In the world of HIV/AIDS activism, the name Cleve Jones is synonymous with the fight for rights and the struggle against stigma.
Since the days when Harvey Milk marched up and down the Castro in San Francisco, the image of Cleve rallying the crowd with a megaphone is intrinsically linked with the beginnings of the modern gay rights movement in the city – and indeed, America. In fact, Emile Hirsch played Cleve in the film Milk.
As a pioneering AIDS and LGBT rights activist, Cleve has seen it all. As he tells me, he lost nearly everyone he knew in that era to AIDS and he has been HIV positive himself for 31 years. Just about everyone in the Castro district knows or has met Cleve, and he throws a weekly pot luck dinner for the young baristas, waiters and young people with HIV who live in the neighbourhood. These have become roundtable therapy sessions of sorts, where Cleve hears firsthand the struggles and stories of a new generation of HIV positive gay men.
I took a moment at the HBO wrap party for my show Looking to chat with Cleve about HIV stigma in today’s culture verses the stigma people faced in the days of the crisis. With one in three gay men stating they have never been tested for HIV and with World AIDS Day coming up on December 1, it seemed no better time to talk about this pressing subject.
Daniel: As a person who speaks to HIV positive youth daily, what do you see as the big problems young HIV positive men are facing today?
Cleve: The stigma facing young gay and bi men today in my opinion is worse than the stigma that my generation endured – and I am 61 years old and tested positive 31 years ago.
Daniel: How is it worse?
Cleve: The stigma then came from the outside world – from people who already hated us because we were “faggots”. The stigma today is a nasty, shaming, finger-wagging stigma that comes from other gay men who ought to fucking know better. The stigma that these young people are enduring today I know for a fact contributes to transmission of the disease because it makes young people less likely to get tested. Once tested, they are far less likely to reveal their status to their peers, they are terrified to reveal their status to potential partners and they are subjected to so much fucking abuse. To me it’s just obvious: at a point we have advanced to where medication can prevent transmission we’re shaming people and driving them away from that treatment.
Daniel: What did you make of Danny Pintauro and Charlie Sheen recently coming out as HIV Positive?
Cleve: I avoided it. I’m not gonna criticise because I haven’t seen it, but I think everybody – especially pop culture people – need to be prepared and educated and equipped before they go out and [speak publicly].
Daniel: And interviewers need to be prepared too…
Cleve: From what I hear, the interviewers were pretty awful. I didn’t watch the Charlie Sheen shit go down either… but shaming people makes it worse.
Daniel: I agree. There needs to be a way to get different types of HIV stories out there. I really think part of it has to start in Hollywood, because it makes so much of a difference when these stories are in people’s homes.
Cleve: We could talk about how fucked up it is that pop culture is so important, but it’s part of how gay people got to where we got, because we engaged the populous through pop culture. We desensitized the population through early Roseanne shows, Will and Grace… We desensitised the American public to the reality of homosexuals.
Daniel: We let them in on the joke?
Cleve: We did the same thing with HIV/AIDS. What I did with the [AIDS Memorial] Quilt was very deliberate. It was about getting something that was going to be covered by the media. It was a down-home, middle class, middle American traditional values sort of symbol. A quilt. My grandma made my quilt.
Cleve: People in Hollywood can play a hugely important role in this but I am really concerned about these young people and the nasty attitude by some men of my own generation who are so quick to judge. This notion that every gay/bi kid that comes to a big city is educated about HIV is bullshit. I just came from North Carolina and some of those kids haven’t been taught a thing. Nothing. Abstinence only!
Daniel: For those of us who are educated, it makes it really important to be vocal and speak about HIV/AIDS whenever we can. With the ability to lower new infections by 96% and the medication to stop transmission altogether we could see an eradication of this disease in your lifetime.
Cleve: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Cleve Jones is an American AIDS and LGBT rights activist. He conceived of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which has become, at 54 tons, the world’s largest piece of community folk art as of 2009. In 1983, at the onset of the AIDS pandemic, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation which has grown into one of the largest and most influential People with AIDS advocacy organizations in the United States.
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