June 1, 2001


Power of the Quilt  -  Comforting, Consoling and Convincing

Cleve Jones  from the  SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE


TWENTY YEARS AGO, I was working as a consultant to the state Assembly Health Committee. My job required me to read a wide range of publications concerning various health and medical issues.

I remember reading that first report of gay men with Pneumocystis pneumonia and feeling uneasy enough to clip the article and tack it to my bulletin board. Five years later, almost everyone I knew would be dead or dying.

At that time, Castro Street had been my home for eight years. The late 1970s were years of tumult in San Francisco, particularly for the nascent gay and lesbian community. Anti-gay initiatives organized by conservative Christian groups were sweeping the nation. Gay rights ordinances were repealed, gay/lesbian churches were torched and violent attacks from gay bashers were common. Tens of thousands of gay men and lesbians were immigrating to San Francisco in search of a new community. Most headed for Castro Street.

Under the tutelage of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, I became a gay rights activist. The assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, had mobilized the collective grief and rage of the gay and lesbian community in a way which we had never experienced.

A few months after tacking that federal Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report to my wall, I got a telephone call at my new job working for Assemblyman Art Agnos. Dr. Marcus Conant, a dermatologist at UCSF, asked if I was familiar with the cluster of Pneumocystis pneumonia and told me he had patients suffering from it and a rare disease called Kaposi's sarcoma. Dr. Conant invited me to the hospital and took me to the room of a young man named Simon Guzman. It was my first glimpse of a human being destroyed by the new disease.

And then it began. It is hard to convey the horror of those early years before the cause was known, before treatments were developed. The fear was palpable and nowhere was the fear greater than on Castro Street. People died very quickly then and they were dying all around us.

By the autumn of 1985, Castro Street was decimated. In mid-November, my friend Joseph Durant and I were walking Castro Street putting up posters announcing the annual Candlelight March for Harvey Milk and George Moscone. We stopped for pizza at the corner of Market and Castro and picked up a copy of The Chronicle. The headline said "1,000 San Franciscans killed by AIDS." We realized that almost all of those 1,000 lived within a 10-block radius of where we stood. We were standing at ground zero.

On Nov. 27, we gathered at the corner of Market and Castro to begin the march to City Hall. Durant, Gilbert Baker, Bill Paul and I had earlier printed the names of our dead friends on cardboard placards.

We brought blank placards and magic markers to the crowd and people began to write the names of their loved ones who had also died. We marched to City Hall, left our candles on the steps and walked to United Nations Plaza. We had hidden extension ladders nearby, and when the police were distracted, we leaned them against the Old Federal Building and taped the placards to the gray stone facade. I looked at the patchwork of names covering the gray stone facade and thought to myself, "It looks like a quilt."

I thought about that image for 18 months. During that time, three things happened that changed my life forever: I tested HIV-positive, I was attacked and stabbed by gay-bashers, and my closest friend in the world, Marvin Feldman, died at his parent's home in Providence, R.I. Like everyone I knew, my heart was filled with bitterness, fear and despair.

A few months after Marvin's death, Durant and I made the first two panels of what would become the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Joseph's panel was created to honor Ed Mock, a very talented African American choreographer. Mine was for Marvin. There was something about the process of creating the panels that was comforting. We shared memories of the two men as we worked and tried to imagine what they would have accomplished if they had lived. For the first time since Marvin died, I was able to think and talk about him without unbearable pain.

I realized then the power of the Quilt, not only as a memorial but as a call to action, a weapon against AIDS and the parallel epidemic of hysteria, bigotry and hate which it had unleashed.

As an organizer, I saw the Quilt primarily as a useful vehicle, tangible evidence of the suffering behind the statistics. Something with which to shame the politicians and capture the media's attention. I thought it was a good idea, but nothing prepared me for the artistry of the Quilt, nor for its spiritual power. And nothing could possibly have prepared our small group of volunteers on Castro Street for the response from across the world when the Quilt was first displayed in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 1987.

Today, those early Quilt panels from San Francisco have been joined to more than 50,000 panels from every state in the United States, containing more than 80,000 names. Independent Quilt projects have been started in Canada, Mexico, Australia, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. While the growth of the U.S. Quilt has been slowed by the development of the new AIDS drugs, the NAMES Project continues to receive new panels every month.

The offices of the NAMES Project have relocated to Atlanta but the Quilt will always be remembered as gift from the people of San Francisco. A gift offered freely to the world from a city and a community which, while devastated by incalculable loss, created out of hatred, fear and despair an enduring symbol of love, courage and hope.

Cleve Jones is the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and the co-author of "Stitching a Revolution -- The Making of an Activist," (Harper San Francisco, April 2000).