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Friday, November 28, 2008


i would think that everyone has heard of the aids quilt. i was blessed with visiting the last full showing of it in dc in the mid-90's. it actually was life changing for me. the choreographed unfurling of each panel. the legions of volunteers that were so giving of their time. the absolute magnanimity of the scope of loss reflected in the panels and the even more overwhelming expressions of love that lived in each one. the emotional impact of all those individuals from all over our nation visibly loved and lost could not easily be overlooked.

the quilt (then called the names project) was the brainchild of cleve jones,a pennsylvania born-cum-san francisco-cum-american gay activist and hiv positive citizen. they say that necessity is the mother of invention and this man's journey certainly reflects that in my eyes. having had several years of on the job training in the nature of politics and getting things done in the city arena, cleve jones then applied that knowledge by using it to generate awareness and education as well as addressing some internal furor to lead the transformation of a nation's perception of the onset of hiv. his vision and work have no doubt touch millions of people across the world.

cleve says about the beginning of the quilt:
How did it come to be made?

Well, after I had the idea, I thought about it for a year and a half, and it almost didn't happen, because even though I'd been an activist for many years and had a really huge network of friends and colleagues in San Francisco and I was already quite well known in San Francisco as an activist, everybody told me it was the stupidest idea they'd ever heard of. … But during that year and a half, there were three things that happened to me that I think propelled it forward.

The first was that the antibody test came out, and I learned that I was infected. The second thing that happened was I went public with my diagnosis on 60 Minutes and talked about the pandemic and its effect in San Francisco, and as a result began receiving death threats and ultimately was attacked and nearly killed by Nazis, who stabbed me. And then the third thing that happened was my dearest, closest friend, Marvin Feldman, [died].

By the end of that year, with all of those things that happened, I was consumed with hate and fear and despair, and I think it's sort of interesting that this icon of love and courage and hope -- ha -- came out of a person who was sunk down with hate and fear and despair. I hated the straight world. I was so furious. I never broke it off with my family, but I cannot tell you how much I hated straight people. I wanted never to have anything to do with straight people again. It was just the indifference, the cruelty, and it just -- it was unforgivable.

By the time I lost Marvin … I became paralyzed. I couldn't function. It was almost as if I was outside of myself looking at myself and seeing that I was now going to die, not maybe so much from the virus, but that I was losing the will to live; I was losing the will to fight.

And I saw it all around me, people just too beaten down -- too much grief, too much loss, too much fear -- and we stopped responding.

Then I hadn't seen Joseph in a while, the fellow who was with me when we were putting up posters for the candlelight march. I hadn't seen him in a few months, and I saw him on the street, and he was skinny, and his skin was gray, and his eyes were yellow. I asked him, "Are you OK?," and he said: "I don't want to talk about it, but it's time for you to get off your butt and start that quilt. It's a good idea." He was still working part time in I think a theater supply company, and he stole a couple of bolts of fabric, and I went down in the basement and found a box of spray paint left over from Ronald Reagan's last visit to San Francisco, and we went in the backyard, and we made the first quilt panels. I made mine for Marvin Feldman, and Joseph made his for a man named Edward Mock.

That's how it started. It grew slowly, because it was very difficult for people to visualize it, even though I had this picture in my head that was as clear as a photograph and drove me quite crazy for a long time, because I could just see it so clearly, but I couldn't communicate it verbally to people.

Dianne Feinstein, who is now a U.S. senator, was mayor of San Francisco at the time. At that point Joseph and I made I think 40 panels for friends of ours, and a couple of other people had contributed some, and we were permitted to hang those from the mayor's balcony at San Francisco City Hall during the Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. I believe there were about a million people that day who saw it, and then they had the visual understanding of how this could work.

It worked on so many levels for people. It was therapy. It was something to do with your hands. It was a way to encourage people to talk and share memories. It was a tool to use with the media to get the media to focus on it. It was a weapon to shame the politicians for their inaction.

By the time we first displayed it, it was a year and a day after Marvin died, on Oct. 11, 1987, my birthday. There were 1,920 panels, and we ended up on the front page of almost every newspaper in the country and all around the world, and letters started coming in from everywhere saying, "Bring the quilt to our community." I rented a truck and hired some people, and we hit the road. We were on the road for years just traveling around with the quilt and displaying it as the centerpiece for locally coordinated fund-raising and educational campaigns..... excerpted from

cleve is on the right with phone

there is a november 25 interview with cleve here

click here to see if part of the quilt is on display near you

today's sound choice is songwriter and singer dolly parton with "i will always love you"


Northwest said...

I saw the Quilt in DC as well. I had moved there a few years earlier and was a raging right-wing narrow-minded bigot (in other words, deeply in the closet.) I had no way to appreciate the Quilt much less the people it represents.

Since coming out and undergoing a huge transformation, I have learned of its significance and deeply appreciate it.

In a way, it is the perfect symbol of lives that otherwise seem ignored and discounted. But when patched together as an irrefutable beauty, the Quilt becomes a force. And so do we.

Thanks Rod for a wonderful post about this masterpiece.

Sheria said...

I didn't know the history of the quilt. Thank you for posting this.

I went to check out Dolly Parton and encountered a six-year old with the voice of an angel. Not what I was expecting but a pleasant surprise.

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