Bryan C. Jones (b. 1960) is a native Clevelander and grew up in the Hough area before attending the University of Cincinnati. Jones discusses transferring to Florida A&M University and Florida State University in the 1980s and coming out as a gay man after becoming active in Atlanta's gay communities in the early 1980s. He discusses the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, receiving an HIV/AIDS diagnosis in the 1980s, and moving back to Cleveland in the 1990s. Jones discusses the intersections of stigma, racism, and homophobia surrounding HIV/AIDs and his ongoing work as a community activist and long-term AIDS survivor/thriver, including his involvement in the Sankofa HIV Initiative, the D.I.R.T Advocacy Movement, Campaign 2 End Aids, and Equal Access Prevention.
Bryan C. Jones [00:00:16] Well, thank you for considering me. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [00:00:19] Of course. To begin, could you please state and spell your name for the record?
Bryan C. Jones [00:00:22] My name is Bryan. That's B-r-y-a-n. I kind of say it's like "Liza with the Z, not Lisa with the S," but it's "Bryan with the Y, not Brian with an I." C. Jones. J-o-n-e-s.
Riley Habyl [00:00:35] Fantastic. So, Bryan, where and when were you born?
Bryan C. Jones [00:00:39] I was born in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio, in what they now call Metro Hospital—which used to be called City Hospital. And I was born at six months, so I was premature. So I've always been ahead of the game, so to speak. Or, either behind the game. (both laugh)
Riley Habyl [00:00:58] Alright. So, did you grow up in the Cleveland, Ohio area?
Bryan C. Jones [00:01:04] Yes, I did. I grew up in the Hough area. I was present during the Hough Riots. I was a young child during the Hough Riots. I remember tanks coming down the streets and, you know, fires and riots and all that stuff that went on.
Riley Habyl [00:01:24] How old were you at the time?
Bryan C. Jones [00:01:25] I was probably six, seven when the riots were going on. Old enough to remember, and young enough to try to forget, but I can't forget that—something as historical as the Hough Riots.
Riley Habyl [00:01:43] When you—. So, as a child, did you learn about that after the fact through, you know, adults around you, or was it—?
Bryan C. Jones [00:01:50] No, I was very much present in the moment. You know, it was—. It was just something—. Just overwhelming seeing businesses on fire, looting in the streets, and the fact that tanks were coming down the street, you know, this, this whole—National Guards, and that kind of stuff. Yeah, so I was very much present in the moment.
Riley Habyl [00:02:17] Did you understand what was happening at the time?
Bryan C. Jones [00:02:21] Kind of sort of, because Martin Luther King [Jr.] passed during that era also, so there were a lot of—I would say, civil rights incidents—taking place around Cleveland. I didn't realize maybe how significant it was going to play a part in our history overall, but in hindsight I can see why.
Riley Habyl [00:02:48] Mhm. What is your current occupation?
Bryan C. Jones [00:02:51] I don't have an occupation. I'm an ac—. Well, I'm an advocate, activist full-time. And when I say full-time, that's a 24/7-365. I guess that's what they say. So I do that full time, but I did—. In my previous life, I did musical theater and I was a concert dancer. And that's what I did prior to my activism and advocacy work.
Riley Habyl [00:03:22] When did you—. Around what year did you begin your advocacy work?
Bryan C. Jones [00:03:28] Um, kind of indirectly. I was doing advocacy before I knew what advocacy really was. I would say my advocacy started in maybe '85, because I was taking care of friends who were—who had contracted HIV. Or back then it was called GRID, Gay Related Immunodeficiency, or AIDS, and so I was taking care of people, doing that. And I didn't realize that was considered advocacy or activism, because back then taking care of people—. We were preparing people to die, as opposed—. Now we try to prepare people to live. Back then, we could only prepare them to die. And myself, I'm fortunate that I was not one of those people who—. This is going—my 40th year of living with an AIDS diagnosis, so I was diagnosed—. I first got a—. I got tested—. Well, there wasn't a test back then, but I had work done in '83. I didn't find out the diagnosis until '84, so I'm roughly in my—going into my 40th year of living with an AIDS diagnosis.
Riley Habyl [00:04:49] When did you first become aware of HIV and AIDS?
Bryan C. Jones [00:04:53] Well, in the early eighties, I first became aware of it because I—. You know, it was sexual liberation and gay freedom, and I just recently had begun to be open about being a person living—being gay. Or same-gender loving, as I tend to call it. And that was during the time when I first got my sexual freedom. I was living in Atlanta at the time. So I had just realized about my—my gayness. Yeah, so, I had first heard about HIV as being—. They called it the "four Hs", "the junkie flu". You know, it was called so many things other than what it was. So it made a lot of people feel safe—that it was just a gay white man's condition—until we started to look at how it became a battlefield quickly for everybody. (Bryan stirs a cup of coffee)
Riley Habyl [00:05:59] Around year, er—. Around what year did you first come out? Or, I should say—. Around what time in your life did you first start coming to an understanding of your identity?
Bryan C. Jones [00:06:11] I think—. I think—. Well, the way in which I grew up, it was very much taboo to be considered gay, because the only physical things you had, or tangible things that you had—examples of gay people—were what we considered drag queens, or very effeminate men. There were no masculine examples of someone who may—who may be same-gender loving, or—. There just were—. They just didn't exist. And even when they did, you had other people that made them more gayer than what they actually were, you know, just by their mannerisms and behaviors. And growing up in the hood, if you used proper English you were considered gay—just in their eyes—or swishy, or, you know, all these things. So I was very careful during that time—growing up—to embrace my same-gender loving spirit. Also, it was complicated for the fact that I was sexually molested from the age of about three to eight or nine. And we are often taught to not be open about our dirty laundry, or even to have those open, candid conversations. Because had someone had that open, candid conversation and began it—it might have prevented me being molested, sexually assaulted, all that time. But because no one has that conversation, it's called psychodrama. It goes on and on and on, because we're taught to suppress those conversations and not be open about it. So, I don't know. (loud train horn can be heard outside) She toot the horn. (Riley laughs) That's the train tooting—tooting my horn, because it's saying "Right!" about us not having that conversation. So, I think that played a part in me embracing it, too. And in my later years, I'm able to have an open, candid conversation about that and not feel ashamed of it, or—and just have that real conversation. So that kind of changed the way I perceived myself to be, because I was torn. Did me, quote-unquote, have a "coming out"—. Did it have to do with me being open about it, or did it have the fact that it was tainted by me being molested? So, I often deal with that in later years, too. It's a reoccurring conversation that occurs in my head. We'll move on past that. (Bryan laughs and stirs a cup of coffee)
Riley Habyl [00:09:13] Were you out to your family?
Bryan C. Jones [00:09:16] It's funny—
Riley Habyl [00:09:18] In the eighties, I mean. Like, did—
Bryan C. Jones [00:09:19] I wasn't. I mean, mothers always know. And your family knows, you know. But technically I wasn't out. I didn't become out until I had made the—. I was college educated. I didn't find out that I had an HIV diagnosis, an AIDS diagnosis, until my—going into my senior year of college. And then I didn't. I had a musical theater career. I really wasn't out, per se, or—. It was a given, but we never had that conversation because I did have a beard, so to speak—a girlfriend. So I didn't really become open about my status until I made a conscious decision to go to prison and die. So I went to—. I was college educated. I traveled the world doing theater. And then I also went to prison in Marion, Ohio, because I didn't want my family to have to take care of me during this ugly death of HIV. So I figured I'd just party, get high, go to prison, and die. And nobody—. And they would say that "He had cancer," that kind of thing. But it didn't happen that way. I found myself in prison, with stage four cancer, chained to a prison bed weighing 117 pounds. And I said, "God, that's not funny. I came there to die," and it just didn't happen that way. So when I got out, I started talking about my HIV status. I was open about—. This was the first time I started having conversations about being openly gay, and that kind of thing. I was—. I made it a conscious decision that I was not trying to embrace being politically correct, so my conversations have—since that time have always been candid and straight up, no chaser. And that was in the early nineties. That's when I became open about having conversations about being gay.
Riley Habyl [00:11:21] If we could circle back a little bit in time to when you were in college—. What college did you attend, and from what years did you attend that college?
Bryan C. Jones [00:11:31] Right, I d—. I—. In college, it's weird. I was away from home. I went to Florida A&M. I graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. I also took dance over at Florida State [University]. It was then that I went away, when I—. I first went to University of Cincinnati, pledged a fraternity, was (unintelligible) down campus, you know. But then when I moved and went to—transferred and went to Florida A&M [University], I started to live more openly gay because I was not under scrutiny of people I went to college with—I mean, went to high school with, and that kind of thing. So I was well aware—away from people that I really knew, so I was able to kind of be a little more open about who I was and how I moved through life. So it was those years of doing that, that—because I did musical theater, I was able to do musical theater and that kind of thing—and so that's when I was first starting to live as a gay man because I had first experienced Atlanta. Atlanta, at that time, was considered like the gay Mecca, and everybody was flocking there. So I finally was able to see masculine gay men who reminded me of myself. And seeing men—. Because in my eyes then, effeminate men—. Gay people were stereotyped as being a certain type. They wore pink, you know, they wore flowing garments, and a little eyeshadow wouldn't help—wouldn't hurt, early on. So, those were my visions of what gay men looked like. And I was like, "Just because I'm gay, do I have to want to be a woman, or perceived as wanting to be a woman?" And so I finally was, for the first time, able to see masculine men. I'm not saying that masculine and men go hand-in-hand or anything like that, but to me, I think we—. Just—. This whole pronoun thing and everything—. I understand people's perspective, but it's just—. It's just become a bit much. It's confusing for me, so I know it has to be confusing for heterosexual people to understand all these pronouns, same-gender non-conforming, and all. You know, I can respect people's positioning, but it's becoming so complicated just to get a pronoun right. You know, I have to think before I open my mouth about whether I'm gonna misgender somebody and—. Back then, it was either you're gay, or you weren't gay, you know? (laughs) It was—. It was very simple, and I think we need to go back to basics. Either you do what you don't. Some will, some won't. Some do, some don't. (Riley laughs) You know, you say tomato [to-may-to], I say tomato [to-mah-to]. Let's just make it simple. So, anyway. It's like being gay has become a whole smorgasbord, like a menu. I mean, you go to a restaurant and you get to choose what you want. It's so many different things and combinations you can make. A bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich is a bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich. Being gay should be just that—simple as a bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich. Add one ingredient, or take one away. So, anyway. (both laugh) Where are we at? Am I still talking about my gayness? (laughs)
Riley Habyl [00:15:06] No worries. We were talking about, um—. So in college, what years did you say that you attended (crosstalk) Florida A&M [University]?
Bryan C. Jones [00:15:14] Florida A&M [University]. From '81 to '85. So those are my gay academy years, I call it, where I learned that, you know—. You have to learn lines from Joan Crawford movies. And, you know, if you couldn't repeat one of the old black and white movies, a line from one of the movies—you were not gay. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, you know, "Give 'em a glove! Give 'em a glove!", "Dip, Louise, Dip!" You know, "Sing Out Louise!" (both laugh) You know, all these little sayings—catchphrase sayings. I was lucky that I had some great gay people to teach me how to be gay, so to speak. You know, all the little quirky—little history lessons that you learn, and little funny little sayings. You know, some people are like, "Oh, they'll have your gay card if you don't know where "Sing out Louise!" comes from," what movie that comes from [Gypsy]. Or "Zips up the back. No bone!" That was from The Women. So I learned all this gay trivia. And back then, before HIV complicated things, being gay was fun. Not that it's not fun now, but it's so many other things that come into play now. So, I'm just wondering if young gay people have much fun as we did. You know, because there was a time when we could go just dance. You know, just dance your lights out, and just sweat and dance. But do young people really get that now? Do they have that freedom now? I know the House and Ball community and Kiki community are—that they have these balls and stuff. But the balls, some of them seem—. And maybe I may be saying this wrong—. Some of them seem out of desperation, as opposed to out of just the sheer fun of it all. So we should just go out and just dance. We cocktailed all the time, you know? (laughs) From Thursday to Sunday there was a cocktail party, all the time. So, I don't know. I think we met—. We embraced each other out of camaraderie. It wasn't of desperation until well after that HIV and AIDS epidemic started.
Riley Habyl [00:17:35] And this is all when you were still in Florida?
Bryan C. Jones [00:17:38] Yes, because I went to—. I would spend the summers in Atlanta [Georgia], because Tallahassee [Florida] was—. You had to go through Atlanta to get to Ohio, so I never came back home after that. When I left to college, I never really came back home. I spent my summers at wherever I was, or—. I went to Atlanta all the time, and I—. Most of my gay friends I have were from when—my Atlanta days, and some that I went to school with. So, that's where I am.
Riley Habyl [00:18:16] How did you first start meeting other gay people, and what was your foray into the gay community at the time?
Bryan C. Jones [00:18:23] I guess musical theater. Becoming a dancer, taking dance classes, doing theater. I met most of my friends—. They were theater folk. And then when I went to Atlanta I did a whole lot of theater, so most of my friends had theater backgrounds. And many of them have went on to become quite successful actors and actresses and dancers, and that kind of thing. And I probably was well on my way, but life has a way of throwing you a bone, and things make you turn around. Contracting HIV made a difference. Then having neuropathy from taking one of the earlier [HIV] medications kind of st—kind of ended the whole dance thing. So, I did that for a long time, and then it was time to, you know—. How do you say—. "When you—when given lemons, you make lemonade." Well, I had to make lemonade, lemon chicken, a Iemon soufflé, and those things. I had to make—make the lemon make more sense than just lemonade. Because you can be thirsty, but I'm hungry. And so I had to just—. It just—. I just—. The way I got into HIV advocacy and activism—. It just kind of happened, and became important for me to be seen as a person living with HIV who not—. Who didn't just need help, but who could help. And that has been my trajectory—of wanting to put that out there, that we're not just people who need help, we're people who can help and be very instrumental in helping others navigate living—being a person living with HIV, as well as helping the community help others who are—to prevent them from contracting HIV.
Riley Habyl [00:20:26] When were you first aware of your HIV diagnosis?
Bryan C. Jones [00:20:29] My senior year. Going into my senior year of college I got sick, so I went all the way to Atlanta, four and a half hours away, to get treated—to figure out what was wrong with me because I was afraid to do it on campus, or at the school clinic. So I went all the way to Atlanta to find out. It took months to find out what my diagnosis was. And the doctor called me on the phone, and he said, "Mr. Jones, you have GRID, or what we know is AIDS now, and you got about six months to live," and he hung up the phone. So he offered no sense of what I can do, how I can get help. He just said, "You've got about six months to live," and he hung up. So, I didn't know what to do. So for a long time, I—. I didn't know what to do. I waited for my six months marker to come. I was still here, so even though it was 1983, '84, I was partying like it was 1999. And then when about four years went by, five years went by and it had—didn't happen, the hammer didn't drop—I said, "Well, you know, maybe." But people all around me were dying, so it was—. Can we pause this?
Riley Habyl [00:22:01] Sure.
Bryan C. Jones [00:22:01] Because it is hot. (recording pauses)
Riley Habyl [00:22:04] (recording resumes) Alright, it's rolling again. So, is HIV something that people around you were talking about?
Bryan C. Jones [00:22:12] No. That was the problem. It was the biggest elephant in the room. I remember back during the—. On the battlefield, and we considered those days to be the battlefield—a friend would open the door, we'd think about the movie Philadelphia, where people would have little spots, these little tiny spots. Which is Kaposi's sarcoma, which is a skin cancer. The reality was, it wasn't just little spots that people had. A friend would open the door, and half of his face would be KS [Kaposi's sarcoma]. And so, that was a lot more shocking than noticing some little purple bruises on somebody. They weren't small in those days, and yet still—. Somebody opens a door and they have this big splotch. Nobody would talk about it. I'm sure when they opened the door, we're standing there with our mouths wide open because we had never seen it up close and personal. And that was my first time coming to grips with saying, "Is this my destiny? Is this what I have to look forward to?", and—. But nobody—. It was the elephant in the room. Nobody made any comments about it. And then when people started to die, you would know that people got—. You know, you would say, "He's sick," or "He went to the hospital,"—those were codes for—. Code words for, you know, "He's got AIDS, and he's gonna die." Just saying that somebody 'got sick' or 'went to the hospital', (Bryan's phone rings) those were code words for 'people were going to die'. Nobody was having these conversations about HIV and AIDS, and that was the sad thing. And so I have become a historian about HIV and AIDS, so to speak, because I (Bryan's phone alarm rings) know that back in the early eighties, the CDC [Center for Disease Control] and these other entities did us a disservice because they didn't talk about Black people's numbers. Nor did they talk about women contracting HIV. Nor did they talk about heterosexual couples. But we now know that early on in the epidemic, by '83 heterosexual couples had contracted HIV. But the CDC didn't mention their numbers. When they talk about—in 1981, when the article was first released in The New York Times—about these 44 or 41 gay men we thought was white, and now know they were white, are having this strange gay cancer. They failed to mention that 88, 86 to 88 Black people had contracted the same gay cancer during that 12 year—that 12-month calendar year. But they didn't mention—. They didn't release our numbers, and by the time they decided to release our numbers—. When the floodgates finally opened, it was too late to start having that conversation because Black people and women were contracting HIV or AIDS back then at an alarming rate. And so, by nobody having that conversation, we weren't able to do preventive measures to prevent—to stop the cont—the spread of HIV.
Riley Habyl [00:25:41] Outside of gay communities and gay spaces, what would you say the general public's perception of HIV, or GRID [Gay Related Immunodeficiency] as it was known at the time, at least in the early eighties—. What would you say that the general perception of the disease was?
Bryan C. Jones [00:26:01] Well, I—. As now, we've come a long way with medication and things, but I think stigma is still as heavy as it is now, as it was—as it was then. It just looks different, and we now know that—. People still think of—think of it as being a gay man's disease. They also consider a lot of sex shaming in there. That you did something nasty, or something freaky, to contract HIV. "You got what you deserved." "It's God's punishment." All those things, and those little narratives, still exist today. But we now know that Black folks and people of color—. Which are two different things, Black folks and people of color—because they're just two different things, but we try to combine all that together. We now know that social and structural disparities is what keeps HIV present. It has nothing to do with—so much with behaviors and substance abuse use, as it has to do with systemic and structural disparities that exist. Like equal access to care. Understanding our health care system. Lack of housing, lack of knowledge, lack of food. All these things contribute to the growth and spread of HIV. And it has nothing to do so much with what a lifestyle is, and what people's behaviors are, as to what's already in place that's causing the spread of HIV. So people's perceptions back then was really—. You know, people—. If you coughed, now they say—(laughs). People used to cough to cover a fart, now you fart to cover the cough (both laugh) because the cough is like a major sign. You know, you're in a room and you start coughing, everybody looks at you sideways just because of a cough—because of HIV and AIDS, because of COVID-19, all these other things that exist. So we're constantly—. Stigma and where it exists—. There's stigma in everything, first of all, and I'm so tired of hearing that it's the stigma that keeps HIV alive. There's stigma in being too short, too tall, too light, too dark, too educated, too unedu—too undereducated. It's stigma in everything, so we can't keep blaming it on stigma as much as we can blame it on miseducation, and we can blame it on systemic and structural disparities that keep HIV alive. So the conversation and what it looks like—. It's just as bad now as it was then. You know, people still have these perceptions when you say—. Except now, people are more open in saying there's no shame in being a person living with HIV, because we are living with HIV. I'm not a person who's HIV positive. I'm a person living with HIV, because I'm more than just my status. And so we're starting to—having those kind of conversations, and looking at HIV in a positive light, all puns intended (Riley laughs), and understanding that it's nothing negative about it, or nothing—. There's no shame in being a person with HIV.
Riley Habyl [00:29:24] So, what do you think has contributed to that shift?
Bryan C. Jones [00:29:29] I think people stepping up, taking up space. How many people like myself, who have embraced the fact that—. Well, for me, what made a change in my life is—. I stopped letting other people's shit be my shit. And what I mean by that is—. I have an HIV diagnosis. If you can't deal with it, that's your shit. But it's about my life, and my quality of life, and my have—living a healthier life. Because before then, it was about self-destructing, because I didn't even—. There was a time when I didn't have self-esteem, can you believe that? (laughs) Me not having self-esteem, it's just like, wow. (both laugh) But HIV had beat me up so much, and I had beat myself up so much, that when the—. Taking back my power, taking back my life—. Because I was doing what I call the 'Anne Frank syndrome'. I was hiding somewhere, waiting for somebody to open a door and say "Found you!" You know, and the way it happened was—. Somebody close to me started telling people my status, so people would come to me and say, "Well, you know—." I was very popular in high school and that kind of thing, so people always want to try to have a one-up on you. And it was like, this is their moment to confront him about having HIV or AIDS. "Well, you know, such-and-such told me—." "Yes, I have HIV. Have you been tested?" I would stop them cold, and I would leave them with their mouth hanging open again, so I started to embrace that. And just being a person living with HIV—. I started to see positive examples of people living with HIV, so that whole changed for me. I started to do more advocacy work, I started to do more national work, and since that time I've started—. I've done international work when it comes to HIV and AIDS, and now I have an organization called the Sankofa HIV Initiative, and we do healing weekends for people living with HIV. So, I've been doing that. And under the banner of the Sankofa HIV Initiative is my D.I.R.T. Advocacy Movement. And D.I.R.T. is an acronym for Direct, Inspiring, Reachable, and Teachable. It's a conversation for Black people that look like us, who live like us, talk like us. It's a prevention model that doesn't recreate the wheel. We—. We go and educate people at the places where they're doing their work, they're working—already working on the intersections of HIV and AIDS, meaning places like food pantries, places that give away clothing, places that help provide housing, and certain literacy programs. We have HIV conversations in those places, because we got to understand that HIV is not first on some people's list, it's not second, it's not third, it's not fourth. It's food, clothing, housing, all these other things are important before we can have a conversation about HIV and AIDS. So we've got to feed people mentally before we can start—I mean, physically—before we start feeding them mentally. If a person is hungry, you've got to feed the physical body before we can start having these conversations that affect the mental, and eventually the physical. So we've got to provide for people not just for HIV and AIDS, to stop teaching—treating HIV and AIDS as this 'one man on this island' conversation. Audre Lorde says, "There no single-issue fights because people don't live single-issue lives," and this is true. We—. There's more to us than trying to navigate HIV, or even a health care system, so I think we've got to look into holistically having these conversations. Putting HIV into comprehensive health care instead of just getting tested, and that kind of thing.
Riley Habyl [00:33:28] So, where did the idea for D.I.R.T. [Direct, Inspiring, Reachable, and Teachable] Advocacy come from?
Bryan C. Jones [00:33:34] Well, I—. I was a part of an organization called C2EA—Campaign 2 End AIDS, and we would do these summits in different cities. So I campaigned to have this summit in—Campaign 2 End AIDS national advocacy leadership summit in Ohio. So I brought 80 advocates in from around the country to come to Cleveland, and I told them that, "Oh, we're going to go into Garden Valley when we're here." And they was like, "Oh no, we don't—. We don't come into cities and do prevention. We may come and talk about it." I said, "Well, when you come to Cleveland, you're going to do prevention, because how do we expect communities to know how to do prevention if we can't come in and be an example to them on how to do outreach and prevention efforts?" So I fought them tooth and nail about going into Garden Valley. And so when they came to Cleveland, we went into Garden Valley—people passed out condoms, had conversations with people in the community. And the people came back when we went to do our debriefing and told those people—that I'd fought tooth and nail—that this was so successful. Many of those advocates that came here had never done advocacy outside of a classroom. They had never really been in the community. They had maybe been—. Maybe educated college campuses, had conversations, meetings with those other people who may have been in certain aspects of business—but they had never actually been in the hood, or in the community, and actually had these conversations with the people whom were most impacted by HIV and AIDS. So they came and had this conversation. They expressed to the people that this was the greatest experience they ever had, so I realized then—. So I started to use by—. It was a lady named Jan Ridgeway who ran—who ran Garden Valley Neighborhood House, which was a settlement house, but they had a big food pantry there. And so I started going into Garden Valley, passing out condoms and having educational conversations, because I realized that the food pantry there—. People would start lining up at 7:30 in the morning, and they didn't start passing out food until 11 [a.m.], so you kind of had a captive audience of people there. So I started having these HIV and AIDS conversations, inviting people in, especially during the cold months—giving them coffee and donuts—and started having these open and candid conversations about HIV and AIDS. And I believe in being very candid about my conversation, and it was—. So now, I tell people my pronoun is MF [motherfucker], you know, because they say, "Oh, here comes that motherfucker." You know, "I'll be glad when that motherfucker leaves the room, because he is causing too much disturbance." They looked at advo—. When did advocacy and activism become frowned upon? You know, when did it become this negative thing? When advocating—. If it wasn't for advocacy and activism, like Act Up, we wouldn't be where we are today in terms of the medication and those kinds of positive things that have impacted HIV and AIDS. So I knew that it was important to have open and candid conversations with our community, and conversations that sounded like us, looked like us, and lived like us. So that's how the D.I.R.T. [Direct, Inspiring, Reachable, and Teachable] Advocacy Movement came about—having these kinds of conversations. I just feel so drow—. I don't know why I'm feeling so drowsy. (laughs) This coffee is not working, but—. Yeah, so having those kinds of conversations was important. So that's how the D.I.R.T. Advocacy Movement came about, and I have pushed this model and have educated people in other cities such as Chicago, Florida, other states. So that's where we are with what I do, you know. So, I don't know.
Riley Habyl [00:37:49] Around what year did—. Around what year was D.I.R.T. [Advocacy Movement] conceived in?
Bryan C. Jones [00:37:56] Like 19—. 2013, I want to say. 2012-'13. I'm also responsible for mobilizing Ohio around modernizing our HIV criminalization laws, because I first—. When I first started going to conferences—in maybe 2008-2009—I went and there was a place called the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York. I was at a conference, and they did a workshop on that—on criminalization laws. And so I was like, wow. I had heard of these laws, but I didn't realize that these laws currently exist. I didn't realize people were being prosecuted, and I was like, wow. So when I came back home, I started having conversations with different advocates, and nobody was doing anything. Nobody was even talking about these laws in Ohio, so I was like, "What's going on?" So I started having these candid conversations with different people. I got a couple of other advocates to come on board with me, and since 2009 we have been fighting hand over heel. We've been having this battle. It was hard to keep people living with HIV at the table, for different reasons. So we currently now have an organization called the Ohio Health Modernization Movement, and it's—. It is like the organization for modernizing our laws. I say modernizing—. In a perfect world we want to repeal these criminalization laws, but we know that by repealing the laws, that doesn't mean that people still won't be prosecuted under more severe laws. General laws, such as attempted murder. That—. I've seen people prosecuted under 'weapons of mass destruction', 'biohazardous warfare', and this kind of thing. They sound—. It sounds like crazy things, but people are actually—have been prosecuted under these types of laws. So we say modernize the law, because we want the law—. We know they're not going anywhere, these criminalization laws, because we still have to work on these stigmatizing situations and how people perceive having HIV and AIDS. So, we say modernize. We want to bring the laws up to match the science. We now know that if a person has a suppressed viral load, that they cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners. So this is a huge find. And now we have something called U=U, Undetectable Equals Untransmittable. And I've been involved in all these spaces. I found myself—. I was a part of U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] before U=U was conceived. It's an international campaign that has just spread like wildfire when we first introduced it. But I am good friends with Bruce Richman, who was the founder of U=U, and I was a part of that founding Steering Committee that dealt with U=U and what it was going to look like, and how it was going to move through the world, and that kind of thing. We had no idea that when we introduced U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] that it would be this massive campaign that it is. And you may not have heard of it. It may be a space just for people who are doing this work and understand the history and education around HIV and AIDS.
Riley Habyl [00:41:32] Is that through Equal Access Prevention?
Bryan C. Jones [00:41:35] Prevention Access Campaign, PAC. So—. And so I've had the pleasure of speaking internationally around it, being a part of it. In Canada, there was something called the B-Team: Bryan, Bruce, Britney, and Bob. And then we had another guy come on named Randy, but we started calling him Brandy so he would be a part of the B-Team. (both laugh) Yeah, so we were the team that was there, you know, in Canada. And became quite known in Canada, when Canada was the first country to sign on to the U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] movement. So I was a part of making that happen, and it was such a historical moment for U=U and HIV and AIDS. So that's where—. I talk so much, I sometimes—. I went down another road. So, next question. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [00:42:40] Sure. So, what has the impact of the U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] campaign been on both your life and the lives of people living with HIV generally?
Bryan C. Jones [00:42:52] Well, U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] has changed the way we feel about ourselves, because I always say that U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] is me equaling the real me. Because when I found that—. When I finally got a diagnosis, I felt that I would never be able to love again, or have someone to love me, or—. I couldn't even love myself because of the stigmatizing thoughts, and how having a diagnosis made me feel about myself. So U=U is me equaling the real me. Most people living with HIV are concerned—are more scared that they're going to transmit it to somebody. So when I learned that I was not infectious anymore, all of these things, I was able to bring a part of myself back that I lost. That was the ability to love again, find love again. I am in a relationship now, and I just didn't think that that was going to happen. You know, I thought that that was over. So a lot of people want to make U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] about giving people a free license to just go have wild, crazy sex. And, if so, what's wrong with having a healthy sex life? So—. But it's not about that. It's about—. It's a feel—. Simply a feel-good moment for people to say that they can—. That they're not—. They're untransmittable. That we're not lepers, and those kinds of things. So it changes the way we feel about ourselves, and that's good. And it also changes the way that other people feel about us, knowing that we can't transmit HIV. That we are, as people living with HIV, doing our part so that others won't experience what we've had to go through when we received the diagnosis. So I would say U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] is a major milestone. It's as important to the HIV and AIDS movement as Act Up was, and a lot of people don't realize the importance of it. This week, the World Health Organization released new guidelines for what suppression looks like. Prior to that, the four studies that substantiate U=U, these four studies with over 125,000 condomless sex acts with no linked transmissions—it used to use a viral threshold of 200 and below. You can have a viral load of 200 and below—that means how much virus is in your system. It was 200 and below. Now, they're saying that what viral suppression is—. To have a viral load of a thousand and below means that you can't transmit HIV to your sexual partners. So it's been a huge impact, and we've got to have these conversations. And it's important for us to understand the science for ourselves so that we can have real conversations. And that's something that the D.I.R.T. Advocacy Movement also does, is [it] pushes our community in understanding the science for ourselves, and stop looking at the science as something that other people interpret for you.
Riley Habyl [00:46:11] That's fantastic. At what moment would you say that the general perception of HIV as being something of a death sentence to something of—. Something that people can live and, you know, live a full life and thrive with [changed]?
Bryan C. Jones [00:46:32] Well, I think—. I think people still think of it as a death sentence. Many people. I do think that for me things started to change when I started to embrace the science for myself, and started looking at what the medication was doing. And I often still have these moments—. Because there's an organization called Kick ASS. And Kick—. The 'ASS' stands for 'AIDS Survivors Syndrome.' They finally were able to come up with scientific evidence that we, as people living with HIV and AIDS, have AIDS Survivors Syndrome. That we have survivor's remorse that we could live past the next day, seeing past the next day, because we thought we would die any day now. And we still feel like that. Even though I've been living with HIV, with the AIDS diagnosis for 40 years, I still don't know when I may wake up and turn green, and—. But I'd be able to audition for the lead in Wicked if I turned green, but—(laughs). But because of—. The medication is so strong you don't know what, when something is gonna change, and so—. It's still, in some of our minds, considered a death sentence. Because I can't prepare for tomorrow, because I'm still worried about what the ramifications of yesterday might bring today, the fact of taking these medications for so many years. So I think we know that people are living longer—are longer and healthier lives. I never for the life of me would have thought I would have lived past 25. And here I am, 63. (Bryan snaps his fingers) But I have often lived my life—. All these years, I have lived my life in the shadow of HIV and AIDS. What is it gonna do? When is it gonna happen? And just having that thought that there were other people who—who HIV took away. I thought they were better people than me, better looking people than me, better personality, but yet still I was spared. Or then, one time I started to think, "Why was I left here to endure this when other people got to pass on and do away with the pain of having an HIV diagnosis?" And so, I understand now why I was left here. I was left here to experience U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable], to be a voice for those who can't speak for themselves, and do advocacy work and activism work. So was I left here, or was I left behind? Or was I left here for a purpose? I now tend to think I was left here for a purpose. When before, and many years that went on, I thought I was just left behind, because—. Why do I still have to endure this, this shame and stigma, when other people got to leave here quickly? So, now I understand now why I'm left here, and why it's no longer a death sentence for me.
Riley Habyl [00:49:47] If we could go back in time a little bit, what year did you move—. I know that you had said that you traveled a lot between Atlanta and Florida. What year did you move back to the Cleveland area?
Bryan C. Jones [00:50:02] I didn't come back to Cleveland until—after being incarcerated, because I came home to really pass, to die. Because I couldn't think of no other—. You know, the death was so ugly, and I was taking care of so many people. It just didn't seem like something practical, something that I wanted my family to experience. So that was like in the late nineties, I think, by the time I realized that I was not going to die in prison. Or, I wasn't going to be allowed to die in prison, so to speak. That was the late nineties. And that's when I came back to Cleveland, like '98, or something like that. And I still had a hard time. And then I went back to prison. I did not stop the recidivism of going back and forth to prison until somebody decided to give me housing. I didn't—. Having my own place changed the way I felt about myself. I didn't have to no longer sneak and take my medication. I didn't have to hide and take my medication. I was able to change the perception I had about myself, because housing is—should be a prescription. You know, because lack of housing kept me sick. Lack of housing kept me not being able to work on these things that I needed to work on in order to overcome this HIV and AIDS diagnosis. Because most of what we experience when it comes to HIV and AIDS can be psychological instead of being just a health—a physical thing. So we had to overcome those kinds of perceptions that we have about ourselves, because the self-stigma was the greatest stigma, and it still is the greatest stigma. So I had to overcome that and change the way—. It helped change the way I felt about myself, and I was also able to help others by being a positive example. I wasn't a role model. I wasn't anybody's role model. But I showed up, and that was the most important thing. I showed up, and I had an open and candid conversation about having HIV and AIDS, and so I think that has been my greatest strength. Being able to talk, to share my experiences, my personal parts of my life, and use that as a vehicle to help other people.
Riley Habyl [00:52:31] Did you find people—. At least the gay community in Cleveland specifically, did you find that people were receptive?
Bryan C. Jones [00:52:39] No, I think—. I think the greatest stigma has always been in the LGBTQ community. Let's not get it twisted, just because we're under this rainbow flag—. Racism and discrimination exists, and maybe to a greater extent, because we're a world within a world. And just because somebody—. We all have these—. We may love those of the same gender, and have these other issues—. It's still just as much racism and discrimination. And I'm Black before I'm LGBTQ, all day long. Before I could do with living—being LGBTQ, I had to deal with being Black every day. I got to deal with surviving every day, and a lot of people just don't get how serious it is. And just because I'm part of the LGBTQ community does not exonerate me from experiencing what it's like to be Black, especially when I walk into an LGBTQ Center and I'm not welcome. And a lot of people think that it's a Kumbaya moment. It's not a Kumbaya moment, because I still get the same looking down my nose—. People looking down their nose at me simply because I'm Black, or because I am gay, or whatever. There's not an automatic acceptance just because we are under this rainbow flag. I find that I get more stigma about being a person living with HIV from people who are gay. From gay men, from gay dating sites, of people making rude comments about our own group of people. And people are still making those comments. And it makes it very stigmatizing when you're trying to—. The people that you work to help are the people who criticize you the most. As I do advocacy work, a lot of people criticize me—and it's from the LGBTQ community. There's a 50/50 chance that somebody who's same-gender loving's going to meet somebody, or may be sexually interested in somebody, who may have an HIV diagnosis. So why is it such a shock when somebody tells you they're a person living with HIV? It's better to date someone living with HIV who'll tell you they're living with HIV than someone who is substituting (Bryan's phone rings) that, "I'm HIV negative," when they really mean, "I haven't been tested," or "I was tested five or six years ago, but I've had sex with 100 people since then. But I'm going to hold on to that HIV negative diagnosis, because that's what I'm most comfortable with." So someone who tells you they live with HIV it's good to—. It's good to—. It's probably better to date them because, you know, they're proactive about their health. Hmm. Go ahead.
Riley Habyl [00:55:53] Sort of thinking about some of the resistance to the advocacy work that you've been—you've been doing, has there been any—. Rather, can you tell me a little bit more about some of the resistance, both within the LGBT community and outside of the LGBT community?
Bryan C. Jones [00:56:08] Um—.
Riley Habyl [00:56:11] Resistance or negative reactions to your work? (crosstalk)
Bryan C. Jones [00:56:13] Well, I think people always want to deflect something on other people. So, I've learned that a lot of people who are living—who are gay, or same-gender loving, may talk about other people and their diagnosis to deflect it away from themselves. I have since learned that, a lot of times, people—. It's like—. How like, misery loves company. But I also understand it. Me being open about my status—. A lot of people have envy, and they may throw stones, they may throw sticks, but I have to understand. I understand. I was where you were. You know, I know that you're only doing that because sometimes people have to try to put you down in order to lift themselves up. And I understand that there's not much positive things you will find about being [HIV] positive, so to speak. But sometimes people look at you and just say—. You have something they want, and that's being open and comfortable about your status. And so people will lash out because they want something of what you have, and they feel like if they can bring you down a peg they can somehow level the playing field. So I get that, the whole resistance thing of not wanting to talk about HIV and AIDS. We have a lot of conversations and have a lot of spaces where we need to make HIV and AIDS more in the forefront, but we're failing to do that. We've become very complacent. Many people think that HIV and AIDS is not a problem anymore, you know, because we're not having these kinds of open and candid conversations about it. Young people don't understand what we had to go through in order to overcome HIV and AIDS. And we still—. We're a long way out. You keep talk—. You keep hearing about these, "Ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic," by this certain number: 2030. We're not trying to end it by anything. Until we start having a conversation about white privilege, and what it looks like, and how that impacts the systemic and structural disparities—we're not gonna end anything, because it's not just about HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS is just a symptom of a larger problem, which is white privilege and how our system is structured around privilege. And we've got to understand of how—. We have to get white folks to understand that you have to leverage your privilege for the greater good. I can't hold you responsible for embracing your privilege, but what I can hold you responsible for is, "How did you help my Black butt get in the door?" You know, if we're talking about helping one another, then we've got to have these real conversations of how—. Because a lot of people don't believe that they walk in privilege, so that's a whole another—a whole another conversation, too. That whole privilege conversation. So, that's where we are with that.
Riley Habyl [00:59:32] So I know that you've mentioned that there's not a lot of awareness among young people today, but, I guess—. How would you characterize the general sense of how HIV/AIDS is conceptualized within Cleveland's LGBT communities?
Bryan C. Jones [00:59:57] Well I—. (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [00:59:58] —that you've interacted with?
Bryan C. Jones [00:59:58] Well, I think—. I think that they think they're dealing with it as best they can, but I think we're still leaving people behind, so to speak. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we don't—. See, a lot of people don't want to focus on HIV and AIDS. "Oh, let's focus on something happy," and all that kind of stuff. "Let's divert it into gay pride." If you notice that—. In every major city, there's a gay Pride, and then there's a Black Pride. So does that mean we are proud together? No, because obviously we can't exist and do something, a pride that includes—that is inclusive of Black people and white people together. What has been the issue in most major cities I've seen is, with the regular Pride, which is white people—it becomes the mainstream Pride, then the gay Pride—. It's kinda like, Black gay Pride—. It's kind of like Black gay Pride is kind of like a side street. That's because the funding that was given for the gay Pride didn't look like Black people. So then it—. It's not inclusive. And so like I said, it's not a Kumbaya moment. Just because we're LGBTQ doesn't mean this racism and discrimination doesn't exist. So, as we try to make it look more sterile—or more clean, so to speak—we leave out the HIV and AIDS education part. And some people don't want to have that conversation, which is really doing young people a disservice. And the young people are no longer concerned of what it was like, and how lucky they are to be able to live now with the new medications and stuff. So we're not embracing the fact that we've come a long way, and we're still trying to hide. We're like the step kids that eat in the kitchen, so to speak. Nobody wants to know that we exist, but we are still here. A lot of people wonder why I say I've been living forty years with an AIDS diagnosis. A lot of people think about me mentioning AIDS, that "Oh, that's wrong, because people no longer get AIDS anymore. It's HIV." Or thinking that "HIV positive" sounds cleaner than having—than saying "I have AIDS." That's all I've ever known, because when I was diagnosed, it was called GRID—Gay Related Immunodeficiency, or it was AIDS. So, that's all I've ever known. I've never known what this whole HIV positive thing was about. And a lot of people think that by—that there was this big scientific thing that made HIV come into place against AIDS. Actually, it was the decision of the government to come up with these guidelines because they wanted to know who was going to die first, and those were the people they were going to support first. Those are the people that were going to get access to health care. So they said that a viral load—anytime your T-Cells go below 200 and or an opportunistic infection—that constitutes what we call an AIDS diagnosis. And since these were going to—people that they thought were going to die first. They decided, "Okay, we got these guidelines. Those are going to be people we help." And that's what—. That's how they came up with this HIV positive versus AIDS. It was to save money. It was to know whom we need to help first. So, it wasn't a big scientific thing that brought about the distinction between HIV positive and AIDS. It was the fact of saving money, and who are we gonna—these are people who are gonna die first, so these are the people we're gonna help. Little did they know that I would be here 40 years later as one of those people they thought were going to be dead way back then. (Bryan's phone rings) Okay, go ahead.
Riley Habyl [01:04:02] I know that you mentioned that you'd faced resistance at the LGBT Center. Where would you say that Cleveland, the LGBT community in Cleveland specifically—. Where would you say that the LGBT community in Cleveland is at as far as beginning to address, like you said, the intersections between, you know, systemic and structural racism, the housing crises, HIV—?
Bryan C. Jones [01:04:28] Well, I think they think they're doing a great job, but it's not—. It can't be blamed on a—on a business, or institution, or anything, because this is a large problem. It exists for many of us. I think they fit in with what's happening around the country.
Riley Habyl [01:04:49] Er—.
Bryan C. Jones [01:04:49] You know—.
Riley Habyl [01:04:49] I'm sorry.
Bryan C. Jones [01:04:51] Go ahead.
Riley Habyl [01:04:51] Er, people—. Is it something that people are willing to talk about?
Bryan C. Jones [01:04:56] No. They don't want to talk about it, because they don't want to—. People don't like to address their shortcomings, they like to mask it and make it seem like, "We're doing a wonderful job." We've got to understand—. The same thing that the LGBTQ+ community is going through exists in the HIV and AIDS world. People don't want to give up their spot of privilege. They don't want to give up their—. They don't want to step down and let the leadership change. In order for us to get along, or to see where we went wrong, we've got to first to admit that we did go wrong, and people don't want to do that. And that's the same thing—. People become very territorial about spaces. And we want to believe that a white man threw the first brick at Stonewall, when we know—we are told that it was a trans [transgender] person that through the first brick. A Black person. A Black trans person, Marsha [P.] Johnson. You know, we don't want to—. We don't want to give credit where credit is due. We want to constantly make these situations and these—. Because if you look at footage from the days of Act Up, you would only think that Act Up was white gay men and white lesbians. You don't see Black people in these major pictures and these iconic shots—but they exist. We existed. We still exist. So, until we start of—leveling the playing field and honoring Black same-gender loving and gay people—. And it's weird to me, now people use the word 'queer' to—. In my day, 'queer' was a fighting word. It was just—. It just seemed like queer was something weird about you. So I don't understand. All of a sudden, now everybody embraces, "So, well, I'm queer." And I'm like, "Well, you know, for me, queer meant weird." And so—. How it has flipped into this wonderful thing of describing our community and ourselves—. I still don't get it. I don't think I'll ever get it. But I'll—. It's not meant for me to get everything. And that's another thing people don't want to admit. Everything ain't meant for you to get, you know. Just like this whole—. The whole trans [transgender] community and trans—. I've seen people want to fight because somebody asked the question, "What does it mean to be transgender?" And I thought it was a very valid question, because it changes. From where I sit—someone who does advocacy work for the transgender community, and straight community, heterosexual community. I don't quite understand it, so I know someone else asking an honest question about, "What does this mean?"—. I don't think you should get upset by trying to answer that question from somebody.
Riley Habyl [01:08:05] As far as your involvement in LGBT spaces in Cleveland—. Has there been any changes to the way that major organizations, like the LGBT Center, have tried to approach HIV/AIDS? Like, is it still treated as a single-issue thing, or is there any approach to—?
Bryan C. Jones [01:08:28] I think—. I think it becomes so complicated because we can't see the forest for the trees. People are so much into trying to make this a political thing as they are—. It's about saving lives. It's become a numbers game. It's become a big business. So, we're not able to see that—. Like I said, HIV is just a—is just a symptom of a larger problem. And until we're ready to deal with the larger problem, we are not going to overcome HIV and AIDS and what it has done to our community. But it's not just a gay, LGBTQ thing. Heterosexual people are contracting it, too. And people don't realize that heterosexual and gay people share the same spaces, and there is a huge overlap. We just don't realize it, and that's how I think HIV infects us all. If one of us has it, then we all have it—because there's a possibility that it may land at your doorstep. Even though you're not gay, you're not LGBTQ, you may be as heterosexual as they come, but now all of a sudden you didn't realize that the woman was sleeping with—. Your woman may have been sleeping with a bisexual man, or vice versa, those kinds of things. We know that it's easier for a woman to contract HIV from a man than it is the other way around, but that doesn't mean that it still can't happen. And so we've got to look at HIV and AIDS as a comprehensive health problem, and stop dealing with it as an LGBTQ problem because being—. To be human does not mean that part of my humanness is LGBTQ, and the other part is normal society. We walk the same paths. We deal with the same things. Love is love. To not be loved hurts just as much as—whether you're LGBTQ+ or not. So, we've got to stop separating ourselves because it's not as clear as Black and white as that. Who you love, and how you love. And also, if we look at something called the Denver Principles—. The Denver Principles was enacted in 1983, and that dealt with how we as people living with HIV and AIDS—. And people met in Denver, Colorado, and they devised this document called the Denver Principles, and it defined how we looked at ourselves, and how we want society to define us as people living with HIV and AIDS. It says, "We condemn attempts to be considered—to be labeled a victim, a term which implies defeat. And we are only occasionally a patient, a term which implies passivity and dependence upon the care of others. We are people living with AIDS." And this document went on to talk about how we were kicked out of our homes, removed from our jobs, that we—. And that we also have a right to serve on boards and legislative bodies that impact our lives. We have a right to live and die in dignity. People definitely back then couldn't live in dignity, and we certainly couldn't die with dignity because funeral homes wouldn't take our bodies. But it also talked about the—in 1983, of how we have a right to a healthy sex life. It talked about—. Just because I have an AIDS diag—HIV or AIDS diagnosis, doesn't mean that I can't have sex, and I can't have a healthy sex life. So, with these Denver Principles—. It defined who we were, and how we wanted to be treated, and we're still fighting for the same rights. Me as a Black, gay, same-gender loving man—. Me a Black, same-gender loving man—. Because first of all, I've got to understand that when—Anita Bryant thing, and the whole orange juice and gay people, didn't include Black folks. We were only included in to make it seem all-inclusive. We weren't really—. It wasn't part of our agenda. Being Black wasn't something that they wanted for us. So being gay was a very political thing, and it still is very political. Until somebody came up with the term same-gender loving, which is—. I think it was Cleo Manago came up with this term. I didn't feel like gay represented me, or saying I was gay represented me, because gay seemed to be something else that I didn't necessarily think was the greatest thing. You know, because it was—. I had to be very swishy, you know, (unintelligible), and just be—what we considered to just be over-the-top. But was there anything that I found pride in? And when someone said same-gender loving, then I said, "Okay, I can get that one. That sounds a little—. It has more purpose in it for me." Because I couldn't just see myself—. Every day, my sister—. I'd say, "You know, you're worried that I'ma come out of the house dressed with women's clothes and makeup on, because that's the only perception you see of a gay people is being this stereotypical person." So, a lot of people are afraid, or may shy away from it. And it also changes the way a lot of us—how a lot of us move through society. You know, a lot of us feel like we've got to hide who we are and what we do. But that doesn't mean that you wouldn't have some issues being straight too. You know, how you move through society, and how you move through life. What is your perception of yourself. So you got to—. You've got to pave your own way. I don't have a book on how to—how to be who I wanted to be, and how to be proud of who I want to be. It just kind of happened. I still don't have a book. I don't have a blueprint. I didn't follow the yellow brick road. I didn't do anything, because there was no example for me to be who I wanted to be, because there was nothing that showed me who I could be anywhere. You know, the James Baldwins didn't come for me until later in life when I had already kind of molded who I was going to be. So, these people just provided more of a foundation once I found my way, but it was hard getting here. And it's still hard. So, with that being said, you know, it continues to be a battle. It continues to be something that I have to learn to be who I am every day, and respect to—when I wake up, respect the path I have for myself and where I feel like I fit in. I don't know if is in the LGBTQ community. I don't think I need to be a part of the LGBTQ-TQ community (laughs) in order to exist, in order to add value to who I am. I'm human. And just like with HIV, the first word in it is human. And so I have to realize I'm human, that I'm not LGBTQ, I'm not heterosexual, I'm not all that. I'm a little of all these things, you know, because I'm not always what you think I should be as being a gay person. I may be more conservative than that in certain spaces, and I may have some hetero [heterosexual] norms in me that I'm comfortable with. You know—.
Riley Habyl [01:16:40] Yeah.
Bryan C. Jones [01:16:40] Because we all don't have to—. We don't have to break everything up into, you know—. It can be a potpourri. It can be a potluck. It can be whatever it is. I am who I am, and who I am needs no excuses. And I think that's the—that's the bottom line of it. I don't have to make an excuse for it, and I don't have to categorize myself into who I am. I'm—. I am who I am because I came about this honestly. I became this weird, quirky person who—. One day I may have a pink mood. One day I may have a blue mood, and—. But that doesn't make me—. "Oh, you know, is he really gay?" I know a lot of people, "Does he or doesn't he?" You know? (laughs) "Is he or isn't he?" You know? But for me, it's clear who I am. But I confuse people, because you're basing who I should be from what you've heard. "Oh, I heard he's gay. I heard he's very gay." You know? But I am who I am. I don't hide behind it, you know. So I've got to have this open and candid conversation with myself about who I am. Where do I fit in? Because I feel like oftentimes I don't think I fit in, and that's even in the LGBTQ community. Nowadays, I go out to a club and I feel like, "Oh my God. What—. These people are so gay." (both laugh) You know, I thought I was gay. These people are really gay. You know? And turns in my mind, I mean, you know, I—. The guys with the high heels on. They can do what they want to do, it's fine with me, but a good wedge heel is good enough for me. (both laugh) I like the wedge heel. A wedgie is good for me. A wedge heel, not a wedgie. Ha, there's whole 'nother conversation. (Riley laughs) I think that puts a stamp on this conversation. A wedgie versus a spiked heel. (both laugh)
Riley Habyl [01:18:46] I think I've pretty much asked all of the questions that I was looking to ask.
Bryan C. Jones [01:18:50] Mhmkay. Well, I was—. You know, I have been going through some health risks, which I think is also important to add in. So I was just finna be like, "Oh, my God. Am I going to get through this?" This seems to be a—like it was a long journey of a conversation, because I had so many things that impacted my gayness. There are a lot of things I couldn't put in. It's hard to follow my life in a chronological order, because nothing I did had that kind of order to it. So, I think it's honest to say that if I have this conversation another time, my whole conversation might be something different. "We didn't talk about that before—," because it entails—. I have been through so much in this lifetime, and my conversation looks different depending on where I am that day, and how I feel that day. Because we'll have another conversation and you'll be like, "You never mentioned that." But you know, we never got around to it. You know, so—. Hopefully this conversation has been as comprehensive as we would like, but—. It's important to note that—. What was the whole Shakespeare, "If you cut me, do I not bleed?" That we understand that LGBTQ people are no different than heterosexual people. We occupy the same spaces. We have the same issues We got the same shortcomings. That—. Just because—whom I love doesn't change the fact that I have the same emotions, and I hurt too. So, with that being said—. (Bryan claps)
Riley Habyl [01:20:31] Thank you so much.
Bryan C. Jones [01:20:32] Glad you for having me. I know sometimes I go around different lanes, but my life has been through so much. And I'm constantly dealing with the fact that I'm dealing with some health issues now. I talked about having these two cancers. I've had five cancers. Five different cancers. What kind of bitch gets cancer five times but me? (laughs) I mean, who in life gets cancer five times? I don't understand, you know? But it's me, and I've been an example for the community because I still do the work that I do trying to help other people live with HIV and AIDS, as well as living with sexual identities, and trying to carve their space in life. So, thank you.
Riley Habyl [01:21:13] Thank you so much. I do have one final question, if that's alright.
Bryan C. Jones [01:21:17] Okay. Oh, boy. This is where the hammer drops. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [01:21:20] It's a reflection type of question, if that helps. So, what is a message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or people who share similar experiences to you?
Bryan C. Jones [01:21:35] There's happiness in spite of all the negative things that may happen. That I can still thrive, because I never looked at myself as a survivor, long-term survivor. I've always been a long-term thriver. In spite of the negative things that happen, that have existed, that I've still—have been able to smell the roses on the other side. I think that you've got to carve your own way. You can't look to others. I mean, even though others lives impact yours, you've got to see what they have to give. What part of that recipe can you take to create your own meal? And don't look to other people to justify your existence. Other people's perception of you is not going to be the perception or the life that you live for yourself. You've got to make your own way. And you've got to first find out what a healthy relationship is with yourself, as opposed to depending on others for your happiness. So, just be who you are and love who you are, love where you are, and you'll find the good in what you do and how you help people. So, that's it.
Riley Habyl [01:23:00] Thank you so much for speaking to me today, Bryan.
Bryan C. Jones [01:23:02] Thank you for having me. I really feel honored that my name would even come up to be considered for this project, so thank you again.
Riley Habyl [01:23:11] Thank you very much. I'm going to stop the recording now.
This collection features oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Same-Gender Loving) community members, leaders, and activists in the greater Cleveland area. Interviews explore the history of Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ communities, groups, organizations, places, and spaces both past and present. Interviews in this collection were conducted by Riley Habyl, a graduate student at Cleveland State University Department of History, beginning in the summer of 2023.…