Cover Story

Common ground in Africa's AIDS war

Is it possible for a gay activist quilt-maker and "big missionary boots" to do battle together?

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

Cleve Jones likes to explain 13 years of AIDS activism by saying, "I started the quilt in San Francisco in my backyard, and now it is the world's largest community arts project."

The co-founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and co-author of the recent Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an Activist began his career in the glamorous gay-power days of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. That was before the two San Francisco politicians and gay-rights pioneers were murdered, and before the pall of AIDS crept over the city's boisterous homosexual community.

In the melancholy atmosphere that followed, Mr. Jones conceived the quilt campaign as a way to raise awareness and money for AIDS sufferers. Tens of thousands of fabric panels later, the quilted memorial blanketed the grounds around the Washington Monument, and the rest was history. AIDS quilts are now in the works in 39 countries. The fastest growing quilt project is in South Africa, where Mr. Jones persuaded his overseas colleagues to loan their quilt to the United States for a few months. It begins an around-the-nation tour Sept. 13.

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The South African quilt is a bridge builder, Mr. Jones says, because its panels were sewn mostly by AIDS orphans-a reminder that in Africa AIDS attacks and destroys family life and heterosexuals. Mr. Jones plans to use that point to take his campaign in a new direction: to begin a conversation with conservative Christians.

"More conservative denominations have made an effort to address this issue, but they are not comfortable with it," he told WORLD. "I hope to use this quilt as an opportunity to reach out to religious conservatives."

He also believes the quilt can be used "to move the African-American community to view this disease as more than a disease of white homosexuals."

Along the way, Mr. Jones, who himself has AIDS, acknowledges that he has learned a few things from the other side. What works in battling AIDS, he told WORLD, "is education stressing monogamy and abstinence." Those are not the expected bywords where he comes from. "Here I am this gay liberation guy and I have operated all of the last 15 years fighting AIDS around the world. But I think I understand what is needed."

What does not work in Africa, he admits, are condom giveaways and "safe sex" plans. In the past, Mr. Jones said he "did battle" with conservative Christians on those issues. That has changed. "I don't think anyone is under the illusion that we will stop this epidemic with condoms," he says. Male promiscuity is "an immoral cultural pattern" fueling AIDS in Africa, "but you cannot go tromping in with big missionary boots and simply change that."

With Christian organizations, Mr. Jones believes that what changes behavior is bringing people into new communities (i.e., a church) that raise the standards for fidelity and offer compassion. He says many Christian groups are doing "heroic work" using that model. And he is beginning to see a way to partner with them, despite deep theological differences, "people to people and church to church," to conquer AIDS in Africa.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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