Cleve Jones: A Retrospective at Sixty

By BeBe Sweetbriar |

Each year, as our birthdays approach, many of us find ourselves taking stock of our lives. We examine what we have accomplished over the years, what we have left to do, who are the people in our lives and how we might be able to make a difference. When you have lived a very public life like gay icon and activist Cleve Jones, the walk down memory lane may not hold any surprises but may provide some insight and inspiration to keep foraging ahead. It is no secret that Cleve Jones was a protégé of the slain gay rights leader, Harvey Milk, in the 1970’s in San Francisco. Prior to his ties to the gay rights leader, Jones started his fight to right the wrongs of injustice as early as a teenager in Indiana. Having the privilege to chat with the outspoken activist, I discovered that Jones’s beginnings as a gay teenager weren’t so different than many young gay teenagers today. Despite the progress made by the gay community, many of these teens still feel alone, harassed and traumatized. Jones has helped to lead the way for gay rights but can also empathize with the struggles today’s gay youth still have to endure.

Looking back over more than 40 years, Cleve Jones, the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt and co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, shared stories of triumph and loss, joy and pain, hope and disappointment offering up much to think about regarding where we, as an LGBT community have been, where we are now, and where we have still to go.

<Bebe> Though San Francisco has been the place from which much of your work in the gay civil rights movement and the fight against HIV/AIDS has been harvested, you have called other cities home. Correct? <Cleve Jones>I have left a few times 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 80’s 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 drier 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, (they) are horrible.


Living in the 80’s and early 90’s when we were experiencing the worst part of the AIDS crisis, you, yourself, became an AIDS survivor and had to make something like celebrating a 60th birthday an event because you thought it would never happen. 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 about survivor’s guilt and I don’t feel guilty. I just feel so grateful and fortunate to have survived when so many didn’t.

But just saying you didn’t die is such an understatement because your living was really for all of us. 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 before a grand jury. 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 (a founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation), called me and took me to dinner and told me he thought (the 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.


What do you think were some of the things that contributed to your surviving the AIDS crisis period? 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 90’s. 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.

Speaking of HIV meds and disease management, we are now at a time where we are truly taking a preventative method with PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) using the drug Truvada. What are your thoughts on PrEP? Well, obviously there is controversy around it. I think that, especially among gay men in their 50’s and 60’s 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 now I 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 (San Francisco AIDS Foundation). The AIDS Healthcare Foundation right now is spending $3.5 million on what 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 gong 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.

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? 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?

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 is next for us in California now that we have gotten ours, so to speak?” You responded, “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? 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 1950’s 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.


You talk about the gayborhoods going away. Do we need them? 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 that 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 20’s 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.

The one thing I thought I would see with the increase of positive imagery of gay people in the media, the increase of openly gay people in the political arena and corporate business leadership and the increase of information on the internet, would be a proportional decrease in the suicide rate amongst young gay people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if that relationship exists. I think many of us in our community believed that the suicides among our young people had to do with the lack of positive awareness and the knowing that they are not alone. Do you think there is something else the gay community should be doing to deal with the suicide problem? What are we missing? I wish I knew the answer. I think about it every day. I lost the love of my life to suicide. Everytime 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 good and show by example. You see, I’m old, I’m fabulous and I’m having a fucking good time, bitches!

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? 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.

What comes to your mind when I say Vladimir Putin? Megalomaniac. A potential Hitler.

Barack Obama? 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.

Michael Weinstein? I do not comprehend him at all but I think what he’s done is reprehensible.

Dustin Lance Black? He’s my buddy (eyes light up)! Lance has been a part 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.

Harvey Milk? 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 was 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 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.

And finally, 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 their only 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’s, 60th Birthday will be celebrated in San Francisco on Saturday, October 11th at The Cafe at MORE CLEVE!

A 60th Birthday Celebration for Cleve Jones, hosted by Juanita MORE! benefiting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. 

For tickets, Please visit HERE!

5 Comments on Cleve Jones: A Retrospective at Sixty

  1. Doug Froeba // October 9, 2014 at 6:36 am // Reply

    Thank you for everything you do, Happy Birthday!

  2. What an engaging and informative interview! Great job, BeBe, for your thoughtful questions, and thank you Cleve for your cooperation and candor regarding difficult issues and life challenges.

  3. Jack Vincent // October 31, 2014 at 7:01 am // Reply

    Amazing look back… yes, the Aids Quilt changed the whole picture. I remember seeing it in San Francisco when my partner was still alive. I burst out in tears standing in a sea of quilts, each with many names embroidered with love and loss.
    Many people hold the image of the quilts laid out in the Washington Mall while Pres. Reagan remained silent. A generation was dying and the political establishment was indifferent or hostile to us. It was a wake-up call to the nation. Protect yourselves. Protect your children. Fight back. Stop Aids.
    Good work Cleve.

  4. While there is no disputing the very important work of Mr. Jones I’d dare say Mr. Jone’s difficulties at making friends in Palm Springs had much to do with his demeanor and attitude. I’ve seen on Facebook and if you don’t agree with him and challenge him on his opinions he can become quite nasty and abusive. He isn’t the most pleasant person and the way he talks in this interview is pretty much what you get. His legacy isn’t that big as for him to expect people to put up with him.

  5. Michael Andersen // October 11, 2017 at 10:38 pm // Reply

    Just met Cleve Jones today at his 63rd birthday celebration in the Castro. He’s one of our heroes.

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