Cleve Jones – Biography, Age, & Career

Activist Cleve Jones was mentored by Harvey Milk and came up with the idea for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Who Is Cleve Jones?

Cleve Jones is an LGBT activist who initiated the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, an endeavor that brought attention to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. “Everyone told me it wouldn’t work,” he said of the quilt in 2017. “But it ended up being the largest community-arts project in the world and touched the hearts of tens of millions of people across the planet.” In the 1970s, Jones was mentored by gay politician Harvey Milk; he later served as a consultant for the 2008 film Milk. Jones’ memoir When We Rise: My Life In The Movement was published in 2016; it served as inspiration for a miniseries of the same name that aired in 2017.

Early Life

Jones was born on October 11, 1954, in West Lafayette, Indiana. Jones’ childhood was spent in New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona. He was raised as a Quaker. As his father was a psychologist, Jones had access to materials that delineated the era’s views on homosexuality; he has stated, “It was pretty horrifying for a 13, 14-year-old kid to learn suddenly that his feelings are not only deemed criminal, but, you know, psychologically an illness.”

Jones was bullied in middle school and high school and felt isolated due to his sexuality. He has said that at the age of 15 he planned to kill himself. What changed his plan was a 1971 article in Life magazine, “Homosexuals in Revolt.” The story alerted Jones to the fact that there was a community of gay people he could join.

Jones did not inform his parents he was gay until he was an adult. He made this choice because he feared his father would force him into aversion therapy or electroshock treatments.

Entry Into Activism

Jones moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s. There, he interned for Milk, a barrier-breaking openly gay politician, while also studying political science at San Francisco State University.

In 1978, California’s Proposition 6, which would have prevented gay people from holding any positions in the state’s public schools, was on the ballot. Jones helped arrange for gay student groups to organize against the proposition. Defying predictions, it was defeated at the polls.

Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 but was assassinated by a former supervisor in 1978. Jones arrived on the scene that day and saw his mentor’s dead body. He said in 2016, “I knew by the end of the day that that was the single-most important moment of my life, and it was the single most important thing that had happened to me. Meeting Harvey, seeing his death, it’s — it fixed my course.”

HIV Diagnosis

Following Milk’s death, Jones began working with the speaker of the California state assembly. His portfolio comprised gay rights and health issues. In 1981, this job’s duties meant Jones was reviewing reports that gay men were experiencing illnesses such as pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma. In 1983, he co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Jones was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 after a test became available for the first time.

After Jones went public with his diagnosis, he received death threats, and one night was stabbed on the sidewalk outside his apartment. He survived, but people around him were succumbing to AIDS. “My circle was hit hard and hit early,” he told Frontline. “By 1985, almost everyone I knew was dying or already dead.”

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