Cleve Jones at 60: A World AIDS Day reflection

Jones with Emile Hirsch, who played Jones in the 2008 film "Milk"

When Cleve Jones enters a room, history follows in his path. A personal friend of the slain gay leader Harvey Milk, Jones was portrayed by Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant's Oscar winning biopic "Milk" (2008).

Jones' many accomplishments include organizing the National Equality March in Washington DC in 2009 — thousands of LGBT people marched from the White House to the Capital demanding equality. It's believed that this march inspired President Barack Obama to support a repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the now tossed ban on gays serving in the military. The President also signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law a few days after the March.

Cleve Jones, a long time HIV survivor, was the man behind The Names Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt. That was but one of Jones' numerous achievements in raising public awareness about AIDS and its horrific impact on the LGBT community.

Cleve Jones recently celebrated his 60th birthday. He remains healthy and strong, and continues to work towards equality for LGBT and for everyone.

SFGN is honored to chat with Cleve Jones.

Tell us how you found your way to San Francisco, where your friendship with Harvey Milk began.

My family moved around a lot. We went to Phoenix in 1968, when I was 14. I visited San Francisco in 1972 for a few weeks and couldn't stop thinking about the city. I moved back in the summer of '73. I loved the city, it's the most amazing place and it was a very exciting time. We were conscious that we were participating in something brand new.

When did you meet Harvey?

I met Harvey shortly after he opened his camera store, but I didn't get close to him at first. I started hitchhiking in 1975, coming back to the city occasionally. Didn't move back until 1977. I started working on Harvey's campaign for Board of Supervisors and against the Briggs Initiative (NOTE: The Briggs Initiative was a failed ballot measure that would have barred gay teachers from California schools — this was dramatized in the Milk film). I really loved politics. I went to SF State University, studied political science, and worked in Harvey's office as an intern until the day he was shot. It was horrifying — it was the first time I had seen a dead body.

Can you describe what your friendship with Harvey was like?

He was very much a father figure to me.

Did the movie "Milk" stay accurate?

Yes. The only thing not really accurate is that you get the impression that I wasn't interested in politics before Harvey. My family was very political: I was radicalized by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.

Can you describe your feelings when "Milk" and the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" (1984) won Oscars?

I was thrilled! Friends of mine made the films. It's so important that these stories be told widely. We've used the popular culture media well to tell the story of LGBT people and the fight against AIDS.

What followed for you after Harvey died?

After the White Night Riots in 1979 (NOTE: the gay community rioted in San Francisco after Harvey Milk's killer was given a light sentence) I became fairly well known. California Assemblyman Leo McCarthy appointed me to the State Assembly Committee on Health. I had just started to learn about health issues when, in June 1981, the Centers For Disease Control issued their first report on the disease now known as HIV/AIDS. By 1985 I had lost all my friends. I made new friends and lost them too.

How did The Names Project: The AIDS Memorial Quilt, come about?

The idea came to me on November 27, 1985, the anniversary of Harvey Milk's death. We were having our annual candlelight vigil for Harvey and George (SF Mayor George Moscone was also murdered). The San Francisco death toll from AIDS up to that week was 1,000. Most of those people lived in the Castro — after that we lost 2,000 people a year in San Francisco. As we were setting up to march I had people write names of lost loved ones on boards. When I saw the names up on that wall, I thought it looked like a quilt. I thought of my grandma and my great-grandma.

Everyone said it was a stupid idea, but then I found a few people crazy enough to help me. The first display of the quilt was on October 11, 1987 — my 33rd birthday. Out of that grew The Names Project. At it's height, in the late 80s and early 80s, the Quilt had chapters all over the USA.

Where is the Quilt now?

October 11, 1996 was the last national display of the Quilt on the National Mall in Washington DC. That was the year the protease inhibitors (AIDS drug cocktails) became available and the death rate began to come down. The Quilt is rarely seen now, it's sadly forgotten. I'm no longer involved with it.

Do you have any feelings about the use of the AIDS prevention drug PrEP?

PrEP is a tool we can use to bring down infection rates. People need to be honest with themselves and their doctors. Know your status and get tested. A recent study indicates that half of gay men don’t reveal their sexuality to their doctors. If you can’t trust your doctor, you need a new doctor. If you are engaging in risky behavior, consider PrEP.

What are your thoughts on the rise in barebacking?

I'm really tired of hearing our young people called irresponsible, blaming and shaming them. I don't like it and I wish it would stop. Instead, we need to tell these kids that we love them, that they're beautiful, that their lives have value and that the choices they make matter.

How is your own health?

I’ve been diagnosed positive since 1985, but I knew I was infected before that. I got sick in 1993 and was very ill for a few years. I got into one of the first clinical trials in 1994, and that got me off my deathbed. I'm now healthy and strong, I work full time and travel. I just turned 60 and had an epic birthday party.

What's next for us now that marriage equality is on the verge of becoming a nationwide reality?

We are nowhere near full equality. When people can still be fired from their jobs, denied public accommodations or housing, our goal must be equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all fifty states.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

That today I work for the labor movement. I work for Unite Here. We represent hospitality workers across the USA and Canada. We are fighting for the rights of workers — that includes all workers. There are many states where we are years away from legislation banning job discrimination. My own union is winning contracts, which include those protections. So I hope people will consider that and choose to stay in hotels that respect their workers.

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