Uncommon Threads: The AIDS Memorial Quilt Comes To DC

For gay men old enough to have seen its genesis, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is a beautiful and terrifying thing: Each 3′ by 6′ panel is a personalized memorial, crafted with love and honor. But each of those squares is also a stark reminder of the human toll the epidemic has taken.

That’s the power of The NAMES Project: It’s not about mind-boggling statistics, it’s about 48,000-plus individuals—boyfriends, husbands, daughters, lovers, friends. And its power might get through to the gay men who came of age without a malignant shadow creeping over their shoulder.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was begun in 1987 by Cleve Jones—who got the idea at a memorial march for Harvey Milk—along with Mike Jones and a group of volunteers. At that time the stigma against AIDS was so high that many who died from the virus didn’t receive proper funerals: Some had been spurned by family and friends but in other cases, fearful funeral parlors would refuse to accept the corpse of an infected person.

Try to imagine what that’s like: Having to cart around your husband’s dead body because no one will bury him. It’s not a coincidence that each of those panels is the size of a grave.

The quilt was last shown in full in 1996, when it blanketed the National Mall. Since then, it’s grown exponentially: Now more than 1.3 million square feet around, or about 29 acres, it’s too big to be put on view as a single installation. So when it’s displayed in Washington, DC, July 21-25—in conjunction with the AIDS 2012: The 19th International AIDS Conference—some 4,800 panels will be divied into “blocks” and shown at dozens of locations around the city.

More than 35,000 panels will be brought together on the Mall, where their impact will be enormous.

But will it? Are we too far removed from the days when new panels were added every day? When members of the LGBT community went to more funerals than weddings? Don’t get us wrong: We’re thrilled that’s becoming less and less of a reality. But we’re worried too many of us are complacent—or even ignorant: Earlier this year, AIDS Quilt Touch—an app that would organize and display the entire quilt, square by square, failed to make its KickStarter goal. (A new campaign on IndieGoGo has only 9 days left and is almost $20,000 shy of its $25,000 target.) For now, you can search the AIDS Quilt Touch website, which allows users look up panels by name, leave comments and triangulate a location on the Mall next month.

We saw the quilt back in 1996, and we’ll see it again this summer. It’s a pilgrimage everyone should take, especially younger gay men.

This is our Holocaust and we must never forget.

Click through for images of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

8,000 Quilt panels are on display at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as part of “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding The AIDS Memorial Quilt” through July 8. Visit for information.