Castro AIDS quilt display elicits tears, gratitude
Sunday was a day of remembrance in the Castro as hundreds of people showed up to the opening of an exhibition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Two large quilt blocks dominated the floor at the Market Street storefront; one is in memory of the many members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who have died, the other contains even more members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus who have been lost to the epidemic. Small boxes of tissue dotted the floor around the panels, in case someone needed to wipe away a tear.
Community leaders, politicians, and ordinary people alike kept up a steady flow Sunday, February 12, the first of a nine-day exhibit that is the largest display of the quilt in San Francisco since 1999. In the back of the room at a small podium, people walked up one by one as they each read a list of names of people who have died.
The quilt now has over 91,000 names and still receives an average of one new panel every day to be added, according to information from the Names Project Foundation, the custodian of the quilt.
Jorge Vieto, treatment advocacy coordinator for Positive Force, a program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, took part in the name-reading ceremony.
"My original plan was simply to attend and remember and honor my uncle who died of AIDS when I was a little boy," he said. He noted that the disease had also affected his leather brothers and sisters and that he was also there to provide support for those currently living with HIV/AIDS as well as his friends grieving for those they lost.
The Names Project, which used to be headquartered in San Francisco, was the first organization Vieto volunteered for fresh out of high school and soon after coming out. His first introduction to the quilt was while attending college, as some of the panels were brought for a display.
"At the time I only had a sense of ’borrowed loss,’ since I didn’t get to know my uncle very well and I, myself, had not seen first-hand what this disease can do," Vieto said.
Vieto, 33, was one of many visitors who talked about the importance of the exhibit.
"It is important because it is a clear reminder that even though there has been huge advances in human rights, medicine, prevention, and care, there have been countless people who lost their lives because of lack of information, apathy, and stigma," he said.
Many of the panels will be familiar to Bay Area residents, including ones for Dr. Tom Waddell, founder of the Gay Games; Marlon Riggs, a gay African American filmmaker; and actor Rock Hudson.
Nicolas Hunter also participated in the name reading ceremony. Hunter, who volunteers at Under One Roof, heard about the exhibit from Beth Feingold, the store’s executive director who was one of the organizers of the local exhibit.
"I’ve seen photos of the quilt before, so I was excited to be able to see it in person," he said. Hunter was asked by Feingold to participate in the ceremony. "I immediately said yes, because to me it is such a privilege and an honor to be part of such a deeply moving event, saying their name out loud was a way to recognize that individual, as well as letting them not be forgotten."
Hunter, 28, who is of a younger generation, is fortunate not to personally know anyone who has lost the battle to AIDS.
"I feel guilty, but I am so blessed that I don’t know anyone that has died from this disease," he told the Bay Area Reporter. Hunter recognized that although he did not personally know any of the names he read off his list, that they are special to him because they paved the way early on in the fight.
People such as Hunter were one of the driving forces behind the exhibit. Petyr Kane, owner of clothing stores Citizen and Body, told local merchants earlier this month that his employees who are of the younger generation had no knowledge about the quilt.
Hunter, who is HIV-positive, has been an active volunteer in the LGBT community since first moving to San Francisco seven years ago.
"The HIV/AIDS epidemic was not something that I personally knew, but it was something that I felt touched me because it was considered by many to be associated with the LGBT community. It wasn’t until three or four years later, when I was diagnosed as HIV-positive, that it hit home even more," he said.
Hunter said that he thinks the younger generation of gay youth feel entitled.
"They are given so many rights as gay people, and they think that they just appeared out of thin air. The previous generation had to fight long and hard to make these things available to us," he said.
Vince Scalise, 62, who lost his husband to AIDS in 2010, also took a moment to reflect on the quilt.
"I am so proud to have had made a panel - to show how many people who have passed away from this illness and to keep my husband alive in name and spirit," he said.
While the panel for his husband, Chad Scalise, wasn’t part of the display, the quilt serves as a reminder and helps him remember all that he went through. He hopes that it will keep others aware that AIDS is still present and is not over just yet.
Mike Smith, a co-founder and former member of the Names Project board and current executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund, was one of the organizers of the Castro exhibit. So far, he has been pleased with the turnout.
"It felt like a community," he said of Sunday’s opening. "There aren’t too many opportunities to come together in a space like that."
He selected the blocks that are on exhibit, noting each one has at least one panel for someone connected to the Bay Area.
"A lot are the much older panels," made from "spray paint and bed sheets," he said, adding that others are more elaborate.
The quilt was conceived in 1985 by longtime San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones, who at the end of a march commemorating the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, began to tape placards bearing the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS to the wall of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names resembled a patchwork quilt.
In 1987, a group of strangers gathered in a San Francisco storefront to document the lives they feared history would neglect. Their goal was to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease. This meeting of devoted friends and lovers served as the foundation of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Jones himself was on hand for several hours Sunday, and said the quilt display was "lovely."
"They did a good job in the selection," he said.
Jones acknowledged that he has a "complicated" history with the Names Project and is no longer affiliated with it. (He sued for wrongful termination in 2004 and later settled.) He continues to be upset that the quilt is housed in an Atlanta warehouse.
"The current leadership took a powerful weapon in the fight against AIDS and decommissioned it," Jones said. "The quilt must be returned to San Francisco."
Julie Rhoad, executive director of the Names Project, told the B.A.R. in a phone interview Tuesday that the quilt, "regardless of geography, travels the world."
"It’s not warehoused here," she said of the Atlanta facility. "It’s cared for here."
On October 11, 1987, the quilt included 1,920 panels and was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The quilt returned to Washington in October 1988, when 8,288 panels were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House.
The last display of the entire quilt was in October 1996 when it covered the entire National Mall in Washington.
According to the Names Project’s website, the quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and is today the largest community art project in the world. The quilt has been the subject of countless books, films, scholarly papers, articles, and theatrical, artistic and musical performances. The film, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt , won the Academy Award as the best feature-length documentary in 1989.
The main exhibit at 2278 Market Street, the location of the old Tower Records, will be open to the public free of charge from noon to 8 p.m. through Monday, February 20. (Donations are welcome.) Additional locations of the exhibition include Under One Roof (518A Castro Street); Catch Restaurant, where the quilt and Under One Roof were initially housed (2362 Market Street); Bank of America (501 Castro Street); and Body (450 Castro Street). Joanie Juster, who helped coordinate the reading of the names on Sunday, said that people are welcome to read names when they visit the main exhibit.