35 YEARS SINCE ITS FIRST PANELS WERE STITCHED, THE AIDS MEMORIAL QUILT REMAINS A POWERFUL TEACHING TOOL FOR HEALTH ACTION, REMEMBRANCE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
Thousands see largest Quilt display in a decade with 3,000 panels made during the darkest days of the pandemic and in recent years, a reminder that the fight for a cure, health and social justice is not over
National AIDS Memorial announces $2.4 million grant from Gilead Sciences to launch the Quilt Southern Initiative for new Quilt programming to tackle rising HIV rates within communities of color
It has been 35 years since the first panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were stitched together, sparking a national movement for action, justice and remembrance for an epidemic that has claimed over 36 million lives around the world.
More than 3,000 Quilt panels were displayed in Golden Gate Park – each 3’ x 6’ panel the size of a grave – remembering a life lost to AIDS. The Quilt’s presence – the largest display in more than a decade – demonstrated its unique power to comfort, heal and be used as a catalyst for action today in the ongoing struggle for health and social justice.
“What started as a protest thirty-five years ago to demand action turned into a movement that served as a wake-up call to the nation that thousands upon thousands of people were dying. Today, the Quilt is just as relevant and even more important, particularly in the wake of Covid-19 and recent gun violence our nation has faced,” said Cleve Jones, who joined with co-founders Mike Smith and Gert McMullin to begin the unfolding and reading names ceremony. “The fact is that the struggles we face today which result from health and social inequities are the issues we will face again if we don’t learn from the lessons of the past.”
A constant each day was the continuous reading aloud of names lost to AIDS, which could be subtly heard throughout the meadow. On display were many original panels made during the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic as well as ones made in recent years, a reminder that the AIDS crisis is not over. Thousands of visitors took part in the historic two-day event, experiencing the beauty of each panel and the stories of love stitched into their fabric.
“The Quilt remains a powerful symbol of hope, remembrance and action by pulling the thread from one generation to the next for health and social justice,” said John Cunningham, CEO of the National AIDS Memorial. “We must continue the Quilt’s 35-year legacy of bringing it to communities throughout the nation to fight for a cure, and to serve as a teach tool and catalyst for change.”
In the midst of this powerful backdrop, the National AIDS Memorial announced a $2.4 million grant from Gilead Sciences to launch the Quilt Southern Initiative to create new Quilt programming to address the disproportionate impact of HIV in the Southern U.S. A major focus will be to reach communities of color, which experience higher rates of new infections and lower rates of treatment and prevention.
“Throughout its 35-year history, the Quilt has touched hearts and minds by connecting communities through hope and remembrance,” said Daniel O’Day, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Gilead Sciences. “This new initiative with the National AIDS Memorial will bring the Quilt to the Southern United States, reaching communities most affected by HIV/AIDS with the powerful stories that are stitched into its panels.”
Working together with the Southern AIDS Coalition and other community partners, the National AIDS Memorial will launch a Call My Name Southern Quilting program, organizing new panel-making workshops to ensure that southern communities and stories are reflected in the Quilt, to build on the Quilt’s legacy of activism, and to raise greater awareness of lives lost to HIV/AIDS, then and now. Later this fall, sections of the Quilt will be displayed in communities of impact in the South as part of a curated storytelling exhibition, programming and activities in partnership with local organizations and advocates.
“Quilt making has such powerful storytelling tradition and deep history in the South, particularly within the Black community,” said Dafina Ward, Executive Director of the Southern AIDS Coalition. “We are honored to work in partnership with the National AIDS Memorial and Gilead to launch this new program and connect the AIDS Quilt to southern communities. The Quilt symbolizes the power of community, of remembrance, and celebrating legacy. All of which is critical to ending HIV-related stigma.”
Today, more than 1.3 million people are living with HIV in the United States with over 30,000 new cases being reported each year. Marginalized populations, particularly Black, Hispanic, API and LGBTQI+ communities, are disproportionately impacted. Four decades since the first cases of AIDS were reported, more than 700,000 lives have been lost to the disease in the U.S. alone. In 1993, HIV was the leading cause of death for Black men between ages 25-44. By 2004, HIV became the leading cause of death for Black women in the same age group. Today, according to the latest figures provided by the CDC, Black Americans make up 42% of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., with half of those diagnoses occurring in southern states, and rates rising among certain segments of the population. While rates of infection have decreased overall in recent years, rates continue to rise among Black men. Racism, HIV stigma, homophobia, poverty, and barriers to health care continue to drive these disparities.
“We are thankful to Gilead for its leadership and vision and look forward to working together with many community partners in the coming months to launch this meaningful initiative,” added Cunningham. “Making new quilt panels is a way to bring to the forefront the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community and a way to raise greater awareness that change these statistics.”
The Quilt is considered the largest community arts project in the world, now surpassing 50,000 individually sewn panels with more than 110,000 names stitched into its 54 tons of fabric that honors lives lost to AIDS. Its first panels were created in June of 1987 when a group of strangers, led by gay rights activist Cleve Jones, gathered in a San Francisco storefront to document the lives they feared history would forget. This meeting of devoted friends, lovers and activists would serve as the foundation for The NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt. Each panel made measured 3 ft by 6 ft, the size of a human grave. They saw the Quilt as an activist tool to push the government into taking action to end the epidemic.
Gilead Sciences is the presenting partner for the 35th Anniversary Display of the Quilt. Other major partners include Quest Diagnostics, San Francisco Recreation and Parks, UCSF, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chevron, Dignity Health, Goldman Sachs, Uber, Verizon and ViventHealth. A complete list of partners can be found HERE.
Learn more about the National AIDS Memorial, the Quilt and this historic display HERE.
*Photo by Amy Sullivan