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Cleve Jones: Marriage Equality Is An Extraordinary Victory for Everybody

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Human rights activist Cleve Jones speaks during the Broadway cast of "Hair" Be-In news conference to promote marriage equality on July 13, 2009, in Los Angeles.  (Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)

Cleve Jones was on 18th Street in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood when he heard the news.

For the AIDS activist and co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage brought him to tears.

"I began the day by weeping," said Jones.

The former adviser to Harvey Milk, the pioneering San Francisco supervisor killed in 1978, is known for creating the enormous NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which celebrated those who died of AIDS or AIDS-related causes. At 54 tons, it's the largest piece of community folk art in the world.

KQED News reporter Tara Siler asked Jones about the significance of today:

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Cleve Jones: I got up at 7:02 a.m. and turned on the computer and totally lost it. I'm 60 years old and I did not think I would live to see this day. I'm so very grateful to be alive, but I also remember all of my wonderful friends and comrades who didn't live long enough to see this day. So they're very much with me and my thoughts, and they'll be with us tonight as we party and dance on Castro Street.

Tara Siler: Well, I thought of that. You conceived the AIDS quilt back in 1985 to commemorate the lives of those who died of AIDS … and there's a lot of people represented on that quilt who did not live to see today.

Jones: Yes, we lost close to 25,000 gay men in this city alone, and most of them lived here in my neighborhood, so it's a poignant day. But it is nonetheless an extraordinary victory not only for gay people but for everybody who cares about our democracy, who cares about human rights and fundamental justice.

Siler: You know, Cleve, you were fighting for gay rights back in the 1970s. Are there key moments you could point to from that time that you think helped set the stage for this moment today?

Jones: Well, of course, I can't help but think about Harvey Milk. And the fight against the Briggs Initiative and Proposition 6, back in 1978, was the first time we really had to mobilize our grass-roots troops. And it was a victory, a statewide victory that would not be repeated for 34 years.

So what I'm really reflecting on is the reality that, those times when we have jumped forward have come when people took risks, took bold action. And I'm thinking in particular of 2004 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and City Attorney Dennis Herrera began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in San Francisco City Hall, and they were condemned vociferously by all of the national gay and lesbian organizations, by the Democratic Party.

But that set the stage for Prop. 8. And when Prop. 8 passed, that unleashed a new explosion of grass-roots energy that propelled us to this point. But even then, as late as the spring and summer of 2009, all of the national gay organizations and our Democratic Party allies were saying, "Don't go to federal court, it's too risky." Fortunately, they were ignored and today we are celebrating the results of that.

Siler: Well, are you surprised that this issue -- marriage equality -- took hold and moved public opinion, frankly, and the Supreme Court?

Jones: Well, certainly back in the '70s, I would have thought that marriage equality would have come after we achieved protection against discrimination in employment and housing and public accommodation. So I was startled by the speed with which the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was overturned and gay people were welcomed into the armed forces, that came much more quickly than I expected it.

But this focus on marriage equality, many young people think that this focus on marriage equality was imposed on the community by the big national groups in an effort to raise money and make this more respectable.

But in reality, they all opposed it. And the push for this, I believe, is rooted in our experience with the AIDS pandemic. After what we went through -- the losses we endured -- and all of the loving couples then who cared for partners as they died, sometimes for many years, and the millions of dollars we had to raise to care for our brothers and sisters, all of that, I think, left us with this feeling of: "How dare you say this isn't a marriage? How dare you say this isn't a family? This is what a marriage looks like, this is what families are."

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