'When We Rise' Inspiration Cleve Jones' Journey from Suicidal Teen to World-Famous LGBTQ Activist

Cleve Jones, the man behind the iconic AIDS Memorial Quilt, is an inspiration for the new ABC miniseries When We Rise

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Photo: Rink foto archives/ABC

At 15 years old, Cleve Jones was planning his suicide.

“I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be bullied and abused by the other kids,” he says in the current issue of PEOPLE of growing up as a closeted gay teen in Phoenix. “I thought my life was over before it even started.”

Jones began hoarding pills to use for an overdose until he discovered the nascent gay liberation movement that began in the late 1960s.

“When I read about it in Life magazine, I flushed the pills down the toilet,” says Jones, now 62. “It’s not hyperbole to say the movement saved my life.”

Now his story, which includes being mentored by Harvey Milk (the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California), is coming to television in the new ABC miniseries When We Rise. Jones later went on to conceptualize the NAME Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, the iconic arts project launched in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes.

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Michael Bry/ABC

“Without the movement, I either would have killed myself as a teenager or died of AIDS or been beaten to death,” says Jones, whose memoir of the same name was an inspiration for the miniseries. “But I didn’t just survive because of the movement. It gave my life meaning.”

Influenced by the civil rights and women’s movements, Jones spent his high school years protesting the Vietnam War. At 17, he moved to San Francisco and got involved in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

At that time, “homosexuality was illegal and considered an illness. People were subjected to barbaric attempts to ‘cure’ them,” says Jones, who waited until he was 18 to come out to his parents because he feared they’d commit him.

His father “did not react well” to the news, but Milk — who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 — became a surrogate father to Jones.

When he was assassinated in 1978, “it was devastating,” Jones says of finding Milk shot. “I remember sitting in his office while they bundled up his body and thinking, ‘It’s all over.’ ”

  • For more from Jones — including what exactly inspired him to create the quilt — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Tragically, death would become a fixture in Jones’s life as AIDS — or, as he calls it, “the plague” — grew into an epidemic.

“I lost almost all of my closest friends,” says the activist, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985 but has responded well to medication in the decades since.

The same year of his diagnosis, he was inspired to create the famous quilt.

“Everyone told me it wouldn’t work,” he says. “But it ended up being the largest community-arts project in the world and touched the hearts of tens of millions of people across the planet.”

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Back then he never dreamed there would be nationwide marriage equality in his lifetime, “but now I’m determined to defend it. In this critical time in our nation’s history, I’m determined to defend all of the gains we’ve achieved and extend them, not just for my own community but for all of us,” says Jones, who now works with the hotel and restaurant employees’ union UNITE HERE.

“People say, ‘Thank you for your sacrifice.’ But I don’t view it that way,” he continues. “Making a tangible difference in people’s lives gives me immense joy.”

When We Rise continues Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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