Ken Jones, 1951–2021
“Our victory was leading the discussion for human dignity and human worth.”
On January 13, 2021, legendary LGBTQ activist Ken Jones died after a long battle with liver cancer. He was seventy years old.
After serving for eleven years in the U.S. Navy (including tours in Vietnam), Ken moved to San Francisco, where he joined the staff at University of California, San Francisco, as Manager of Grant Expenditures and Reports. There he met Konstantin Berlandt of the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front in 1978 and began his activist career as Co-Chair of the Outreach Committee for San Francisco Pride. “I charged the Committee with getting more under-represented or non-represented segments of the community to march with the People of Color Contingent and to join in the parade planning process,” Ken told A&U in a February 2020 cover feature. In 1985 he was elected President of the Pride San Francisco Planning Committee.
Ken joined the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1981 as Director of Volunteer Services and Management. “In the eighties,” he told A&U in February 2020, “no matter who you talked to, they would tell you that there were no people of color working in the Foundation. But actually, there were four of us, and we were smart enough to form the Third World AIDS Advisory Committee and bring in other stakeholders, like Black and White Men Together, Bay Area Black Lesbians and Gays, and the National AIDS Prevention Project, with my brother Reggie Williams.”
For four years Ken served as Northern California LIFE AIDS Lobby in Sacramento, actively engaged in writing pro-LGBTQ legislation. The Lobby secured the creation of the AZT Drug Subsidy Fund for low-income Californians and several other pilot projects. Later, Ken joined the Venceramos Work Brigade and traveled (illegally) to Cuba to assess the response to AIDS there.
Asked why HIV transmission rates are higher among African Americans than any other group, Ken said, “I don’t know, but I do know how to stop it. We’ve got to get these young Black men out of their homophobic homes, their homophobic churches. We have to teach them that Black lives matter, that their lives matter. That’s how we’ll stop the spread of the virus, one kid at a time.”
Cleve Jones [A&U, January 2017], founder of the NAMES Project/AIDS Memoria Quilt and author of When We Rise, met Ken in 1973 and worked with him frequently over the years. “I truly admired Ken right away. I was seventeen and he was twenty-two, but he already seemed very mature, very wise for his age.
“Ken had a marvelous ability to force us to confront the most difficult issues in our community,” Cleve continued. “Whether it was integrating the Pride Committee or his work with Black & White Men Together, Ken was passionate about fighting racism in the LGBTQ community and homophobia in the Black community. He was instrumental in forcing the planning committee for the 1987 March on Washington to display the NAMES Project quilt on the National Mall. Ken really pushed us, hard—but always with a big smile and infinite patience. And it worked. He changed hearts and minds. To me, that is the mark of a truly great leader.”
“Ken Jones’ life reminds me—even quiet voices can make an impact when used. When Ken liked you, you were embraced—he loved and was beloved by his community,” said Derrick Mapp, Senior Services Care Navigator and HIV Health Counselor at Shanti, and one of Ken’s many friends in San Francisco.
Vince Crisostomo, Director of Aging Services at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation told A&U, “I have always admired Ken’s work. In 2017, I was honored that he agreed to be part of a music video for a project I helped produce called ‘Voices of the Quilt.’ Ken’s performance broke my heart; I could barely do my performance. On January 13, 2021 when I got the news it broke my heart again. May he rest in power and be in peace.”
“Such sincerity and kindness and warmth. Reading all of the tributes to Ken since his passing has been so moving,” said another friend, Gregg Cassin, program director of Honoring Our Experience at the Shanti Project. “I want a moment with him again just to say thanks.”
In 1989, at age forty, Ken was diagnosed with HIV. When asked about the early years of the pandemic, Ken remembered, “I witnessed thousands of you’s and me’s, scared and frightened but turning that into meaningful and life-saving volunteer work. I often say, there is nothing that had prepared any of us to weather so much loss. So much sadness. So much grief, over so long a time. So,” he concluded, “Be kind to us walking with our battle wounds.”
We join the LGBTQ, Black, and HIV communities in mourning the loss of this fierce, gentle, soft-spoken giant.
Rest in Power, my friend.
As part of ATLAS2018’s multimedia installation at the IAS conference in Amsterdam in 2018, Ken joined fellow activists Gregg Cassin, Vince Crisostomo, Matt Sharp, and Hank Trout for a filmed discussion of the early days of the AIDS pandemic. You can view the film at https://vimeo.com/279408706.
Senior Editor Hank Trout interviewed Ken Jones for the February 2020 cover story.