I had the opportunity to be in San Francisco during the historical public exhibition of the “AIDS Memorial Quilts, 35 Years of Love, Activism & Legacy”, on view outdoors at the Robin Williams Meadow, in Golden Gate Park. The Exhibition featured 3,000 panels of the AIDS Quilt. The exhibition was free and open to the public Saturday and Sunday, June 11-12, from 10 am – 5 pm.
On June 16th, 1981, a white gay male was the first person with AIDS admitted to hospital died on October 28, 1981. September 24,1982 was the first use of the term AIDS by the CDC.
In the beginning AIDS pandemic mostly brought death to young men, and later many others. It was a mystery, why? What was this pathogen causing gay men in particular, to become ill, with rapid weight lost, sores on their face and body, internal organ failure and shut down in the matter of months? Some called it a weapon, a conspiracy, to cleanse the world of the sins of homosexuality, and the degenerates. Others blame it on the free love and sexual experiments of the 60’s.
The fear of intimacy among the younger generation started to populate the collective subconscious in the 1980s’ and into the 1990’s. A fear of death if you kissed, touched and were intimate with a partner or one-night acquaintance caused many to abstain from sex. To engage or not in the humanity of love and its expression with another was the question. Much like today, with the COVID pandemic, the fear of death by contact with others.
Seeing over 3,000 AIDS memorial quilted panels laid out on green pasture of Rodin William’s Meadow, was a demonstration of the power of love and activism in the remembrance of each, individual whose lives were stopped at their moment in life: young, growing, moving forward. AIDS was a death sentence delivered without warning.
The AIDS Quilt memorial’s birth was in San Francisco thirty-five years ago by a group of AIDS activists, led by San Francisco’s gay rights activist Cleve Jones in November 1985. The inspiration to create a remembrance of a loved one who died came from Cleve Jones when he asked fellow activists to create a placard with the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS.
The Placards were posted on the San Francisco Federal Building wall after a protest march in 1985. The wall of placards with names resembled a patchwork quilt. Cleve Jones created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of his close friend Marvin Feldman in June of 1985. The NAMES Foundation was founded, and the response produce more quilted panel was immediate. People from other cities effected by AIDS sent quilted panels to San Francisco. On October 11, 1987, the Quilt was displayed at the Washington’s Mall, during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The Quilt then included 1,920 panels.
35 years later, the AIDS Quilt is back in San Francisco, at the Golden Gate Park. San Francisco’s community was there in support of those who died and not to be forgotten, their names inscribed in an artform of remembrance. The names of each person who died were read aloud over a PA speaker as people toured around the Quilt, which added to the notion to never forget those who died.
As I walked among the quilted panels, I was overwhelmed with emotion and sadness as I gazed into the life of the Raymond Murray, David F. Jones, John M. Ritter and all the other names I saw as I passed by the panels with thousands of memories. Each panel was based on the size of a coffin, a somber reminder of the passage of life into death. Looking down the coffin sized panels sewn together took on a majestic symbol of life and death, everyone crafted with the personality of the person we are remembering laying before us in multitudes.
Walking along the black plastic paths surrounding each quilted panels, has a profound effect. Thousands of artistic quilted panels stitched together in memory of those who died. Families, friends, park visitors and tourists came to see the AIDS Quilt with love and remembrance. Some searching for their loved ones or a friend’s quilted panel. Others were just onlookers into the past, relating today’s pandemic, COVID and the past – AIDS. Others hoping that the new science of today’s mRNA vaccine, would put an end to AIDS forever.