In 1989, when I wrote the paper that comprises this blog post, AIDS was still regularly in the news, though most Americans wrongly perceived it as a “gay disease.” Among most lesbians, it was a social/political issue about which some were active. It remained an urgent transmission and educational problem facing gay men. HIV that progressed to full-blown AIDS was a death sentence. “Safe sex” hadn’t permeated the lexicon.
Now, AIDS is “just” one of many sexually transmitted infections kids [should] learn about in health class. First world citizens who have access to the necessary drugs can live with not only HIV but also AIDS. Nonetheless AIDS still kills. Education is still critical. The NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt lives on not only in physical form but also virtually; their web application leads to images of Quilt panels.
Here is a look back at the Quilt as a public ceremony, soon after its creation, through a paper I wrote for a graduate course in Public History [What is Public History].
DC Display, 2012. Adam Fagen via Flickr.
The NAMES Project Quilt as a New Public Ceremony:
Use Tradition, Add Ritual, and Make History
February 14, 1989
Despite its recent birth, the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt has become a public ceremony. The Quilt’s first organizers used American traditions and culture to make the NAMES Project accessible. By the Quilt’s national showing in October 1987, ritual was added to its formula. Now the Quilt, both its continued creation and displays of some or all of its panels1 is a tradition with a life of its own.
The NAMES Project Quilt, as the litany goes, was conceived on November 27, 1985 by Cleve Jones, after he saw marchers holding cardboard signs bearing the names of AIDS victims.2 Its “inaugural”3 showing on October 11, 1987 was in Washington, D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Parts of the Quilt then began a tour of over 16 cities in 1988, culminating in a second complete display in D.C., October 8-11. There are currently over 8,000 panels, commemorating less than a quarter of those who have died of AIDS in the United States.4
The heroic myth now shrouding Cleve Jones, and the rapid growth of the Quilt, indicate Jones’ successful use of an American cultural tradition. Jones, affectionately called “Cleve” by NAMES volunteers, consciously chose quilting as a ritual and product which would bring people together around a disease most commonly characterized by its hideousness.5 The fact that quilts are considered an American tradition lends authority and tradition to the Quilt, a recent invention. As a mechanism, Quilt encourages individuality, so essential to the self-definition of most Americans, while providing an opportunity for sharing grief, and hope that the AIDS calamity may some day end.
Every red blooded American has her or his individual, positive associations with quilts. This warmth helps disappate the fear, loathing, and plague mentality associated with AIDS. Unlike marble tombstones, the medium and materials are accessible and not particularly intimidating. Mistakes can be repaired fairly easily; anyone who passed Kindergarten can work with soft materials; and furthermore, creativity (not machine-like duplication) is encouraged. In addition to the panel inventor, the viewer participates on an individual level as well. I suspect a list of “favorite panels” would reflect as wide a variety of tastes as the panels themselves. Thus, a large part of the Quilt’s appeal lies in the individuality of not only one’s own memories of quilts, but also one’s own experience of The Quilt. Anything goes; and after all, the most successful symbols are those that people interpret as they wish.
While the Quilt incorporates individuality, at its core it is a communal, functional activity. Each panel-maker goes through his or her own grieving process as s/he remembers a loved one. At the same time, a great deal of the comfort lies in knowing the memory of the person who died of AIDS will outlive the quilter, when the panel becomes part of the collective. Having made the point that the Quilt is both individual and communal, and given their intersection, I will not continue to differentiate between the two experiences. Both are crucial to the Quilt’s success, the personal always adding to the individual’s experience of the communal.
Ritual contributes to the experience of the Quilt. Volunteers and repeat attenders feel assured by the familiarity of the Quilt’s process. But, and perhaps more important, the ceremony is accessible to newcomers, and adds both reverence and solemnity which facilitate shared grief and outrage.
The first element of ritual was added by the NAMES Project, the volunteer support organization for the Quilt. The Project drew on the heritage of quilts by “reviving”6 the quilting bee. The first 40 panels were displayed, without its own ceremony, as part of the San Fransisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade.
The Quilt emerged as a ceremonial event, rather than merely a display, at its national unveiling in October 1987. At that point the panels numbered 1,920.7 The planners imbued the Quilt’s display with rituals which have now become tradition. Although the process of the Quilt begins at different points for the three types of participants (panel-makers, volunteers, and visitors), the public ceremony culminates with the ritual surrounding the unfolding and viewing of the panels in quilt form. One volunteer’s account of the second national display of 8,288 panels,8 in October 1988, describes the beginning of the ceremony and its effect.
In each square of the grid, a 24’x24′ section of the quilt had been placed–carefully folded in upon itself four times, ready for the sunrise unfolding ceremony…
“In keeping with the tradition of the quilt, the monitors and unfolders dressed in white; originally this was so that they could be easily identified by visitors, now the white-clad figures slowly meandering between the panels are an integral part of each quilt display and add a special dimension to the patchwork of emotions that accompanies the quilt on each stop of its tour.
“Slowly, quietly, the unfolders made their way to their assigned squares, and stood, hand in hand, encircling their panels of the quilt. The readers assembled by the podium, and a crowd of people ringed the edge of the display. As the first rim of sun broke over the horizon, a lone figure [Cleve Jones] approached the microphone, and, in a calm, even, and strong voice, began to read the names from one of the panels… As each reader completed reading her or his list of names, another stepped up to read from another list… While the first names were being read, the quilt unfolders squeezed one anothers’ hands in a last strengthsharing gesture, and then dropped their arms, bent down towards their squares of fabric, and slowly unfolded the squares in the pattern that has become its own ritual; fold out the first four corners, step to the middle and unfold the next set of corners…four times until the fabric is unfolded, then lift it by the edges, raise it to the skies where it billows for a moment, spin it 90 degrees, and then carefully lay it on the ground and fasten it to the walkway…
“When all of the panels were unfolded, the unfolders stepped to the perimeter of the display, and held hands with the visitors who were waiting there…“9
Cleve Jones always begins reading the names. He starts with the square of eight which includes his friend, the Quilt’s inspiration, Marvin Feldman. The names are read continuously while people walk among the panels, until the list is completed. In October 1988, the list, likened to a funeral dirge by The Washington Post,10 took 11 hours to read.
One might venture to say that the Quilt is performance, or participatory, art. As just described, the ritual unfolding ends by including early visitors. New signature panels are placed in the middle so people may instantly make their memorials part of the Quilt. However, unlike much performance art, the rituals are so familiar to Americans, that all feel included. It is almost impossible to observe rather than participate.
Despite the New England NAMES Project’s assertion that it is not a political organization,11 the original intent of the quilt’s founders, and the choices planners have made, contribute to the profoundly political nature of the Quilt. While providing a public forum for grief, the Quilt also creates empathy for those with a stigmatized disease, those who have died, and those who have lost loved ones. Inducing empathy has a purpose. As the literature and slogans say: the NAMES Project seeks “to illustrate the enormity of the epidemic by revealing the humanity behind the statistics;”12 “See The Quilt and Understand;” and to the point, “No More Names.”13 Stopping, or even slowing down, AIDS, leads to another stated goal of the NAMES Project: to increase government spending on AIDS.14 Lobbying, or otherwise working for increased government funding, especially for a tabooed disease, is political work. The choices of the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights as the backdrop for its inaugural and of Washington, D.C. for its national displays merely add to its political aura.
The AIDS Quilt’s political and immediate nature make it a kind of living history. Unlike stone memorials, its material is fluid and vibrant; but the Quilt lives beyond the symbolism of its material. People are still contracting AIDS, people are still dying, and panels are still being created. As Woody Moseley said, “…walking through the panels is so much like being in a cemetery… But it’s very different. It also feels alive.”15 It is an ongoing creation of memory more permanent than that of one human being. The signature panels are particularly moving because they reflect the immediacy of AIDS’ effect on people’s lives today. Hopefully someday the Quilt will be more like a cemetery for the Civil War dead–honoring people whom no one personally remembers. But for now, the demand for the experience of the Quilt as a public ceremony is too great, the cause too immediate, to let it rest.
As the Quilt has grown and its community expanded, the history of its tradition has changed with it. The Quilt began in the gay male community of Castro Street in San Fransisco, and until 1988 it was displayed as part of lesbian and gay events. However, Jones and the early members of the NAMES Project did not intend to limit the memory of people who died of AIDS to those in the lesbian and gay community. Perhaps they were partially motivated by society’s homophobia and a desire to make the United States realize AIDS is not just a gay white male disease. Such a realization is required to make a homophobic society become willing to fund research to fight a disease falsely equated with gay white men’s promiscuity. As the Quilt’s community has expanded beyond the bounds of gay and lesbian communities, the history of its founding has been slightly “whitewashed.” The words “gay” or “lesbian” are buried further and further in the text of both newspaper articles and NAMES Project publications. And “the gay community of Castro St.” has become simply “Castro Street.”
Fortunately, by no means has the Quilt’s history become homophobic. Much of the “whitewashing” seems an attempt to include particularly people of color and intravenous drug users in the NAMES Project. It is important to note that many gays and lesbians do not notice these subtle changes in written history. The hundreds of lesbians who do not yet know anyone with AIDS, but volunteer a great deal of time, often do so because to them, individually, the Quilt is a gay and lesbian “thing.” To the gay men and lesbians who know the teddy bears sewn on panels to be obvious indications of the gay man’s s/m preference, the Quilt is a gay and lesbian “thing.” So, the Quilt continues to succeed by being all things to all people who participate in it. It is beyond the grasp of its volunteers, but has not yet turned against the intentions of its founders. The Quilt will live on as long as it is needed, and will then remain a tangible piece of history (to be reinterpreted) after it has died.