In a moving and heartfelt talk, AIDS activist and longtime human rights advocate Cleve Jones addressed The Commonwealth Club’s LBGT Member Led Forum on June 1. The close friend of the late San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 Oscar-nominated film “Milk,” discussed topics ranging from his early years in San Francisco, to the AIDS epidemic, to the recent events surrounding the legalization of gay marriage.
Jones told the group that he was inspired to move to San Francisco at age 17, after discovering a magazine in his school’s library containing an article detailing the burgeoning gay rights movement in the city. “I had come to San Francisco to be a part of a revolution,” he said.
He shared his humble beginnings in the city and his first encounter with Harvey Milk, admitting that prior to their meeting, he had not really taken Milk seriously. However, the two men quickly developed a friendship, and subsequently Jones began working as an intern for Milk when he was elected to office. Jones said he was profoundly affected by Milk, and he credits Milk with making him a more tolerant and empathetic person. “I hated straight people when I first got here,” he said. “I was very heterophobic, and that hatred, like most hated, was born out of fear.”
Milk’s assassination overwhelmed him. Upon learning about the killing, Jones lamented, “[The gay rights movement’s] all over now. It’s finished; he was our leader and my father figure, he was the man who opened doors for me and allowed me to think of some amazing future waiting for me.” However, he continued, it was during the candle-lit procession that followed in which thousands of people, gay and straight alike, descended upon City Hall that “I realized it was just the beginning.”
Shortly after Milk’s death, Jones was faced with a new problem, the likes of which he had never seen before. He became aware of the AIDS epidemic, though at the time the virus was virtually unknown. He admitted to initially being “so confused and frightened,” and Jones touched on the shock of being tested and receiving a positive diagnosis. He lived with the virus for 10 years before treatment was available, during which time he watched his friends die on almost a daily basis. “It was just mind numbing,” he recalled. “I felt myself and people around me falling into a state of paralysis.”
However, he said that 1985 was a pivotal year that changed not only his life but the lives of thousands of others. It was during what had now become the annual march on City Hall in remembrance of the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone that Cleve conceived of the idea of the AIDS memorial quilt. He remarked how he passed out paper and pens, urging marchers to write the names of loved ones that they had lost to AIDS. At first, he said, people were hesitant and even ashamed to expose the full names of those they had lost. But eventually he and his friend collected hundreds of papers. After sneaking past security, the two blanketed the entire San Francisco Federal Building with the names of those who were lost, which to Jones looked like “some kind of weird quilt.” From this, the idea of the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was born. According to Jones, “The quilt was a gift to me, to keep me alive and willing to keep fighting.” In the years since, the quilt has grown to become the world’s largest community arts project, memorializing the lives of more than 80,000 Americans killed by AIDS.
Jones concluded his lecture with a discussion of the current state of gay marriage in America. Though he said that he believes the country has made great strides, he also feels it is time to rethink the strategy on legalizing gay marriage. “I believe the time has come to abandon our focus on state by state, city by city, county by county,” he said. “Every time we settle for a compromise, we are undermining our own humanity, because no other group of people in this country would accept that kind of piecemeal bit-by-bit approach. There is no such thing as a fraction of equality. You are equal or you are not.”
An inspiring speaker, Jones has lectured at high schools, colleges, and universities, and has met several heads of state including Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, and former South African President Nelson Mandela. His best-selling memoir, “Stitching a Revolution,” was published by HarperCollins in 2000. Jones has received numerous awards from AIDS and gay rights organizations, religious conferences, state and national health associations, and the legislatures of California, Indiana and Massachusetts. He has served as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Harvard AIDS Institute, the National Board of Governors of Project Inform, and the Board of Directors of the Foundation for AIDS and Immune Research. He currently lives in Palm Springs,California.
-- By The Commonwealth Club's Media and Public Relations Staff
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