AIDS Quilt - 25 Years Later ...
February 21, 2012 3:07 PM   Subscribe

AIDS Quilt - 25 Years Later: Yesterday marked the end of the "largest showing of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in [San Francisco] since the NAMES Project Foundation -- the quilt's caretaker -- closed its original Market Street location in 1999 and relocated to Atlanta the following year." What started 25 years ago "as a single 3-foot-by-6-foot fabric panel has grown to a more than 54-ton tapestry with more than 47,000 panels remembering the [90,000] names of those lost to HIV/AIDS."
posted by ericb (16 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend renting the DVD of the 1989 Academy Award-winning documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (trailers: 1 | 2) for a touching look at what "today constitutes the largest piece of community folk art in the world"
"An Olympic athlete; a gay activist; a boy with hemophilia; a recovering heroin addict; a closeted Navy commander: five very diverse lives that shared a common fate. Their lives—along with thousands of others—are woven together in a giant memorial patchwork quilt, that is solemnly unfolded in the US capitol to protest the government's refusal to respond to a growing epidemic. Common Threads tells the powerful story of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the US."
posted by ericb at 3:18 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by ocherdraco at 3:27 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

. x 90,000
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:29 PM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

What ocherdraco said.
posted by bearwife at 3:41 PM on February 21, 2012

I was there to read names last weekend, and was given a page of names, labeled at the bottom "page 80 of 978."
posted by gingerbeer at 3:46 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you. I had not realized how much was available online, so until today, I had never seen the square for the family member of mine who passed in 1994. That means a lot to me.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:56 PM on February 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

posted by bilabial at 5:04 PM on February 21, 2012


for Dickie, Scott, Dori and Morgan
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:27 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

More local coverage.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:54 PM on February 21, 2012

In graduate school, years ago, I entered some campus building on a paperwork errand (there's always some form you need someone to sign), turned a corner, and came upon an exhibit of squares from the quilt. It stopped me in my tracks and made me cry, standing there with my folder of papers in my hand.
posted by Forktine at 6:49 PM on February 21, 2012

I made one for my friend Kemp back in 1994.

He was a mentor—the senior counselor in the NCCJ camp program that was root of one of the most intense paradigm shifts of my youth, when I found, to my extreme surprise, that I wasn't always destined to be bullied, taunted, and teased. In the ruinous Reagan years, when gay was not okay, Kemp saw something familiar in me and, in a moment, asked me a question that was both terrifying and cathartic. I'd come to grips with the enormity of it all at 10:45 on the evening of February 5th, 1985, seven years after I'd first told my best friend I'd show him mine if he showed me his and sort of proceeded from there, but at that point, few people had been invited into my confidence.

I was sufficiently well-read as to have decided that I was not going to be gay—just nicely homosexual, or possibly uranian, which sounded elegant and classy and nicely suited the sort of pretentious air of artifice that I liked to affect in those awkward days.

"Oh yes, I'm a member of the uranian sex," I fancied myself saying with the bearing of a young Parisian intellectual, but in reality, four months into my official queerdom, the words always caught in my throat—all the words. In those days, I came out with florid letters, mixtapes, and a variety of hand gestures.

We're so young when we're young.

Camp was a respite, a refuge from the world where everyone I met was someone new, someone who hadn't been in school with me since First Baptist Nursery School and who didn't hold the catalogue of amusing memories of my misadventures and emotional episodes. People liked me. They met me, we talked, I told stories, and they liked who I was. A change of venue made a world of difference, and camp is a world unto itself, a space where everything is drenched in green and purified in the isolation in the rolling hills of Western Maryland. My first year of camp was an experiment, when I was just a gawky oddball, but the next one, when I'd come to a reckoning about the roots of my otherness—

If you leave your cabin at the old Lutheran retreat camp and head up the ridge, out past the tent-topped hogans and onto the rambling trail over rocks, you eventually end up in the cut where the power lines cross the mountain and descend into the valley below. The geometry of the openwork pylons holding the high tension wires and the precision of the cut were like a huge artwork, a perfect intersection of the old and the modern in the low foothills of the Appalachians, a range of mountains so old that they'd once been a part of the Atlas mountains in Morocco, back when there was hardly any life on land at all.

I'd wake up on autopilot at five each morning, slip quietly out of my cabin, trying not to wake my friends, put on my shoes, and make my way up to the cut. It was just so...suspended up there, just a place where time was getting ready to resume at the end of the short summer night, and I'd find my place on my favorite rock and just sit. The sky started out almost black, that indigo kind of blue that fades and fades and fades through all the blues there are, and the cloud deck was just below, rising with the impending sun. In the valley below, the sound of cows lowing and tractors starting their day filtered up in gentle waves of sound like sonic mirages, localized somewhere all around me.

As the clouds rose, the ridge would go to a soft grey and drift away, and you could hear the energy leaking from the high voltage lines in a crackling ambient symphony of fifty thousand volts sizzling in the fog. Just as suddenly, the sun would appear, and I'd head back, slipping back into my cabin before anyone knew I was gone.

I didn't find out he'd died until a long time later. Years.

My life had gone in all sorts of directions, and you just keep on pushing forward in those years, just trying to enter adulthood despite the obstacles, but I'd reached a place where I decided I wanted to go back to camp, this time as a counselor, and I called the NCCJ office and asked if I could.

The thing was, I didn't even know he was like me. My sense of such things is weak at the best of times, and in those days, I sort of assumed there wasn't going to be someone older who'd understand. I knew I wasn't alone in the world, but I was sure I was alone in my small circle of acquaintances. So the junior counselor I knew who'd become the senior counselor and program director filled me in—"I'm sorry, I thought you knew."—and I was doubly shocked and so very, very sad.

"Joe, would you like to tell me anything about your pin?" Kemp asked, pointing out the little gold lambda pin that I'd bought at Gay's The Word on my big transatlantic trip a month prior. I tried on my queerness in London, where I was assured of never seeing anyone again, and the little pin was my reminder of that heady time, and something I foolishly thought was secret.

I flushed red, but we talked about it. We talked about all sorts of things, in fact, and I told him about my early morning hikes to the ridge.

"Would you mind if I went up with you next time?"

"No. It's really cool up there."

The Quilt was a strange thing for me. Other than Kemp, I really didn't lose anyone, at least anyone I knew for more than an evening in my most haphazard stretches, but my ex lost his ex, and so we made the trek to DC during what was one the last large-scale outdoor airings, and it was enough to turn gravity halfway off as you wandered out into the impossible field of memory. I thought I ought to add to it, because I did know someone, and it was someone I didn't know nearly well enough, but who still managed to change my life.

I hate this fucking place, I thought, from somewhere near the center.

Still, I'm wicked with a sewing machine, and I knew what I wanted to do, so I went to work.

We hiked up there the next morning, into the blue and the blue and the blue, and I pointed out the cows and the tractors and the gentle hiss and spit of the power lines as the clouds lifted, and we talked and he said, without any fanfare, "I think you should tell your friends here at camp who you are."

"God, Kemp. I just—" and there was that lump in my throat, that hesitation. Some of that years campers were friends I'd made the previous years, and there were people of every color and religion, from blue collar and conservative backgrounds, and I just—

"It's a big thing, Joe. You've been who you are your whole life, but it seems new now. It's rough, but I think you're going to be surprised."

We talked, waited for the sun, and hiked back.

As the pattern on my two yards of fabric started to take shape, I found I had to do a lot of handwork to capture the detail and the geometry of openwork pylons and gently curving lines that descended past the bottom of the piece, into the endless valley below. I worked up the rocks from my snapshots, using three kinds of grey fabric to create the sense that they had mass and form, the way memories do.

The only thing is, well—when I finished stitching the P into place to complete his name, I thought of that field back in DC and something just—held. I laid it out on my bed, smoothed it out, and felt proud of the job I'd done, and then I folded it up and put it in a drawer under my bed. The Quilt stopped being beautiful to me when I stood in the middle of it, and the thought of my friend being a postage stamp lost in that sea of grief...I just couldn't do it.

In its time, the Quilt was powerful, a symbol hissing and crackling with rage and loss and so much love.

That day, returning from the ridge, I slipped back into my bed, but did not sleep. I thought and thought and thought and brewed and then I just sat up as if I was just waking up. The rest of the room was stirring, the day was grinding into gear, and we were all getting dressed to head down to the mess hall for breakfast. When it was just me and my friend Rafiq, I spoke up, as nonchalantly as possible.



"What would you say if I told you I was gay?"


"Because I am."

"No shit?"


"That's cool."



It was the first time I'd ever said it to another person. The thing was, it was cool. It was just another thing about me, like how much I loved Thomas Dolby and weird cars and how much I hated yellow rooms, and it was just another thing, and an okay thing, even for the people who said that well, their religion didn't agree with it, but that I was a good guy nonetheless.

On one of the last nights of camp that summer, I rallied up everyone, promising something amazing. I got all the campers and all the counselors together and we raided the light fixtures in every cabin for fluorescent lightbulbs, leaving them all half-lit, and marched up the hill. It was a glorious, clear evening and we were a legion of odd characters all brought together in the church of the unbounded outside.

"C'mon up to the rock here," I shouted, and raised my own fluorescent tube. "And wave your tubes around!"

The lines hissed and fizzed and crackled, and because I knew science, I knew that the air was full of electricity. All around me, purloined fluorescents were blinking and flickering and lighting up, dimly at first and then brighter, in a faint impersonation of their normal brilliance accentuated by the fact that were were standing on a mountaintop, far from fixtures.

We laughed, we ran, we danced and chattered and played, and we were as light and amazing as all that raw energy out there in the air, waiting for that moment.

"Joe," my friend Maria asked, "How did you know this would work?"

"You can do this at the power lines near my house, too. It's static electricity in the air."

"It's like magic."

And it was, and it is, even now. It has been eighteen years since I sat down at my sewing machine and tried to make something for a friend I hardly knew, but who changed everything, and his panel is still with me. When I'm lost, when I'm lonesome, when I'm feeling powerless in the face of middle age, I pull it out, smooth out the creases and lines, and lift my mattress to lay it out underneath, where it works like a palliative, a little bit of the magic that lived up there under the power lines. I pretend, sometimes, that I've never sent it in because I made the background from acid-washed denim and no one deserves to be memorialized with the horror fabric of acid-washed denim, but I think it's beautiful, even in the face of that most faddish of fabrics.

It's just that I'm not ready to let it go, and the Quilt is something from another time, when we needed it because the whole goddamn world wouldn't hear us. There is still no panel in the whole Quilt for Kemp Slaughter, a psychologist in the Baltimore County school system and counselor for the NCCJ's Youth Leadership Institute summer camps, but there is a place not far from here where I can go whenever I need solace.

I close my eyes, slip quietly out of myself, and hike up the ridge to the top.

It is always there. He is always there, too.

"Joe, do you know who you are?"

I thread the words together in fits and starts, stitching the patches and pieces into some sort of story, the lines and the curves of high tension wires disappearing into the valley, and I tell people who I met along the way, and what they did for me. You make someone think, you give them more than you've been given, and you remind people who they are. The fabric rolls out in rumpled waves and billows as it unfurls across the landscape, the little changes sink in and spread, and the kindnesses that come to you live on and on the more we share those moments.

It's not that our friends are not here anymore. It's that they are.

Do you know who you are?

I think maybe I do.

You would have loved my friend. He changed the world with words.

posted by sonascope at 7:38 PM on February 21, 2012 [31 favorites]

Sonascope. Wow.

54 tons.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:02 PM on February 21, 2012

Seeing the AIDS quilt was one of the most moving experiences in my life. It's so damn powerful, unspeakably sad, and beautiful at the same time.

Those first few years in particular were so frightening and terrible. So much loss, it felt like the dying would never stop and the grief would never end.

Hugs to you, sonascope, gracedissolved, roomseventeen, and everyone else who lost loved ones.

Kim, Ed, Malcom, Gary ... I miss you all.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:22 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

They were loved and they are missed. Every last one of them.
posted by arcticseal at 6:11 AM on February 22, 2012

I was afraid I had grown a little immunity to the raw feeling I got from the Quilt during these intervening years, but no, I haven't.

Thanks for sharing.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:44 AM on February 22, 2012


For something even more depressing, think about how big Africa's quilt would be.
posted by desjardins at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2012

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