When I was still a high school student, I had the opportunity to see a huge section of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. This was in the early 90s when the stigma of HIV and AIDS persisted, and during a time when many of my own heroes in arts and letters were dying young. Seeing the Quilt at that age not only cemented the sometimes overwhelming reality of what was happening in the world (as it was ignored by many in our own government) but it allowed people to do something just as important as picking up picket signs, writing letters to Washington and fighting for education and (ideally) a cure – it allowed people to grieve, and to so very publicly.
But the grieving process took on a magical quality as one read through the memorials, carefully stitched by hand, from loving friends, family members and even fans. Whether the person represented with his or her three-by-six-inch panel (roughly the size of a coffin) was famous or someone we may not have known of – who died entirely too young – each were given a grace that perhaps had been missing in their final days or in the news headlines of the time.
But time changes a lot of things.
The first time the AIDS Quilt was ever displayed was in Washington, D.C., in 1987. There were less than 2,000 panels. When it returned a year later – there were more than 8,000. Eventually the Quilt became too big to display in any one place. The last time we could see it in its entirety was in 1996 – it covered the National Mall from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, stretching over the massive area with thousands of names and memorials of those who we lost to the disease during the almost two decades since it was first given a name.
Now, 25 years later, we have the chance to see the Quilt in Washington again. It’s being displayed as part of the International AIDS Conference this month. And while no one place can possible handle the 48,000-plus panels that now comprise the Quilt, panels and cross-sections will be displayed at more than 50 different locations around town, giving more people a chance to see it for themselves.
Looking back on what I had seen so many years ago, and the effect it had on me as a young person who would navigate her own sexual life, I can think of no better way to put the disease in context than to revisit the AIDS Quilt again. Not only does it tell a poignant story about the early years – when young men (it was mostly young men then) were dying from a virus shrouded in more mystery than fabric woven into the Quilt itself. And while the quilt didn’t cure the disease, nor did it somehow soften the blow of losing so many people so soon, it did (and does) represent something powerful – a way for those of us who were (and are) still here to do something with the grief, frustration and sadness in what has become one of the biggest health struggles in the world.
So drive to D.C., take a train or bus, and take a look at this profound memorial. If we have any hope of stopping HIV and AIDS today or tomorrow, we have to look back to realize the impact it has had on our lives – especially for its earliest casualties. At a time when people are now living with AIDS (progress, for sure) there can be a dangerous apathy and a convenient forgetting of what went on 20 and 30 years ago. Having a name for it and medicating it and living with it for three decades now (for many, a lifetime) has made us stronger people for sure, but it also risks forgetting a generation before us who lost so many friends and family members. It was a holocaust. I can think of no other way to describe it. And in the same way we honor other holocaust victims – and survivors – we owe it to them (and us) to revisit this legacy in 2012. It’s a powerful, very symbolic one to say the least.
If you can’t get there in person, the Names Project Foundation maintains images of every single panel in a searchable database. Perhaps take a few minutes this morning to peruse it, this massive history project. There’s a lot of love in there.