Jones: AIDS epidemic ‘very heartbreaking’

Jones: AIDS epidemic 'very heartbreaking' School children walk quietly down the aisles of Slagle Auditorium Monday, viewing hundreds of colorful panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The 400 sections of the quilt filled the seats, the stage and the balcony of the auditorium. by David Lias One of Cleve Jones' earliest childhood memories is of a special quilt sewn for him by his great-grandmother.

"It was the perfect quilt for a little boy. I remember vividly that whenever I had the flu or a cold, Mom or Grandma would bring out this quilt and make a bed for me on the sofa in the living room," he said before a capacity audience in Old Main's Farber Hall Monday. "I would trace the stitches in it knowing that this was made by this woman who loved me so much that she made it even before I was born."

Those early memories eventually helped inspire Jones to begin the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Jone's lecture titled, "We Bring A Quilt: The Story of the AIDS Memorial Quilt" was part of three days of educational sessions and workshops provided by the Sioux Empire Red Cross and the South Dakota HIV/AIDS Network in Vermillion.

USD and the Vermillion community displayed nearly 400 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt last Sunday through Tuesday. The quilt is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. There are more than 44,000 panels in the quilt, each representing and honoring the life of a person lost to AIDS. The quilt was made to increase public awareness of AIDS and to assist with HIV prevention education. Around the globe, at least 18.8 million have lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic.

Jones is an unrelenting AIDS activist. He seeks to promote a greater national understanding of the devastating effects this epidemic is having on victim's friends, families, and countless communities across America. His lecture is an enlightening and heartfelt message of this long-ranging social epidemic. His new book is entitled, Stitching a Revolution-The Making of an Activist.

Thanks to a contract with the NAMES Project, Jones visits high schools, colleges, opening ceremonies and quilt presentations throughout the United States and other countries, telling the story of the quilt.

Stitching a Revolution tells the story of Jones's arrival in San Francisco at the age of 17 where he met Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician, and began working in politics.

"Harvey was a father figure to me. I really grew to love him very much."

Life changed profoundly for Jones on Nov. 27, 1978, when a disgruntled man entered San Francisco's City Hall, "shot and killed Mayor George Mosconi and then he went across the other side of city hall and shot and killed Harvey Milken," he said. "As word of the murder spread throughout San Francisco, people left their homes and schools and came to Castro Street and lit candles. By the time the sun set, there was 80,000 people and we marched in silence to city hall.

"I made a promise to myself and to Harvey that I would do whatever I could to make sure that he and George Mosconi were remembered and the progressive political agenda they gave their lives for would be remembered," Jones said.

It was this promise that eventually led to the birth of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

By the mid-1980s, the gay population in San Francisco was being ravaged by HIV and AIDS.

"People were literally dying in the streets," Jones said. "People were dropping like flies."

Jones' developed deep friendships with many people through his work as a gay activist, and in horror, he watched as all of them died of the disease.

Then Jones discovered that he, too, was HIV positive. With the help of a friend, Joseph Durant, Jones started stitching away in his backyard. "I just wanted to take a pill to forget everything but there was none. Sewing the quilt was a way to make an affirmative step."

The number of squares grew annually by hundreds, then thousands. People from some 50 countries sent in their squares.

When asked about this universal success, Jones explains, "The epidemic has different faces all over the world but there are some constants: There's no place where AIDS doesn't carry a weighty stigma, a sense of isolation and a huge need to express grief."

Jones is alive today thanks largely to the development of new drugs that helped his body combat the disease.

He bristles when he talks of the difficulty that HIV-positive individuals have in receiving treatment that could save their lives. He urged young people at USD to become politically active, and fight to reform a flawed system in South Dakota that in effect denies treatment to those who need it.

"Federal dollars flow through the states and are then used to provide HIV drug treatments to people who are infected," Jones said. "In progressive states, like California, all of the drugs that have been approved are available. In this state, it's zero. Poor people with AIDS in South Dakota cannot get protease inhibitors. I was shocked when I someone told me that. You can fight for access to treatment. It's not just an issue in the developing world. There are poor people in our country today that are being denied access to treatment because of ability to pay."

Jones knows he is lucky to be alive. But he's frustrated by government and health policies that make the goal of reducing the AIDS epidemic difficult and complicated.

And one can sense that he's saddened that, even though the AIDS Memorial Quilt is serving a much-needed purpose, it also represents a growing amount of suffering in the world.

"One of the things that I've been trying to grapple with over the last several months is that in the first week of June we are going to enter the third decade of this pandemic," he said. "I had to accept long ago that gay men of my generation were going to be pretty much wiped out by this disease, but it has been very heartbreaking for me to watch the epidemic grow and spread."

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