Even the word had power for me. Quilts. It made me think of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It evoked images of pioneer women making camp by the Conestoga wagons. Or enslaved Africans in the South, hoarding scraps of fabric from the master’s house. It spoke of castoffs, discarded remnants, different colors and textures, sewn together to create something beautiful and useful and warm. Comforters.
I imagined families sharing stories of their loved ones as they cut and sewed the fabric. It could be therapy, I hoped, for a community that was increasingly paralyzed by grief and rage and powerlessness. It could be a tool for the media, to reveal the humanity behind the statistics. And a weapon to deploy against the government; to shame them with stark visual evidence of their utter failure to respond to the suffering and death that spread and increased with every passing day.
I couldn’t shake the idea of a quilt.
My friend Joseph and I started making quilt panels. We made a list of 40 men whom we felt we had known well enough to memorialize, and we began painting their names on blocks of fabric. We talked about how much land would be covered if the bodies of our dead were laid out head to toe, each panel the approximate size of a grave.
For more than a year, activists had been working to organize a mass march for lesbian and gay rights to be held in October 1987 in Washington. I was determined to unfold the quilt on the Mall at the march.
As the annual Gay Freedom Day celebration approached in San Francisco, we asked Mayor Dianne Feinstein for permission to hang the first five squares from the mayor’s balcony at City Hall, overlooking the main stage and Civic Center Plaza. To our surprise, she readily agreed.
On Oct. 11, 1987, the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights drew perhaps 500,000 people. The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfolded at dawn, with 1,920 individual panels, just a small fraction of the more than 20,000 Americans who had already lost their lives to AIDS.
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