, the hospitality workers’ union. I like my union for many reasons. When we win victories, the workers go home with more money, safer working conditions, access to better health care. They are treated with more respect on the job. My union offers an example of an organization that brings people together and now we’re fighting Trump. Hospitality is full of all sorts of people, extraordinary people, and we got the health plan changed to get full coverage for transgender people. I have great concerns about employment, safety and access to health care, (but) my union is winning contracts.
You mentioned earlier that we still have more work to do to secure our rights. Looking back, when do you think was the most challenging time for our community or is it now?
Well, I wasn’t alive in Germany in the 1930s…Clearly the Reagan years were very dark years for LGBT people and people with HIV. I’m still angered by the silence that emanated from the White House during the darkest years of the pandemic. He didn’t even say the word (“AIDS”) until more Americans had died than in the Vietnam War. Certainly, today we live in unparalleled, unprecedented and terrifying time and not just for LGBT people by any means.
Longtime HIV/AIDS activist, Jasmin Shirley, to receive Unity in Diversity Award
In addition to the conversation with legendary activist Cleve Jones and presentation of a key to the city by Fort Lauderdale commissioner Dean Trantalis, the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center will present the Unity in Diversity Award to Jasmin Shirley for her longtime contributions to HIV/AIDS patients in Broward County.
Shirley, senior vice president of community health services for Broward Health, has devoted the last 32 years to vulnerable and underserved patients.
In 1981 Shirley, then with the Broward County Health Department, saw reports of the first six HIV cases in the county. Along with a group of concerned citizens, she eventually helped to form the South Florida AIDS Network, which is still in existence. The network offers support, help and information, and also distributes condoms and other items necessary for effective prevention.
“She was there from the very beginning,” said Hugh Beswick, CEO of the three-year-old museum in Wilton Manors. “She carries on a family tradition. Her father was a physician in Broward County and service and commitment are a part of her family’s legacy.”
Shirley currently oversees Broward Health’s Community Health Services (CHS) division, including 10 primary care centers, a federally-qualified health center for the homeless, a home health and hospice agency and an urgent care center.
According to Beswick, Shirley’s knowledge of AIDS from the epidemic’s beginning through current treatments, as well as an intimate knowledge of the community’s needs, including low-income and underserved populations, makes her one of the strongest advocates and fighters for those who lack access to health care.
“Jasmin is someone who commands so much respect from everyone she’s helped,” he said.
“An Evening with Cleve Jones” and presentation of the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center’s Unity in Diversity Award will take place on Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at the Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 S.W. 9th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $30 and $45 (including preferred seating and photo with Jones) at WorldAIDSMuseum.org.