Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 16, 2010

Cleve Jones and the Names Memorial Quilt

Last night my husband and I met friends to hear Cleve Jones speak at UMass-Amherst. Cleve spoke a lot about what it was like to be gay in the 1970s and 80’s, a time which is now part of history to students in the audience through the wonderful movie Milk. Cleve got to witness some of the film the making (and joked, “if there’s one message I want everyone to take from that movie it’s that I used to be hot.”) Cleve’s talk often moved between humor and tragedy. Students gasped at some memories of a time when some people had bumper stickers that read, “AIDS is killing the right people.”

Telephone poles around San Francisco are still riddled with staples from all the posters Cleve Jones put up. He helped organize the candlelit march to city hall after Harvey Milk’s death, and also the protest years later after the murderer of Milk and the mayor was given a light sentence of manslaughter based on what became infamous as the Twinkie defense: he was out of control from too much sugar.

Cleve is perhaps most known for his amazing work on the NAMES Memorial Quilt, which is now considered the world’s largest community art project, with more than 80,000 people memorialized. At a protest, Cleve thought of all the people who were sick and dying, and felt it was not only Harvey Milk who should be remembered, but everyone who suffered during a time when President Reagan never even mentioned the word AIDS. At one rally Cleve urged people to write down the names of loved ones who had died. Seeing the scraps of paper plastered together reminded him of his grandmothers’ quilts. When he thought to use cloth, spray paint, glitter, anything to make a quilt, “People without exception said that’s the stupidest idea I ever heard.” He began with two people and a sewing machine. Eventually a truck was bought to take the panels around the country to be displayed. Often people came with panels in their arms to be added. Names of people from all over the world have now been stitched together.

I’m the proud owner of a congratulatory letter from Cleve Jones about a picture book I wrote. A NAME ON THE QUILT was inspired by the work of my friend Karen Lederer documenting the Quilt. When Karen and Brian’s daughter was about five and faced with her grandmother’s death, the little girl immediately thought of a quilt as a way to keep her alive in memory, and the soft cloth and company was a consolation.

Like the rooms near Castro Street that Cleve described which were noisy with sewing machines, jokes, hugs, and way too many tears.



  1. I have tears in my eyes, Jeannine. I lost my best friend to AIDS in 1992.
    Way too many tears.

  2. Tracy, I am so sorry for your loss. I know you can bear it, but the hurt never entirely goes away.
    Cleve spoke of years when people cried every single day. And it was good to hear from him that he’s a happier person, all in all, these past years.

  3. Thank you, Jeannine, for your kind words. I can’t even imagine the hurt that comes from losing many, many friends to AIDS. I’m glad Cleve has found more happiness.

  4. What a touching post! As someone who came of age in the 70s, who had gay friends (some of whom weren’t out at the time, some of whom were just cracking the closet door), I returned to my memories of those days, and my concern over whether one friend in particular, whom I lost touch with for a few years, might have succumbed to AIDS. He’s still fine, has a long-time partner, but I don’t forget the worry.

  5. Kathy, coming of age then, too, I know that feeling of gratitude for those who seemed in danger but made it to this day. And Cleve made it clear to the young that though the danger is less grave, dealing with HIV is no picnic. What a strong and loving person he is, just amazing.

  6. Oh, those bumper stickers. So cruel.
    I am glad there is kindness in the world, too. And remembrance.

  7. I first heard of Cleve Jones in AND THE BAND PLAYED ON–a phenomenal book about the AIDS epidemic. I envy you that letter!

  8. Yes, Amy, lots of kindness and memory, and Cleve Jones just bowled me over with his love. He’s got anger, too, of course, but wow: what a heart.

  9. The Band Played On — yes, wonderful, and so sad that author Randy Shilts died of AIDS. Cleve worked some in health care and lived for a long time with the disease, he told us, seeing that the meds weren’t saving people, so never built up a tolerance; and when the new much better meds were introduced, he, who thought his end was coming, was granted these years and hopefully many more of health.

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