When he was battling cancer, former basketball coach and broadcaster Jimmy Valvano always said to never give up. Author and advocate for LGBQ and HIV/AIDS Cleve Jones is the ultimate example of Valvono’s words.
In a program at the Niagara Falls High School on May 28, Jones spoke openly about his life and those who helped to shape the man he has become in an emotional presentation.
The Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus opened the program with a rendition of the National Anthem and “The Storm is Passing Over”. Niagara Falls School Superintendent Mark Laurrie also spoke before Jones took the stage.
Born in Arizona to professor parents, Jones was forced to leave his home as a teen after coming out to his parents that he was gay. He hitchhiked his way to San Francisco. After spending time on the streets and making his way the best he could. Jones met small business owner turned politician Harvey Milk.
When Harvey Milk became the first gay politician elected to office in the United States – he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco – Jones became one of his aides.
On a late November day in 1978, Dan White first put four bullets into San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and then proceeded to the opposite end of City Hall to put four bullets into Harvey Milk including a shot to the head.
Having gone home to retrieve a file, it was a 24 year old Cleve Jones who first came upon the gruesome scene and discovered Milk’s body. Despondent over the events, Jones helped to arrange a candlelight vigil that became an annual event.
The following spring on May 21, Dan White was convicted of manslaughter. San Franciscans took to the streets with torches in what became The White Riots. The following day was Harvey Milk’s birthday – a day that is now a holiday in the state of California.
Only a few years later the AIDS epidemic occurred with little notice from the public, but when a San Francisco newspaper proclaimed that 1,000 deaths had occurred in the city as a result of the disease Cleve Jones sought a way to remember and spark awareness.
At the end of the annual candlelight vigil and march, Jones produced a stack of poster board and markers. He invited people to write the names of friends and loved ones who had died as a result of AIDS. After a while, one guy took two of the poster boards, taped them together, and wrote the name of his brother. The ice was broken ans soon the crowd was busy writing names.
The poster boards filled with names were taped to a stone wall to form a patchwork of the names of loved ones.
That simple act sparked a world wide phenomena when Cleve Jones traded the pieces of poster board for fabric and turned into what has become the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
A few years later Jones himself was diagnosed HIV positive and became very sick. But when the Federal Drug Administration dragged their feet on drug trials to help fight the disease, Jones was among those who got things moving by offering themselves as test subjects. In the words of Cleve Jones, what did they have to lose?
Today Cleve Jones is again healthy…and happy. His message to the audience was that everyone matters. He told the crowd that anyone who wants to contribute to do whatever gives you joy, no matter how small it may seem to be.