Radical Radiance: Cleve Jones

cleve-jones-header-12-18-08Today’s article focuses on activist Cleve Jones who was recently portrayed in the biopic MILK. Jones is an HIV positive man who has taken his struggle and used it for good through his activism. His most famous project is the AIDS Memorial Quilt which brings people together to fight both AIDS and prejudice, as well as honor those who lost their lives to the virus.

Jones was born in Indiana in the ’50s, but he was raised in New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona. When he was seventeen Jones came out  and joined Gay Liberation Arizona Desert.  After he graduated high school in 1972 Jones headed to San Francisco where he got involved with the San Franciscan Gay Right’s Movement and Harvey Milk’s campaign. In a 2006 interview with PBS he spoke of the atmosphere when he first moved to San Fransisco at the beginning of the revolution:

It was a political revolution; it was a social revolution; it was a sexual revolution. For those of us who were part of it, there was a wonderful sense of self-discovery, because I think I’m a member of the last generation [of] people who spent our childhood thinking we were the only ones. That doesn’t happen anymore. But when I was a child I thought I was the only one, and so when I discovered that I was not the only one, that there were thousands upon thousands of people just like me, it was incredibly liberating and exhilarating.

Along with his fond memories of this massive cultural change, Jones also lived through the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Unafraid to share his personal experiences with the world Cleve Jones is an eloquent speaker who bears witness to the horror and confusion going on “before we learned that it was a virus” and “before we were clear on what would transmit the virus and what would not.” Cleve’s recollection of this time in interviews is hard to hear, but it truly paints a picture of the destruction that this virus can wreak:

My memory of it, when I think back, it seems like it was just an avalanche. It was like one week we’d never heard of it, and then the next week everybody started to die. Now, I know that’s not really the way it was, and it unfolded a little more slowly than that, but it was so sudden, and people didn’t talk about it. They were too frightened. Even in our community, there was a great deal of cruelty. So people began to vanish.

It was my friends. My circle was hit hard and hit early. By 1985, almost everyone I knew was dying or already dead. This feeling of people disappearing was terrifying, because it wasn’t just my friends and colleagues…. It was also the people I saw every day but whose names were not known to me — the bus driver, the mail delivery person, the baker, the guy I would see walking his collie every day in the park on my way to work. One by one, all these familiar faces disappeared. And there was no treatment, and people died very quickly.

A weaker person may have been defeated by witnessing the deaths of so many people he loved, but not Cleve Jones. In a time where, “Nobody cared. There was no response of any kind from the government, from the medical establishment. We were completely on our own.” Jones took his sadness and harnessed it to inspire the creation of a truly impressive organization. It began in November of 1985, as Cleve was preparing for the annual march to honor  Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Once again, I believe Jones’ own words can describe the genesis of his brilliant idea far better than mine can:

I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, and there was a headline saying that 1,000 San Franciscans had already been killed by AIDS. I remember standing on that corner of that intersection and looking around and grasping for the first time that of those thousand, virtually every one of them had lived and died within six blocks of where I was standing, and there was no evidence of it. […] So the night of the candlelight march, Joseph and I had stacks of cardboard, lightweight cardboard placards and sacks full of magic markers. We asked everybody to write down the name of one person they knew who had been killed by AIDS. People were ashamed to do it. They would put initials or just the first name, and then finally one guy took two pieces of paper, taped them together, and in big block letters wrote, “Thomas J. Farnsworth Jr., my brother — he’s dead.” Other people saw that and were ashamed of their shame, and people wrote their names, and we walked as we always do with our candles to City Hall, and then I had everybody go another block to the Federal Building. I’d hidden extension ladders in some shrubbery, and we pushed through the police lines and put our ladders up on the wall and with big rolls of tape, and we climbed three stories up and taped these names up on the gray stone facade of that Federal Building.

There were thousands of people standing there, almost silent. I walked with the crowd, and I could hear people whispering and looking at the names and reading them and saying: “I didn’t know he died; when did he get sick? I went to school with him; I didn’t know he was sick. I didn’t know he died. I was just overwhelmed by the need to find a way to grieve together for our loved ones who had died so horribly, and also to try to find the weapon that would break through the stupidity and the bigotry and all of the cruel indifference that even today hampers our response. I got to the edge of the crowd, and I looked back at that patchwork of names on the wall, and I thought, it looks like a quilt. And immediately I thought of my grandmother and my great-grandmother back in Bee Ridge.

I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional-family-values symbol to attach to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family.

In the year following this idea, “everybody told [him] it was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard of” and yet, Cleve continued on. Inspired by the realization that he, too had contracted HIV and the hateful reaction that he received after speaking out about his disease on 60 minutes Mr. Jones decided to go ahead with creating the quilt, regardless of what others might think.


A portion of the quilt when it was displayed fully in 1996

The AIDS Quilt grew slowly at first, starting with just Jones and his friends, but soon the media started to take notice and people began to participate. Today the quilt is huge, over 1,293,300 square feet, and it provides an amazing way both to raise awareness of the AIDS virus and help families and friends who have lost those to the virus to grieve. The quilt is a constantly growing and changing memorial for those who have lost their lives to this virus, and a beacon of hope for those still fighting it. The quilt has been seen by over 18,000,000 visitors and raised over $4,000,000 to directly help those suffering from AIDS.


Jones with Emile Hirsch, the actor chosen to portray his involvement in Harvey Milk’s campaign in the 2008 film MILK.

Cleve Jones deserves to be spotlighted in this section because his persistence and creativity truly inspire. Although Jones has lived a difficult life, he has not allowed himself to fall prey to self pity; instead, he took his own misfortunes and used them as inspiration to  help improve the lives of many though his relentless activism.

(All quotes taken from this interview with Jones in 2006)

Visit Jones’ website for more information concerning his life, the Quilt, and his recent projects.

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