Cleve Jones has known death all too well since the AIDS era began 20 years ago — he's buried many friends and seen the memorial patchwork quilt he started grow to 50 miles of fabric.
In the United States alone, more than 438,000 men, women and children have died of AIDS. The death toll is greater than U.S. casualties in World Wars I and II combined.
But for all the ghosts, Jones, a longtime AIDS survivor, sees a gradual rebirth.
"The early years were years of terror, of mystery, uncertainty … people died so quickly," recalled Jones, who was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985 and who began the AIDS Memorial Quilt that year. "Now our lives are about trying to lead as much of a normal life as we can."
The nation is a far different place than it was on June 5, 1981, when the first report of a mysterious disease surfaced in a Centers for Disease Control publication. In time, the disease thrust sexual minorities onto the public's consciousness, forced frank discussions about sex and morality, and changed the way many Americans approach their own health care.
"HIV/AIDS affects our culture in so many different ways," Jones says. "To address AIDS, one must address issues of such as the conditions of prison, prostitution, drug use, issues of health care, research, on a more global front, the treatment of women, racism. AIDS sits at the intersection of a great many issues."
To mark the 20-year anniversary, a three-day rally sponsored by Jones' AIDS Memorial Quilt, the National Minority AIDS Council and the National Association of People With AIDS begins today in Washington, D.C.
The Activists' Road to Gay Tolerance
The first targets of the disease — medically as well as socially — were gay men.
"Twenty years ago, my friends and I were having a discussion on how AIDS would destroy gay people and the gay movement," said Jones. "But the exact opposite has happened. People were forced out of the closet. People were not going to lie about their relationships as they watched their partners of 20 years die. They were forced into action."
Today, more than 150 openly gay politicians hold elective office. On television, characters on NBC's Will & Grace and the WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer have had significant roles. And gay-straight student alliances have formed in schools around the country.
Alan Carlson confesses to being surprised at this development. As president of the Rockford, Ill.-based Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, Carlson said he thought "AIDS would remind society that sex is not a play thing."
"I thought it would remind people that when you get away from relationships between a man and a woman, traditional sex, bad things happen like disease. … People didn't learn from that, and I guess that's a sign basic moral teachings and understandings is weaker in this country," Carlson said.
The first call to action came from gay activists, who lobbied for more money for drug research and pressured the Food and Drug Administration to make drugs available quickly to sick patients. Thousands were dying quickly, these activists argued, and countless more would die if the FDA treated AIDS like a typical disease and took years to approve drugs.