Heroes in the Fight: Meet Cleve

Join us as we celebrate Cleve Jones’s 60th birthday  on October 11, 2014 at a party hosted by Juanita MORE! Several of Cleve’s friends will be there: Top Chef winner Yigit Pura,  Dustin Lance Black, and actor and singer Jonathan Groff—don’t miss this special event.  Tickets can be purchased here with all proceeds going to benefit the Cleve Jones Fund to end HIV transmission. 

This month we honor Cleve Jones, an inspiring human rights activist devoting his life’s work to social, health, and economic justice. He describes himself as “movement guy,” an accurate description given his powerful role in the movement to increase awareness and education around HIV/AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic.

Jones was one of the first to recognize the great and immediate need for community support, research, and education around HIV, more than three decades ago.

“I knew that we were in deep trouble—and I understood that very early. Dr. Marcus Conant reached out to me in 1981 after the first reports of the disease were published in the Centers for Disease Control Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Reports. We had dinner, and he laid out for me what he thought we were dealing with.” Jones, along with Bob Ross, publisher of the Bay Area Reporter, Dr. Paul Volberding, and Frank Jacobson founded the then-named Kaposi Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation in a small office on Castro Street.

This eventually transformed into what is now San Francisco AIDS Foundation, with Jones noting that “I certainly never imagined San Francisco AIDS Foundation evolving into the incredibly important and large organization that it has become—although I deeply regret that it is still necessary. Though, the focus has changed now that we have effective treatments. At the beginning all we could do was focus on prevention messages, providing care, and advocacy. The situation is very different today; it’s much more complex.”

Jones sees a way forward in the fight against AIDS, and currently advocates for widespread uptake and use of treatment and prevention resources. “If the slogan of my generation was ‘silence equals death,’ I think the slogan for this generation should be ‘treatment equals prevention.’ It’s clear to me that once people who are infected are treated, it becomes very difficult for them to transmit the virus. And with uninfected people being able to protect themselves with PrEP, for the first time in three and a half decades, I feel that there may well be a strategy that could eventually end this.”

In addition to establishing the foundation, Jones created the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987 as a way to honor individuals who had died of AIDS. Interest in the project from those who had lost friends and loved ones to AIDS was immediately apparent. A total of 1,920 panels were sewn and submitted that first year from across the U.S., and the Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987.  It covered a space larger than a football field.   

Back in the early days of the epidemic, this project was important for a few different reasons. According to Jones, “It showed the humanity behind the statistics. It offered people who were lost a way to grieve together—it was therapeutic.  It was a tool for the media to understand that entire communities and families were being affected. It was a weapon against the politicians to expose the consequences of their inaction. And it put forth a very bold statement that all of these lives mattered, and all of these lives were sacred.” 

The importance of the Quilt still is evident today. It has become one of the most powerful symbols of AIDS advocacy and awareness in addition to a healing memorial. Over the years, it has grown to include more than 48,000 three-by-six foot panels representing over 94,000 people. 

When Jones first conceived of the idea for the Quilt, “everybody told me that it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of. And now it’s turned out to be the largest community arts project in the world. I’m still amazed at the beauty and power and love that it embodies.”

Even with decades spent executing powerful change in the community and across the nation, Jones understands that there’s no time for complacency. To be an effective advocate for health, HIV prevention, better treatment options, and access to care you need endurance.  “To accomplish our goals we have to understand that change isn’t going to happen overnight. This particular fight right now is ending its fourth decade and we’re not there yet. If we endure, if we look after each other—and persevere—I think we will win.” 

Meet Cleve Jones at his sixtieth birthday celebration at The Café at 2369 Market Street in San Francisco on Saturday, October 11, 2014.  All ticket proceeds will benefit the Cleve Jones Fund to end HIV transmission, which you can purchase here

Are you inspired by Cleve? Share your thoughts below!

Keep Exploring

Get Tested

The best way to fight HIV is to know your status. A simple test can determine if you are infected with the virus.

Learn more...

Our Work

Our diverse programs help thousands of people every year. From testing to prevention to care, our services assist communities where need is greatest.

See what we're doing...

Our Blog

Keep up with what's happening now in the fight against HIV from foundation experts.

Check it out...