They are the victims of another war, their friends say, 1,920 of the more than 25,000 Americans dead from AIDS, and tomorrow they will be mourned and remembered when an enormous quilt bearing their names is unfurled at sunrise on a two-block expanse of the Mall.
The quilt -- which weighs nearly 3 1/2 tons and will cover approximately the length of two football fields -- is composed of large, handmade, rectangular panels each bearing the name of an AIDS victim. It will serve as the emotional focal point and most dramatic symbol of the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights; homosexuals are the primary victims of the disease.
Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which honors the 58,132 killed in the war that ended 13 years ago, the quilt is an attempt to translate the body count of AIDS cases and deaths, released each week by the federal government, into compelling human terms.
"We want people to remember that for each of those who died of AIDS there was a family and lovers and friends who supported them," said Mike Smith, a general manager of the NAMES Project, a San Francisco collective that conceived, executed and assembled the quilt in a storefront warehouse.
Some of those remembered on the quilt are famous: actor Rock Hudson, fashion designer Willi Smith, lawyer Roy Cohn, choreographer Michael Bennett, and Liberace, whose panel sags under the weight of gold lame and rhinestones shaped like a grand piano. Some panels incorporate objects from the life of the person mourned: a favorite shirt, or photograph or poem. Others contain a name or, in some cases, a first name, among them a panel for Nancy, a 26-year-old drug addict from New York City and her 2-year-old son, Bosco Jr.
Although its wildly colorful patchwork quality differs radically from the black granite starkness of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the quilt represents the same collective sense of pain and love. Those who conceived the quilt say it serves several purposes: to remember the dead, to comfort the survivors and to raise the consciousness of the public.
"This is our wall," said Robert Rice, 31, of Falls Church who spent several weeks sewing a panel in memory of his friend Ramiro Nunez, who died at age 39 in a Manhattan hospital. "This will remind people that there's a war going on now," said Rice, who also has AIDS.
The quilt will be interspersed with a 1 1/2-mile grid of fabric pathways enabling visitors to walk around leaving flowers or other mementos.
More than 400 volunteers, half of them from San Francisco, will serve as monitors and guides, answering questions and distributing a directory containing a list of names and a locator map. They also will be equipped with clippers with which to cut away the walkways in case of rain so that sections of the quilt can be folded quickly. The National Park Service has required that the quilt be shaken every hour so that air can reach the grass.
The inaugural unfolding ceremony, which will take nearly two hours, is scheduled to begin at sunrise when volunteers will begin laying out large pieces of the quilt that will be attached with plastic ties laced through metal grommets.
At 7:13 a.m., 60 volunteers, among them comedian Whoopi Goldberg, actor Robert Blake, Broadway producer Joseph Papp, Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Massachusetts Democratic Reps. Gerry Studds and Barney Frank will begin reading the names of those who appear on the quilt.
Cleve Jones, 32, executive director of the NAMES Project, conceived the quilt during a 1985 candelight vigil in San Francisco in which demonstrators carried placards with the names of those dead from AIDS.
In February, Jones, a gay activist despondent after the death of his closest friend of 14 years "and so many others I've known", persuaded two friends to help him start the project, an idea borrowed from the folk art tradition of communal quilting bees.
Organizers sent a brochure to gay newspapers and AIDS organizations inviting people to submit their own panels along with a letter and photograph of the person they were memorializing. Those who chose not to make their own could commission a panel in return for a $50 donation.
"We wanted any information that might help us document a real person, not a statistic," said Dan Sauro. "We have a heartbreaking collection of letters and photographs," which is being compiled into a museum-style catalogue.
In July, the NAMES Project, which was working in living rooms and borrowed offices and back yards, rented a cavernous warehouse in San Francisco's Castro district.
Organizers persuaded sympathetic merchants to donate sewing machines, fabric, thread, scissors, sequins, ribbon and computers in which to log names.
"Almost immediately we were full of people, some gay, some straight, others the parents of people who had died of AIDS," said Jones. One dying man made his own panel.
"We cry in that place every day but we keep working and talking and then we start to remember and to laugh," said Jones. "This is a way to remember without being sunk in sorrow and despair."
By early September, organizers who feared they wouldn't have enough panels, were being inundated and began working frantically around the clock assembling the quilt by hand. Panels received by Sept. 15 will be displayed tomorrow; an additional 1,000 are being assembled in San Francisco for addition later.
Jones hopes to raise enough money to send the quilt on a 35-city tour next year. He plans to return to Washington a year from now with an even bigger quilt that he hopes will blanket most of the Mall during a ceremony to take place several weeks before the presidential election.
Some of those memorialized on the quilt, including Roy Cohn, whose panel was donated anonymously, tried to conceal not only their sexual preference but also their cause of death.
One of the last things David C. Campbell, a prominent Washington landscape architect told his lover before he died Nov. 19, 1984, was that he didn't want people to know he had AIDS. Campbell, who was 33, was diagnosed only nine days before his death. He had been negotiating to redesign the gardens at Blair House and feared that the nature of his illness might jeopardize his thriving business.
"David was not terribly happy that he was gay," said his lover, a retired military officer who requested anonymity. Campbell became a landscape architect rather than an interior designer because he considered it less stereotypically homosexual. His lover attributed Campbell's death to pneumonia in newspaper obituaries.
Last summer, Campbell's lover was having lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Dupont Circle when someone handed him a pamphlet about the quilt.
"My first thought was to throw it out," he said, "but I took it home and the more I thought about it the more I decided I wanted to do something to remember David." He and a female friend, a designer, made a panel using the leftover blue linen wallcovering Campbell had chosen for the guest room of their house.
In part, the decision publicly to reveal the cause of Campbell's death reflects changing attitudes about AIDS, which has struck more than 1,410 people in the Washington area since 1981. "David was one of the first people to die of AIDS in Washington," said his lover. "Times have changed . . . and I think David would want to be remembered."
Last year, Campbell's lover, who has known for three years he was infected with the virus, developed AIDS, an illness he has concealed from his former wife and children. "The NAMES Project came at the appropriate time for me to memorialize David," he said. "I thought that if I didn't do it soon, I won't have a chance to."