In the early '80s, formerly healthy gay men began developing an unknown disease. Men started dying. What started as a few men, skyrocketed into thousands. Communities in New York, San Francisco, and other U.S. cities were decimated.
"We had no effective treatment. We had a government that was not particularly concerned. There was a lot of stigma. There was a lot of bigotry, a lot of hateful and ignorant behavior. And people suffered," recalls Cleve Jones, who experienced it firsthand.
Jones started his work in LGBT advocacy as an intern for gay-rights leader Harvey Milk. After Milk was assassinated, Jones began his work in public health. He’s the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and is perhaps most well-known for starting the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt — the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
Jones is not just an activist. He was diagnosed with HIV in the early '80s, and has been living with AIDS for more than two decades. While he didn't show any symptoms until 1993, he says the virus has actually been in his body since 1977.
"Eventually, I did get very sick, almost died and am only alive today because the activists and the scientists and the researchers were successful in pushing for more funding and getting the drugs available," says Jones.
He's a living example of someone having the virus unknowingly for quite some time, which is why he says that prevention efforts continue to be important today.
"Even though we don't have a cure yet or a vaccine, we have the ability to stop AIDS," notes Jones. "And that's what is happening in Wisconsin and other places where people have really pushed for treatment as prevention."
Jones is one of the honorary co-chairs for this year’s AIDS Walk Wisconsin and 5K, which is this Saturday at the Summerfest Grounds.
"So many people think that this AIDS pandemic is over — it's not over. 700,000 people died of AIDS around the world last year. So that's why organizations like the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin are really critically important and need to be supported by their communities," says Jones.