Thirty years ago next month, at age 24, I took the Greyhound bus from Flint to view for my first time the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was on display at Cobo Hall. Caught up in my own post-teen gay angst and loneliness, I wrote in my journal on July 6th: “Tom’w I go to Detroit to be sobered by the AIDS quilt.”
As if it was a movie or TV show that would trigger some deeper feeling, that might jolt me out of early-20s myopia.
I don’t possess any written reflection of that initial visit to The Quilt, so I don’t know if I got the psychic release or catharsis or emotional authenticity I apparently sought that day. Looking back from three decades later, I have only some vague recollections that may or may not blur with the other times I’ve seen it.
In the expanse of a large convention center, under fluorescent lights, rectangles of fabric 3-foot by 6-foot sewn into blocks of four, were arranged across the floor or hung vertically, with plastic pathways in between. Visitors walked in silence as they examined the panels. Each panel was unique, some simple, some elaborately decorated. Each represented a real person, a person lost to a disease that was ravaging my community.
A disease that, at age 24, scared me pretty much into celibacy.
It was a celibacy that felt like a pressure cooker that would someday burst.
Jill Ramseyer, the RN and Flint’s pioneering AIDS advocate who administered my first HIV test, put it bluntly when she gave me my results: “Of course you’ll have sex again.” Of course. My fear wouldn’t keep me celibate forever. How I appreciated her speaking the truth!
The one thing I feel confident that I accurately remember from the July 1988 viewing is that I did not cry until I came upon a panel of someone born before I was.
Cleve Jones, onetime protégé of Harvey Milk, started The Quilt to remember his friends who had died. As he writes in his memoir When We Rise, “It could be therapy … 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 response to the suffering and death that spread and increased with every passing day.”
The inaugural display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt took place on the Mall in the nation’s capital for the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in the midst of the Reagan presidency. Reagan famously remained mum about the disease until six years into the epidemic.
Although I attended the ’87 March, I avoided The Quilt. I didn’t feel ready to see it. Or, given my paranoia about infection, I didn’t feel entitled to.
After seeing the portion of The Quilt shown at Cobo in July 1988, I saw it in its entirety with my friend Larry on the grounds of the Washington Monument in DC in October 1992. My friend Chris reminded me recently that I took him to see it on a return to Cobo in May 1993, which I’d completely forgotten. And I saw it again in DC for an article for Between The Lines in October 1996, the last time it was able to be shown in full.
One of the visits, or perhaps the accumulation of visits as panel after panel accumulated, left an imprint.
Over time, I knew people commemorated in The Quilt, so I gained a personal connection I didn’t have before.
In 1997, a selection of 18,000 panels were displayed at the Track and Tennis Building at the University of Michigan. I strolled past each block taking notes of anyone from Michigan, ever the archivist and documentarian.
On the official website for The Quilt, names are now searchable online.
Where some families and obituaries have omitted AIDS as cause of a loved one’s death out of secrecy and/or shame, friends and other family members have been defiantly honest through heartfelt stitching and shed tears.
As with Jill Ramseyer, I appreciate their speaking the truth!