Jones honored at World AIDS Day event

  • by by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday December 7, 2022
Share this Post:
Cleve Jones, left, one of the founders of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, is interviewed by KGO-TV's Reggie Aqui during the December 1 Worlds AIDS Day observance at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Cleve Jones, left, one of the founders of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, is interviewed by KGO-TV's Reggie Aqui during the December 1 Worlds AIDS Day observance at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The rain didn't stop a crowd of more than 200 people from attending the National AIDS Memorial Grove's annual World AIDS Day observance in Golden Gate Park December 1, an event that saw AIDS Memorial Quilt co-founder Cleve Jones honored.

The observance took place in a large tent at the grove under the theme of "Changing the Pattern for a Future Without AIDS."

Jones received the grove's Lifetime Commitment Award. Three years ago, under an agreement brokered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the late Congressmember John Lewis (D-Georgia), and others, the quilt was transferred to the stewardship of the AIDS grove. The NAMES Project, which had managed the quilt, dissolved and closed its Atlanta offices.

During the observance, Jones was interviewed by Reggie Aqui, a gay man and news anchor on KGO TV. Jones talked about how much the Castro has changed, and how annoyed he gets when people don't realize what happened in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Jones noted that the Castro has no physical evidence of what happened during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. He recalled an incident from a year ago when someone told him, "We know you went through some bad times but you don't really need to exaggerate."

"It's not an exaggeration to say that over 20,000 gay men lost their lives in this city alone," Jones said. "And most of them lived in my neighborhood. That's not an exaggeration, that's what happened."

Aqui pointed out that the panels from the quilt that were on display were new ones. Jones recalled when he first began the quilt with his friend Joseph Durant, who died many years ago. Jones also recalled his friendship with Rosa Parks, the Black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, resulting in the bus boycott that helped to launch the civil rights movement. Parks had made a panel for the AIDS quilt.

Jones went on to co-found the quilt with Mike Smith, a gay man, and Gert McMullin, a straight ally.

Jones and Aqui spoke for around 30 minutes.

Other speakers

The day began with a musical performance from transgender opera singer Breanna Sinclairé, who moved the crowd with her stunning soprano rendition of the song "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." Her performance was followed by an opening invocation from Michael Pappas, executive director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council. Pappas, who is gay, began by referring to the AIDS grove as sacred ground, where the lives of those lost are remembered. He reminded the audience that in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, those in political power, particularly at the federal level, stigmatized, persecuted, and scapegoated people with AIDS, refusing to do anything about the crisis. He acknowledged that there are still those in power who would deny LGBTQ people their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and added that the community was resilient and would remain vigilant.

John Cunningham, a gay man who lives with HIV and who serves as CEO of the AIDS grove, asked people living with HIV and AIDS to stand if they wished to be acknowledged. A number of people stood to applause.

"San Francisco has stood at the forefront of the response to HIV and AIDS since the very beginning," Cunningham said. "Whether that was needle exchange programs, whether that's PrEP, whether that's continued safe injection sites, San Francisco has been the crystal from which hope refracted out. Today, as we stand here, we are fortunate to live in a city and a community that understands civic leadership, and understands what it means to put the needs of society and human beings first. There are parts of this country where that is not the case."

Cunningham added that panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt were in Montgomery, Alabama, and that last month they were in Mississippi. The displays are part of the grove's Change the Pattern initiative in partnership with the Southern AIDS Coalition and Gilead Sciences Inc.

"When I was in Mississippi I harkened back to the early days when I lived here in San Francisco, when people were afraid of losing their housing or their jobs because of the discrimination," Cunningham said. "We've come a long way. In Mississippi, it's still criminalized. We must, as an organization and as a community, share our light with other communities, and that's what we are doing today. Tomorrow, I fly to Montgomery. We will march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the quilt, a march to zero."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed acknowledged the advocacy of Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., a gay man who is CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, gay State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and Jones.

"We gather here today to remember those we lost and to remind the world on World AIDS Day that the fight is not over," Breed said. "That we are not done."

The mayor noted that LGBTQ people, Black people, Brown people, trans people, and unhoused people continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV.

A video from Gilead Sciences was shown, followed by a 35th anniversary commemorative video of the AIDS quilt.

There also was a short film called "The Black Community and AIDS." The film is part of Surviving Voices, a multi-year oral history of the AIDS epidemic produced by the AIDS grove. In the film, various Black people talk about their experiences of living with AIDS, and their mistrust of the medical profession because of the way they've been treated. Also discussed is stigma, the lack of attention paid to the Black community, the prevalence of HIV among Black women, and telling family members about an HIV diagnosis.

Aqui returned to the podium to moderate a panel on the state of the epidemic today. Panelists were TerMeer; Wiener; Dr. Diane Havlir, chief of infectious diseases at UCSF; and LS Jones of the Prevention Access Campaign in Mississippi.

Participants in the December 1 World AIDS Day observance at the National AIDS Memorial Grove carry panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to the Circle of Friends, where names of persons recently inscribed in the grove were read. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

LS Jones, a Black man who has been HIV-positive since 2014, spoke about how being diagnosed in Mississippi today was no different than being diagnosed in 1984.

"Isolation, rejection, stigma, these are words that became like a glove to me," he said. "I had to get comfortable with that reality."

TerMeer, a Black man who is also HIV-positive, talked about how being worried about what people think is still a reality for many people, depending where they live. He paid homage to his mother, who supports him wholly.

Havlir pointed out that the HIV infection rate in San Francisco has decreased, but that the highest proportion of people becoming infected were Latino and Black people. The San Francisco Department of Public Health's HIV epidemiology report for 2021, released in September, had 160 HIV cases reported in the city last year. That was up from the 138 cases in 2020, but below the 173 new cases reported in 2019.

"We have to ask ourselves, 'Why is that?'" she said, referring to the racial disparities. "We can't be blaming clients, it's us. It is the medical health system. I always tell people that it takes a community to end a pandemic."

Aqui responded to Havlir.

"If I may say on your behalf, during the COVID pandemic, during the height of it, Dr. Havlir was one of the people who was largely responsible for coming into my neighborhood, which is the Mission, and shared expertise, not just scientifically but also to discover how do we communicate with people who are unable to get this message," he said. "How do we get the testing, how do we get the treatment? You did so by listening."

Wiener recalled receiving death threats when he introduced legislation to decriminalize the spread of HIV back in 2017. His Senate Bill 239 bill, co-authored by gay former Assembly member and current San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria (D), was signed by former governor Jerry Brown. It went into effect in 2018 and modernized the state's HIV criminalization laws adopted during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Before SB 239, HIV-positive people could be prosecuted for engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse with the specific intent to transmit HIV even if no actual transmission of the virus occurred. If convicted, they could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison.

The new law requires proof that transmission of HIV did occur in order for a person to be prosecuted for intentionally transmitting the virus to a sex partner.

Wiener, who has successfully passed legislation aimed at helping trans people and others in the LGBTQ community, continues to receive threats, including a bomb threat this week, reported the San Francisco Standard.

Wiener also addressed the fact that the United States does not have a public health system that is designed to stop the spread of infectious diseases.

"If everyone who's at risk is on PrEP, if everyone knows how to get PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), if everyone gets regular easy testing, and then like we do in San Francisco if you're positive you put them in a cab and get them to SF General and put them on the meds, we would wipe out new infections like that," Wiener said. "In most parts of this country it's not happening. In a large majority of California, it's not happening, let alone other parts of the world."

The final panel, Young Leaders Making an Impact, was moderated by Michelle Meow of the Commonwealth Club. Panelists were Bo Hwang, a positive care coordinator at a Bay Area health clinic; Adrian Vargas, health educator and case manager at Instituto de la Raza; and Antoine Matthews, a young Black man who works at Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit that works to secure long-term employment for underserved communities in San Francisco. The young people talked about changes that need to be made in order to get to zero new HIV infections.

"We need to keep working together and to be united," said Vargas. "And to advocate for the community that is being overlooked, and also trying to learn from the past, use our young ideas mixing with experiences and also thinking globally, not just local."

Hwang talked about intersectionality, such as working with the older generation.

"When we talk about HIV we cannot leave out housing," he said.

Also discussed was how to address the slow response from the government to get people the care that they need.

"It's leadership that needs to be pushed into those positions," said Matthews. "The governors, the lieutenant governors, whoever, when you think about who we're putting in those positions, those are critical roles, and I think this past two years with elections, really have been reshaping and showing us where we might be going in the next five to 10 years."

By the time the discussions ended, the rain had stopped. Attendees filed outside to the Circle of Friends memorial in the grove to read the names of people who were lost to AIDS.

"To have watched this event over the years grow from a small knot of people in the drizzle to a national audience online and the hundreds in the tent locally gives me hope," said Carlin Holden, a 79-year-old straight ally.

Another attendee said he was inspired by the involvement of young people.

"It's really inspiring to see the youth showing up with a lot of hope for the future of HIV in our country," Brandon Stanton, 46, an HIV-positive gay man, told the Bay Area Reporter.

The day's event was sponsored by Gilead Sciences, Quest Diagnostics, and Chevron.

The two panel discussions, the interview with Cleve Jones, and the film on the Black community and AIDS can be viewed at the AIDS grove's website.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.

Featured Local Savings