The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Almost 30 years later, people are still affected by the AIDS Memorial Quilt

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On Oct. 11, 1987, members of the gay and lesbian community demanded the nation's attention.

It was the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Some people were fighting for their lives. Others were fighting to save their loved ones or to avoid the deadly disease, and many more were fighting to ignore it. Why? It was still very much thought of as a “gay disease.”

LGBT activist Cleve Jones wanted to change the discourse. He wanted the nation to recognize the spread of HIV as a public health crisis. He created the AIDS Memorial Quilt as a lasting tribute for those who lost the fight. Each quilt panel represents someone who died of complications related to the illness. When the quilt was first unfolded in 1987, there were 1,920 panels.

The quilt, which stretched larger than a football field, was displayed at the Mall. There it could be “therapy, I hoped, for a community … a tool for the media, to reveal the humanity behind the statistics. And a weapon to deploy against the government,” Jones said.

Almost 30 years later, the quilt has grown to more than 49,000 panels. But the virus continues to ravage people. For those who saw its original display that Sunday in 1987 or subsequent displays on the Mall, the impact lives on.

Here are a few of their stories.

My most vivid memories were the sea of colors remembering those gone and the energy and emotion of those who remained to view the quilt. I will never forget the faces of family members, lovers, people with AIDS themselves, as they faced a new reality in our world. A sense of dignity prevailed, even during a time when having AIDS was not associated with that word. How could we not respond? How could we not help?

— Roger Lund, 63

New Oxford, Pa.

I was living in the Washington, D.C., area for the years that the quilt was displayed on the Mall. In 1989, I brought my sons to walk among the panels. By 1992 and 1996, we were volunteers dressed in white unfolding the quilt. We carried quilt panels in 1993, as we proudly marched in Bill Clinton’s first inaugural parade.

— Deborah Linzer, 65

Berkeley, Calif.

I remember the young children seeing it for the first time and the questions some would ask. The teachable moments and the touching ones, as whole families would be gathered looking at a panel or panels. Mostly I remember looking out at the people, the panels and at Cleve just a few feet away, and I was thinking the only thing better than this amazing display would be a cure so no more lives would be lost.

— TJ Feldman Halpern, 45

Providence, R.I.

The moment that hit me hardest, however, was in San Francisco in January of 1997, seeing in the windows of the Names Project offices: I noted a panel for a man with my exact same birth date. As a gay man with full-blown AIDS myself at that time, it hit me that but for the grace of God that could have been my name on that quilt panel in the window.

— Rick Watts, 56

West Hollywood, Calif.

I remember walking around the square of the panels that stretch along the mall and feeling numb. I feel grateful to know now that my mom and dad's love for me was so strong that they never would've let me die alone. Coming out to them felt like the ultimate betrayal of their love for me. I never wanted to let them down, let alone die from something which carried almost the ultimate stigma. Being in Washington those few days made me feel that I could overcome anything. Being in Washington those few days made me feel less alone.

— Patrick Sharp, 50

San Francisco

I remember when the quilt had moved to Washington, D.C. — that was the beginning to an end. At that point in my life, I was losing so many of my friends. My nephew had passed away from AIDS, and my sister made a part for him on the quilt.

— Richard Lewis, 55

New York City