(A powerful testament to the significance of the AIDs quilt upon the 25th anniversary of the naming of AIDs as a disease.)
It took more than $3 million, but in October 1996, the whole quilt — then totaling 40,000 panels — was laid over the National Mall in Washington. More than a million people showed up. There were 20,000 boxes of tissues on hand. Afterwards, the money flowed.
I read two newspapers regularly: The Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Last Sunday, the Times cover story was this: AIDS at 25 – The Quilt Fades to Obscurity.
I felt as if I had seen the name of a long lost friend when I saw this article. I think I even uttered an, “Ooh.” If I didn’t out load, I did in my mind.
Seeing the NAMES Quilt at 25 says to me I’ve been an out-lesbian for a very long time, more than half of my life! Not that that has any significance, other than to mark time for myself and make me reflect on my participation in activism that was driven by a deadly disease.
I was a 21 year-old woman who came out when young men were dying for no apparent reason, before the virus and disease that was killing them had names and acronyms.
My coming out was joyously spent in gay bars on Sunday nights at the edge of the ocean, where the party seemed to tumble toward infinity carried on a disco beat that boomed louder than the breaking waves. The heady smell of dance floor sweat, amyl nitrate and Polo cologne created an aural memory for me that I will never forget.
When I wasn’t partying with the gay boys, I was dropping dollar bills into Melissa Etheridge’s tip cup over at the Que Sera. She drove a yellow AMC Pacer then and had some groupie chick unload her acoustic guitar and amplifier into the legendary lesbian bar on Cherry and Seventh Street in Long Beach, California. She perfected “Meet Me In the Back” and “Bring Me Some Water” in front of the Norm-like dykes on their bar stools and baby dykes like me perched within feet of the woman who exuded passion for the songs she sang. Ah, good times, good times.
I first saw the NAMES quilt displayed at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. (Yes, what an apt venue for such a display!) I don’t remember the year now, it may have been 1990. The air was thick in the Queen’s Salon with grief and mourning. I added my own after seeing the partner of one of the shop owners in town there, completely ravaged with AIDS. I remember he gave me a friendly smile and we chatted a bit before I moved on along the panels and sobbed into my hands.
Before AIDS drug cocktails, there was activism. I walked in many AIDS-walk fundraisers. I raised money for the NAMES Quilt because it was such a tangible and personal way for people who had lost a loved-one to mourn. My NAMES T-shirt with the purple letters faded from the wear.
The AIDS hysteria that reached a shrieking pitch during the late eighties spawned a political movement has not been matched since. It is because of AIDS and the SILENCE=DEATH urgency that so many people came out of the closet at work, to their families, to themselves. Why not? They had nothing to lose except their lives.
To Read the Rest of the Post