A personal reflection on the AIDS Memorial Quilt

By Janice Thom, Director of Operations for Development, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

The first time I saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt was during the 1987 March on Washington. I was there for the annual Pride organizers’ conference. In fact, the conference had been rescheduled to Baltimore so we could all take part in the march.

Wandering around D.C. after the march, I saw what really looked like a mirage. In the distance, I saw hundreds of people walking around very slowly inside this sun-struck haze, looking at the ground. Closer, I realized that they were all staring at cloth laid out on the ground. Even closer, and I could see that each piece was different and, finally, realized that this was the “AIDS Quilt” I’d heard about. Everything from flannel shirts (many, many flannel shirts) to stuffed animals to fabulous, fabulous sequins (lots of those) were sewn into these quilts, all with someone’s name done in beautiful embroidery, ragged running stitch and plenty of iron-on. I watched for a while and left. Frankly, it made little impression.

In 1989, Heritage of Pride started our own quilt workshop at the LGBT Center in NYC as part of our Stonewall 20 celebration. In a few months, people came in and created nearly 1,500 panels. We displayed them on the Great Lawn in Central Park, read the names of those on the panels and then gave all those panels to the Quilt in San Francisco. Even still, I didn’t “get” the Quilt. It seemed like a very soft reaction to a very harsh reality.

On July 23, during the International AIDS Conference, a team from the Task Force family and our friends will be volunteering at the Quilt In the Capital as the entire quilt, all 49,000 panels, is displayed for the first time in decades. It’s now so large that it will be on the National Mall (where the Task Force is volunteering) as well as 60 other locations in and around the District.

With the generosity of time, I understand the Quilt – the making of these panels – a little better. I understand that this softness (I remember men making quilts at the workshop in NY and sleeping with them for days before handing them back) is needed. Their existence isn’t a muffling barrier to fighting for treatment and a cure. They’re simply one of our community’s creative responses to the epidemic – and one that’s allowed many other communities to participate.

One of the things that I have always treasured about the Quilt is the reading of the names. I did this in 1989 in Central Park, I’ve done it many times at the World AIDS Day event hosted by Housing Works here in New York and I’m hoping to have the chance to read names on July 23. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve asked friends if they have names they’d like me to read. I always end up with a long list.

In one of those crack-in-time moments last week, a pink ribbon that had been taped to the window frame in my studio came lose and ended up on the floor. It was one of the pink ribbons that Heritage of Pride gives out at the Pride March with a place to right the name of someone lost to the AIDS epidemic on it. The sight of tens of thousands of people holding this up during the march’s Moment of Silence (imagine – silence in New York City) is something that I do understand.

The fact that this ribbon with Oscar’s name on it ended up back in my hands last week, faded from 20 years in a window, ensures that I won’t forget his name on the 23rd. If I can, I’ll read it from the stage. I’ll look for his quilt and I’ll think of him and all the rest of them. I promise I’ll also think of the more than 300,000 people at the conference who are all working for a time when no one ever needs to make another panel.