Forgotten Lesson: A Young Person’s Experience at the AIDS Memorial Quilt

By Daniel Pino, Executive Assistant to the Deputy Executive Director of External Relations, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Typically when escaping the dim-light of the Smithsonian metro station in Washington, D.C., in the middle of the sweltering summer humidity that D.C. is known so well for, you’re hit with sensory overload: groups of school children gleefully crowd museum entrances, tourist families stop every 10 feet to take group photos in their patriotic T-shirts, and locals play games of Ultimate Frisbee or soccer in between water breaks. All activities fearlessly displayed with little regard for on-looking stares and high enthusiasm for living in the moment. It’s a prime spot for people-watching and one of the special things about the District. But this past Monday morning, as I exited the cavernous station, I was taken aback to see a different site: almost nothing.

Rather than seeing a gaggle of laughing kids on a field trip or athletic bodies warding off the efforts of their opponents, the Mall was empty except for small pods of fabric strategically placed in four rows in the center of the greenery and suited crowds jostling to their office buildings. Realizing I was in the right place, I made my way toward the Capitol building where other volunteers for the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were preparing for the day’s events.

Up until this point, I had never seen the AIDS Memorial Quilt in its entirety. Sure, I had seen individual panels at various conferences and events and seen dozens of photographs in history books and queer-themed scholarly articles — but never in person. When the Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987, I was three months away from entering the world, whereas the second time it came to D.C. in 1996 I was learning long division. For me, the Quilt was never so much a real-time phenomenon as it was something that just had always been — like the Washington Monument or Niagara Falls. It possessed an almost “tourist-esque newness” but not a personal connection.

As I talked with friends about my eventual volunteering for the Quilt display over drinks the days beforehand, I encountered polite comments of “That’s gotta be so hard” and “Get a picture of _______ celebrity’s panel.” For my generation, that sense of the Quilt being less of a revolutionary memorial to a commodified attraction wasn’t just personalized to my own experience. Which had me reflecting during the walk on the gravel path of the National Mall: Why is that?

Thinking on this question I realized that I (and my generation) occupy a very privileged historical position. Privileged in that I was born into a world where AIDS was no longer known as GRID, where condoms were not just the expectation but the norm, and where fears of infection did not debilitate my conviction to come out of the closet. I could freely adopt lovers in self-protective and self-ecstatic means, I could march on the very same National Mall for marriage equality and military service while reading about ACT UP as a long-gone “historical development,” and I could maintain friendships with positive-bodied friends for months and years on end due to breakthroughs in medical technology.
AIDS never felt like an eventual monster so much as it did an invisible boogeyman that my elders used to keep me in line, and, in turn, the Quilt was just that: a quilt.

Something changed this week.

As fellow volunteers and I carefully unfolded the seemingly dull patches of fabric into a beautiful cacophony of colors, memories and emotions standing out vividly against the muddy green of the Mall’s landscape, each panel of a long past person made me feel something. I laughed at reminiscent quotes on panels of drag queens, I welled up at a panel with nothing more than a baby rattle and the text “her favorite thing” and I was overwhelmed by the ages, faces and names of thousands of people lost to something I’ve only really grown up dismissively acknowledging.
All morning long, we unfurled the panels. All morning long we were met with more panels that needed to be exposed. All morning long.
The tourist-ness of this old cloth attraction began fading and the true meaning of the Quilt began breathing life. It became something more than a patch of fabric. I saw each panel as a person, as a family, a lover and a friend celebrating and mourning a memory — each one beautiful and cherished in its own right. And that boogeyman that I only tipped my hat to scared the hell out of me.

Daniel Pino reading names at the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

After moving from nearly one end of the Mall to the next with a wake of swatches behind us and ahead of us, the team and I chose to participate in the reading of the names of those lost to AIDS. After a long, thoughtful walk I was standing on the main stage shoulder to shoulder with strong queer women, many of whom not only lost their loved ones to the disease but had constructed their own panels. They forged the families of necessity I’ve only read about and literally moved the movement. Hearing them read the names of friends with conviction and tears, I wondered how I could, in any way, contribute or stand on the same platform, honoring the same dead they had known and loved.

I tried, timidly and as reverently as I could, to speak each name aloud with clarity and respect. By doing so, I hoped that by pronouncing each name correctly and over enunciating each syllable precisely I could achieve some semblance of understanding. I made it through the first of two pages I was given to read. Until I finally reaching the third to last name: “Died Alone…But Not Forgotten.”

I paused, awash with the phrasing until unexpectedly tears started welling up larger and larger until I had to stop midway through the next name. I tried choking back the tears, hoping to regain my rhythm but I kept crying. I read the last three names through those tears, until I finished and turned to be hugged by those amazing women who were standing behind me. And it made sense. It all made sense.

I had started crying not just from being overwhelmed or because the experience was “so heavy,” but because I had forgotten…in fact, I had never known the reality of what AIDS had done to my community. Reading about it in scholarly articles and history books wasn’t enough. My friendships with HIV-positive people weren’t enough to inform my own privilege. All the book-smart and street-smart experiences in the world could not have prepared me for that realization that I had forgotten. It wasn’t just enough to know of my history, I needed to engage with it.

I needed to touch the memories, read the names and feel a fraction of the emotion of those who forged the panels and then placed them so willingly in my generations care.

So as I left the National Mall, now fuller with tourists on the carousel outside the Smithsonian Castle and the sun piercing through the city smog, I left with an appreciation and an unforgettable lesson, which I think the poet Robert Penn Warren sums up the best, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” Here’s hoping more of my generation learns that lesson and there won’t be another forgotten person.