SAN ANTONIO – It was part celebration, part commemoration for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation over the weekend at its 30th anniversary luncheon.
There was no better example of the sacrifice, loss and triumph endured in the fight against AIDS and the stigma associated with the disease than with the keynote speaker at the event, gay rights activist Cleve Jones.
"I think none of us had a clue what we were getting into when we started this fight. It's been very brutal," Jones said of his own evolution in the battle. "For the first 15 years of the epidemic, we had no treatment at all. Tens of thousands of people died."
Jones had already been ill for years when the first test became available in 1985, making him among the first recorded cases. Amazingly, despite nearly dying in the years when that diagnosis equated to a death sentence, he is now perhaps the oldest AIDS survivor on earth.
"I was pretty much disabled for years, but once I had access to the newer medications, I've gotten healthier and healthier," he said.
Jones is back to working full time for the cause. But even while sick, he was an effective activist. He founded the AIDS Quilt project that travels the country bearing the names of those who lost their battle.
He also worked alongside his mentor, Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay men to be elected to government office in California. Milk was assassinated in 1978, which was a turning point for Jones, who was at the scene. Jones said it was the first time he saw a dead person, but it would only be the first of many friends and business associates he would see die once AIDS began to take its toll.
Milk's death is one story that will be told in an ABC mini-series that has been shot in a "Roots"-styled TV show. Much of it is based on a memoir due out in November that Jones penned titled, "When We Rise."
"It follows me and several other friends from the very early 1970s up until last year, when we won marriage equality," Jones said.
His keynote speech covered much of the highlights and lowlights of those decades, but he also showed great enthusiasm for the future. Advances in medicines for the treatment of AIDS has reduced it to just a chronic disease. But there is concern in the gay community that the advances have made young gay men apathetic about contracting the disease.
Jones implored all sexually active gay men to get regularly tested for the virus that causes AIDS, but also use a new tool that was never available before.
"I want them to learn about PrEP for exposure prophylaxis. It's a regimen of just one pill a day that can keep people from getting this disease," he said.
The zero new infection rate goal that has long been out of reach for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation sadly could be within reach if only those at risk of HIV would take Jones' advice.
To learn about the services offered by the San Antonio Aids Foundation, including free daily meals, HIV testing and medical services, click here.