AIDS activist to speak at UMass

By Michelle Williams
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts campus, AIDS activist Cleve Jones will speak, kicking off a semester-long speaker series.

“An Evening with Cleve Jones: Four Decades of Activism,” is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15, in 65 Bartlett Hall. Jones’ discussion, focusing on the AIDS movement, will be the first of several dozen speakers, each covering a different topic affecting the LGBT community.

“To mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary, we decided to look back [on] the past 25 years,” said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center.“I wanted to do something each week that would bring in scholars, activists, artists, and also local talent.”

When considering issues that affected the LGBT community over the last quarter of a century, Beemyn and other organizers narrowed the list to 10 topics including politics, transgender rights and politics.

After determining the topics, organizers began to brainstorm potential speakers.

“When it came to AIDS, almost everyone said we should get Cleve Jones,” said Beemyn.

Jones has been an AIDS and LGBT activist since the 1970s when he worked as an intern in Harvey Milk’s office, the first openly gay elected politician. In a 2008 interview with The Washington Post, Jones credited Milk with his involvement in the movement, insisting none of his activism would have happened without him, “He was extraordinarily kind to me and saw strengths in me that I didn’t even know I had.”

In the early 1980s, while AIDS was still a new and widely misunderstood issue, Jones was a founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a group that has grown into one of the largest advocacy organizations for people living in the United States with AIDS.

Jones conceived the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the mid-1980s, and created the first quilt panel in honor of a friend. Since the idea’s conception, it has grown into the world’s largest community arts project, memorializing over 85,000 killed by AIDS in the U.S.

Expecting a large crowd for Jones’ speech, Beemyn said, “I don’t expect a single seat to be empty.”

Though focusing on LGBT issues, Beemyn is optimistic that Jones will see people of all gender and sexual orientations in the audience.

“I hope the panels increase visibility by bringing people in from beyond the LGBT community,” he said.

Speakers in upcoming weeks include Amy Ray, half of Folk group, The Indigo Girls, Singer-Songwriter Zoe Lewis and Leslea Newman, the author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” along with 56 other books.

Chancellor Robert C. Holub will introduce Jones before his speech and will welcome him to campus. Beemyn said the event has received, “a lot of support from the administration.”

The final cost of the event was approximately $30,000 according to Beemyn and paid for with grants, university funding and community sponsors. Wednesday’s event is co-sponsored by the UMass Center for Health Promotion and Tapestry Health.

The Stonewall Center is a bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer and transgender center on campus. It is open to all students, faculty and members of the Pioneer Valley community. According to the center’s website, it also seeks to educate the community and campus about ways to create a more welcoming environment for bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer and transgender individuals and supporters.

UMass is home to the third oldest Stonewall Center in the nation, according to Beemyn. The center is named for the Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for LGBT community members in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City during the 1960s, when homosexuality was considered a criminal act. Often raided by police, it is largely regarded as the first location where LGBT community members stood up and protested the laws. The protests are today considered a key event in the Gay Rights Movement in the United States.

Michelle Willams can be reached at [email protected]