It’s surprising how infrequently the AIDS Memorial Quilt comes up among quilters. That’s not an admonishment, it’s just my experience. I realized recently the only time I talk about the AIDS Memorial Quilt is when a person outside the quilt world (someone on an airplane, maybe) says something like, “You make quilts? That’s cool. Hey, what about that AIDS quilt? What happened with that? Are people still doing it?” For a long time, I’ve cocked my head and gone, “Yeah, the AIDS Quilt. I need to check up on that, actually.”
No kidding, Ms. Ima Quilter.
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (usually referred to as “The AIDS Quilt”) was launched by The NAMES Project in 1987. If you follow the timeline of the Great American Quilt Revival, the AIDS Quilt was a significant moment in the third phase of it. Quilts were back in the cultural landscape and the quilt industry was booming.
And people were dying of HIV/AIDS. Dying within months of a diagnosis. Dying without any medical care to speak of. Many were dying alone, rejected by society — even by their own families. Entire communities, friend groups, clubs, were wiped out by a disease that no one understood or could control. Look:
1981 –> 159 deaths
1982 –> 618 deaths
1983 –> 2,118 deaths
1984 –> 5,596 deaths
1985 –> 12,529 deaths
The first time President Reagan said the word “AIDS” in public was 1986. Friends, lovers, partners, teachers, doctors, neighbors, artists, businesspeople, servicemen and servicewomen — these were the people dying every day, but nothing but silence came from people in power. This was “the gay cancer.” The sorrow, silence, rage, fear, and helplessness, this drove those whose lives had been touched by the ghostly hand of AIDS to take action. Money was raised, initiatives were launched to increase awareness about the disease and promote safer sex; there were marches in the streets, pleas in Washington from parents who were burying their children.
What else? What else can ever be done to make sense of senseless horror? What would you do if six of your closest friends died in a single month? If you got diagnosed today with a fast-moving disease with a 100% mortality rate? What would you do to show people in charge that you and your people are literally dying for help?
The AIDS Quilt, a handmade tribute to those who had so far died of HIV/AIDS, was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington DC in 1987. On that day, there were thousands of panels in the quilt, which was as large as two city blocks. More than 2,000 names were written, painted, stitched, pressed, glued, poured into the fabric. Many names on the quilt were only first names, as the shame of being gay was too much for the families who still needed to memorialize their beloved son* with a panel in the softest biggest memorial in American history.
It’s hard to research this. It’s more than that: it’s devastating. The pictures from the hospitals. The testimonials. The statistics. I’m lucky, though: I’m not researching the AIDS epidemic, I’m researching the AIDS Quilt. The quilt is doing for me what it was created to do: it takes sadness and reshapes it into hope in the human race in the fight against pestilence and suffering. Over 48,000 panels have been made today; pieces of the largest quilt in the world travel around the globe to raise awareness that HIV/AIDS has no cure and help people understand how not to get the disease. The quilt continues to grow, even as HIV/AIDS treatments are light years ahead of where they were when the first panels were made.
The lecture will be finished this summer. I hope the sorrow that led to the AIDS Quilt doesn’t keep people from to requesting it. The AIDS Quilt is not a gravestone; it’s a celebration of life.
*AIDS did not claim — and does not claim, present tense — only homosexual male lives. Children, as well as women both gay and straight were/are casualties, too. The majority of the victims at the time of the first unfurling of the quilt, however, were gay men.