By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared December 1st “World AIDS Day” in 1988 as
“an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV; show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died”
- 135,000 AIDS cases had already been reported worldwide (WHO)
- 82,362 of those cases were in the US alone (amfAR)
- 61,816 deaths had resulted in the US (amfAR)
- 5–10 million est. people were infected with HIV globally (WHO)
- 6 – 19 months was the average life expectancy of an AIDS patient
Three decades later, it’s difficult to know what more to say about the horrific pandemic of AIDS which nearly wiped out an entire generation, especially to a generation of our Community who has grown-up unaware of its terrifying realities. To them HIV/AIDS has been reduced to a pill they take like a dietary supplement and forget about sexual responsibility. Sadly, AIDS has fallen off the social radar, despite the fact there’s still no vaccine or cure; that every day 5,000 more people become infected; and men, women and children continue to die.
Earlier this week I asked someone, who lost many friends, and worked professionally with scores of people effected by the plague during its height,
“What’s there to say that hasn’t already been said?”
He replied, “Memorialize.”
Memorials are usually a summation of past accomplishments and achievements. One of the great tragedies of AIDS is the loss of what might have been, of the potential and promise in each life taken. It reminded me of the monologue Larry Kramer added to the film version of his landmark play, The Normal Heart.
How many more landmark musicals staged by Michael Bennett? How many more seminal books by Randy Shilts? How many more revelatory dances choreographed by Alvin Ailey? How many more timeless lyrics by Howard Ashman? How many more hits sung by Freddie Mercury? And how many more paintings by Keith Haring?
It’s difficult to even begin quantifying the loss even in terms of renown people who had begun making their contributions to the world. But it’s impossible to do so by those struck down before they had a chance. How many more possibilities lost with each life?
This reality was not lost on Cleve Jones one night in San Francisco at a memorial when he saw the names of people who died of AIDS written on sheets of paper and taped to a building. Jones imagined the patchwork design, but on a grander scale; 3’x6’, the size of a human grave and sewn together as one. Each panel would memorialize the life, potential, and loss of someone made by those who loved them.
Conceived by Jones in 1985 as a living tribute, the “NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt” was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington DC in 1987. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The following year Common Threads — Stories from the Quilt won the Oscar for Best Documentary, only the second gay subject film in Academy history.
Last seen in its entirety in 1996, The Quilt has become too large ever to be displayed again at once. If it were, and laid end to end, it would stretch more than 50 miles long. Yet, it’s estimated to only represents 20% of those lost to AIDS.
Since the beginning nearly 40 million men, women, and children globally became part of the AIDS mortality statistics. How many never got to be humanitarians, environmentalists, scientists, doctors, activists, teachers, engineers, artists, journalists, or simply spouses and parents? How many more better, brighter and peaceful worlds unimagined?
And how many more will we have to lose until we don’t have to ask anymore?
For the most current HIV/AIDS news, information, and resources visit WHO.INT
Stream Common Threads – Stories from the Quilt, with bonus commentary by Vito Russo, and follow-up interview with creator Cleve Jones HERE
For a schedule of where to viewing The Quilt; a “how to” make a panel for a loved one; as well as a visual directory of panels AIDSQUILT.ORG