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Turning 60, Activist Cleve Jones Looks Back (and Ahead)

by BeBe Sweetbriar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 8, 2014

Turning 60, Activist Cleve Jones Looks Back (and Ahead)

As our birthdays approach, we almost automatically start taking stock of our lives. What we have accomplished over the years? What we have left yet to do? Who are the people most important in our lives? And what can we do to make a difference? But when you're Cleve Jones, who is about to turn 60, the answers point to a life well led as a LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist.

It is no secret that Jones was a protégé of the slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk in the 70s in San Francisco, but Jones started his fight to right the wrongs of injustice as early as a teenager in Indiana. Having the privilege to speak with the outspoken and strong opinionated activist, I discovered that Jones' beginnings as a young gay teenager wasn't so different from many young gay teenagers today, who still feel alone, harassed, and traumatized, despite the enormous progress that activists like Jones helped happen.

As he prepares for this 60th birthday party this weekend, Jones looks back at his career, which includes founding the NAMES Project and the AIDS Quilt, working with Harvey Milk in the 1970s and AIDS activism in the 1980s. He shared with stories of triumph and loss, joy and pain, hope and disappointment offering up much to think about in where we as a LGBT community have been, where we are now, and where we have still need to go.

Feeling grateful
Cleve Jones  

Feeling grateful

BeBe: Though San Francisco has been where much of your work in the gay civil rights movement and the fight against HIV/AIDS has taken place, you have called other cities home, correct?

Cleve Jones: I have left a few ties, but I always come back. I went to Sacramento twice for jobs, which lasted a year or two. I went to Maui to get off cocaine in the early 80s and stayed for a year. I got sick in 1993 and almost died. I was very, very sick for a long time. It fucked up my lungs, and the medication they gave me fucked up my lungs as well. So, I moved up to (Russian) river, but it was so damp up there. I kept getting pneumonia over and over again. I couldn't get back (to normal) while up there, so my doctor said I needed to move to a dryer climate. That's when I moved to Palm Springs, and I lived there for 9 years. And you know what is so sad is I was there for 9 fucking years and did not make one friend. You know, I'm a pretty gregarious person who loves the company of many sorts of people. You don't have to be gay or share my politics. But, the queens down there are horrible.

BeBe: Living through the 80s and early 90s when we experience the worst part of the AIDS crisis and being HIV+, you must see celebrating your 60th birthday as something that you never thought was going to happen.

Cleve Jones: I tested positive (with HIV) the day the test came out in 1985. I had just turned 30-years-old. I already knew I was infected because everybody I ever had sex with was already dead. I was in a hepatitis study group, and later found out from the samples of blood going back to 1977 that I got HIV in the winter of 1978 or 1979. I lived with certain knowledge that I had HIV for 10 years before treatment came along. I was certain I would die. I never thought I'd make it to 40. Some people talk about survivor guilt, and I don't feel guilty. I just feel so grateful and fortunate to have survived when so many didn't.

No career guidance
Cleve Jones (left) with Harvey Milk in 1978  

No career guidance

BeBe: But just saying you didn't die is such an understatement, because your living remains an inspiration for all of us.

Cleve Jones: It is so strange how it all played out. Harvey (Milk) mentored me; and with the Dan White trial there was the riot that I was generally accused of inciting. I made a really good job out of all that working with the (California State) Assembly.

I'm definitely not offering this up as career guidance (laughs). Leo McCarthy, who was the Speaker of the California Assembly before Willie Brown, hired me and I was assigned to work with the Public Health Committee, and my job was to look at all the legislation going through the committee and then work with the Democratic leadership to communicate their position on those bills. It was there that I read the first report from the Center for Disease Control in June 1981, MMWR, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. I read about homosexuals with this new deadly disease and I thought this is fucked up. Shortly after that Marcus Conant, a dermatologist at UCSF (and a founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation), called me and took me to dinner where he told me he thought (disease) was a new sexually transmitted virus that stayed dormant for about 10 years. He kind of laid it all out, all of which turned out to be true.

All I could say to it all is 'we're all dead.' He replied, 'yes.' That was the beginning for me.

Talking PrEP
Cleve Jones in the 1980s  

Talking PrEP

BeBe: What do you think were some of the things that contributed to your survival?

Cleve Jones: I think there are a bunch of things. Both of my grandmothers lived to be over 100 years old. My Mom and Dad passed away this year but lived to be in their 90s. I had a great-aunt who lived to be 105. So, there's longevity on both sides of my family.

And, I'm a white collar educated male with privileges. I think being famous helped. I could call up the best minds and get the best advice. And, when everybody was rushing to take AZT, I didn't take it. I watched my friends who took it die faster. Even though my father and doctor were pushing me hard to take it, I didn't do it. I think that was the smartest decision I made. When I was nearly close to death in the fall of '94, I got into the first cocktail clinical trials. My T-cells were down to 23 at that time, and in 6 weeks I was out of the danger zone with my count up to 350. I'm lucky, very lucky.

BeBe: Speaking of HIV meds and disease management, we are now at a time where we are truly talking a preventative method with PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) using the drug Truvada. What are your thoughts on PrEP?

Cleve Jones: Well, obviously there is controversy around it. I think that, especially among gay men in their 50s and 60s that are HIV-positive, it's understandable that our response was complicated to the news. To me, it's the continuation of the good news that treatment equals prevention. A couple of years ago it became quite clear that people like me who had been successfully treated and maintained an undetectable viral load were not likely to transmit the disease. That's very good news. It's very good news for those of us with HIV-negative partners. It's also good news because it proves a powerful political incentive to fund treatment. The right wing Republicans might not give a fuck if we live or die but they might want to see the cost reduced.

When people started talking about PrEP, I think some of us overreacted because we didn't understand. Maybe it was jealousy that the kids now get to go out and fuck their brains out like we did but without fear. And then there is the cynicism over the drug companies that make it and how much money they make. So, I had a sort of cynical, ambivalent and kind of odd response to what I now see is absolutely wonderful news. And frankly, it's part of why I'm doing my 60th birthday party on October 11 as a benefit (for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation).

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (the national organization based in Los Angeles) right now is spending $3.5 million on what I consider to be a misinformation campaign to confuse people and scare them off from using PrEP. I live in the Castro neighborhood and have made a point of building relationships with young people, especially those working in the neighborhood. A lot of these young people are under 30, and guess what? A huge percentage of them are already infected and are all at risk. I see what goes on in the neighborhood with drugs and alcohol and people on the weekend getting stoned out of their minds. I'm not being judgmental; I just know what's going on.

I would say to anyone who has allowed themselves to have unsafe sex without using a condom, you should be on that shit. If you go out and get high and can't remember what happened the night before, you should be on that shit. If you've been forced to do (sexual) things you didn't want to do, you should be on that shit. If you are a sex worker, you should use that shit. But mostly, the rate of infection is going up among young people because of drug and alcohol use. If you are in that scene, you should use that shit.

The fight ahead
Cleve Jones and actor Emile Hirsch on the set of 'Milk'  

The fight ahead

BeBe: What about access to Truvada? The Black and Latino youth are disproportionally affected in that increase of infection amongst young people, and previous to PrEP, there has always been an access problem with these groups to receive adequate HIV management care. What about access?

Cleve Jones: I think that is something that we should be fighting for. I think it's disgusting that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (headed by Michael Weinstein) is spending $3.5 million this month telling people not to take PrEP. Why don't we take that money and show people how to get it, and how to use it when they admit that when used as directed (PrEP) stops transmission?

BeBe: The last time I had the privilege to speak to you was the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision that rescinded Prop 8 and DOMA in 2012. I remember asking you a question regarding Marriage Equality: what was next for us in California now that we have gotten ours, so to speak? You responded that we'd have to see how much we reach out to help others in their fights. So, I ask now, how well have we done in reaching out to help others?

Cleve Jones: We still have a fight ahead of us, but this is an interesting conversation. What happens after we've won our political agenda? I do believe I will live long enough to see that in my lifetime. It's really exciting. There's a number of interesting questions. What happens to gay culture? What happens to our perception of ourselves now that we are being assimilated? And, the reality of the gayborhoods, are they disappearing? There are a whole bunch of questions about what we will become.

This has been a debate within our culture since the 1950s when the Mattachine Society split over the issue whether we were a distinct and separate culture, or were we just like them (straights) except for whom we took to bed? That conflict has been expressed by a different vocabulary by each generation. I have no idea. All I know is that I want gay people to take their rightful place amongst people all over the world who fight and stand for peace, and social and economic justice. I don't separate the gay struggles from these other struggles. I'm a single-issue guy. And as we have to worry less and less about keeping our own shit together, maybe we can do more (for others). The one issue that trumps all the other issues is the growing divide between the rich and the poor. If we allow that to continue, we will see a lot of the things we care about disappear.

Have we won?
Cleve Jones  

Have we won?

BeBe: You talk about the gayborhoods going away. Do we need them?

Cleve Jones: There are a whole bunch of factors at play here. The most powerful one is economic reality. When gay bars first sprang up they were in the lower income areas because neighborhoods in the suburbs didn't want them. We also went to industrial and warehouse areas. Now these are being taken over by the tech industry. Another definite thing is as we have changed the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, we have other options where we can live safely. That's a good thing.

Another factor has to do with sex. Young men I interact with don't want to go to a gay bar when they are horny and want to get laid. That's the last place they want to go to find sex. For my generation, when you were in your 20s and wanted to get off, you went to a gay bar or bathhouse. That seems antiquated to today's young people. They've got Grindr and Manhunt. But to answer your question, I don't know what's going to happen with the changes that are going on.

BeBe: The one thing I thought I would see with the changed perceptions towards LGBTs in the media and culture would be a proportional decrease in the suicide rate amongst young gay people. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. I think many of us believed that these suicides had to do with the lack of positive awareness and the knowing that they are not alone. But are we missing something? Do you think there is something else the gay community should be doing to deal with the suicide problem?

Cleve Jones: I wish I knew the answer. I think about it every day. I lost the love of my life to suicide. Every time I see one of these (suicide) stories my heart breaks. (After a long pause to gain his composure) I planned to kill myself as a teenager. That's not rhetoric. That's not hyperbole. I was going to kill myself because I thought I was alone. Today young people can't possibly think they are alone, but I don't think that helps make them feel not less than human. When people say we've won... no, we have not won. We need to find a way to be useful to these kids. There's a lot of things fucked up about our gay community and how we treat each other. We have a lot of the same problems of the larger society.

If you are talking about these kids who are still at home, I don't know how we reach them. We keep saying to these kids who are feeling ostracized, ridiculed and harassed that it's going to get better. Well, a 17-year-old doesn't have the ability to think that way when 'today' is endless. It's really heartbreaking. This is a really, really important question that we should be asking ourselves, and I'm not going to pretend that I have an answer. I do know, however, that we can live well and show by example. You see, I'm old, I'm fabulous and I'm having a fucking good time, bitches!

Significant achievements?
Cleve Jones during a promotional event for "Milk"  

Significant achievements?

BeBe: You have accomplished so much in your journey to fight and bring awareness to AIDS, and progress the agenda of the civil rights movement for all. But looking back over the more than 40 years on this journey, what would you say are the two most significant of your accomplishments for you and for both of the concentrations I've named?

Cleve Jones: When I had the idea for the AIDS Quilt, everybody told me it was the stupidest thing they had ever heard of. It will never work. No one will do it. It's impossible and too expensive. It was completely inappropriate. It wound up being the world's largest AIDS project. There is no question it changed the course of the epidemic. It changed the way Americans thought about AIDS. It provided solace for families and those affected by the disease. So, the quilt worked. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in it, and millions have viewed it. It was a big part in helping this country respond to the AIDS crisis. And I think if I am remembered for anything 100 years from now, it will most likely be for that.

The other thing, I don't think anyone can argue with this, the film 'Milk' would not have happened without me. I made that happen. I found the writer (Dustin Lance Black). I found the director (Gus Van Sant). I pushed for 30 years to make it. And, I think (the movie) had a powerful impact. (In the film, Jones was played by Emile Hirsch.)

Quick takes on...
Cleve Jones and Dustin Lance Black  

Quick takes on...

BeBe: What comes to your mind when I say Vladimir Putin?

Cleve Jones: Megalomaniac. A potential Hitler.

BeBe: Barack Obama?

Cleve Jones: On one hand, I never thought I'd live long enough to see a black man in the White House. The significance of that I don't think can be overstated. For gay people, it has been extraordinary what he has done for us. Historical. LGBT people who criticize him on LGBT issues are nuts. I've had to push him. We've all had to push him. He told us we would have to push him, and when we did, he did the right thing. But on economics and immigration (sigh)... I think in many ways we had such high expectations for him. Many things we wanted to see him accomplish are impossible with this Congress, and I acknowledge all of that. But, I have some disappointment.

BeBe: Michael Weinstein (the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation)?

Cleve Jones: I do not comprehend him at all, but I think what he's done is reprehensible.

BeBe: Dustin Lance Black?

Cleve Jones: He's my buddy (eyes light up)! Lance has been apart of my life for a decade. I don't think people can know how amazing Lance is. He's such a wonderful person. He didn't grow up with privilege. He has had to struggle. He's had a lot of loss and sorrow in his life. He is extremely conscientious. I think he is absolutely brilliant, and we are just beginning to see what he is going to accomplish.

Remembering Harvey Milk
The recently released Harvey Milk stamp  

Remembering Harvey Milk

BeBe: Harvey Milk?

Cleve Jones: I think as he has become legend, it is important to know that he was an actual human being who lived on this block (Castro), and in many respects, he was an ordinary man. He was not a saint, by any means. He as not a genius. His life was fucked up in many ways. He had a lot of tragedies in his life, and he endured all of that just like most ordinary people have to do in their lives. He struggled and he fought. He spoke out and did what he thought was right. And... he changed the world!

BeBe: And finally, Cleve Jones?

Cleve Jones: I think the biggest thing I should get credit for is just for enduring! As I say to young people, you have to be in it for the long haul. Understand that there are things you want to accomplish that take time. I'm always saying to them that I want them to demand everything because by demanding everything immediately is there any hope of getting anything eventually. I have stuck with it even in times when it has been extremely difficult. I did not give up. I've been pretty consistent, and I've lived the moment. I give myself props for that. I'm still here, and still enjoying the work. You know as you get older, people ask you if you have any regrets? I've heard people say they have no regrets. You show me a man with no regret and I'll show you a man with amnesia. I have a lot of regrets, but I'm happy with my life.

Cleve Jones 60th Birthday will be celebrated in San Francisco on Saturday, October 11 at The Cafe at MORE CLEVE! A 60th Birthday Celebration for Cleve Jones hosted by Juanita MORE! benefiting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Go to for tickets and information.

Based out of San Francisco, BEBE SWEETBRIAR is the Omni Present Drag Chanteuse. As an entertainer and hostess, BeBe can be scene every week hosting and performing at countless events and parties in the San Francisco. One of the few drag personalities to sing live while performing, BeBe has literally graced every notable stage in San Francisco, bridging many gay sub-community gaps. She has also been the opening act for Destiny's Child Kelly Rowland, "Ugly Betty's" Alec Mapa and Dance Diva Kristine W. Adding recording artist to her list of performance accomplishments in 2008 with the release of her first single "Save Me", Ms. Sweetbriar will soon release her fifth dance single in 2012 called "Show It Off".. As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media's next short film series, "" to be released in 2012.

Living Well with HIV

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