The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The AIDS Quilt: One Quilter’s Education, Part II
Make sure to read the previous Quilt Scout column to get Part I.
When you really dig into a topic, you’re bound to be surprised. Prior misconceptions are set right, thoughts are provoked, and hopefully you’ll get a few “Woah! I had no idea!” moments. I had a big moment like that when I learned that there was backlash to the AIDS Quilt.
Certainly, with the deep stigma associated with HIV/AIDS at the time (many names stitched on the quilt were “John Doe” or “Anonymous” to protect the families), there were those who opposed the project, but I was shocked to find out that a lot of AIDS activists were straight-up against the AIDS quilt. Really?? I was amazed. How could anyone think a memorial quilt was a bad thing?
Some people felt the AIDS Quilt was pointless. Why go see an exhibit when you could
be marching in the streets? Image: Wikipedia.
The reasoning: People were dying by the tens of thousands. The government was doing nothing. Much of the public damned the sick as they lay dying. Many AIDS activists thought the quilt was a gross waste of time at a time when there was zero time to waste. I read that some felt the quilt was sentimental, sappy, and nostalgic in a way that softened the AIDS crisis, and made it more palatable for the general public when in fact, it was a humanitarian crisis. Who had time for touchy-feely fabric when the country was in a state of emergency?
Now, while I see their point and I give absolute respect and admiration to the people fighting on the front lines of the AIDS crisis then and now, I reject such backlash. The main reason I reject it is because — here comes a dirty word — I see this position as sexist.
A quilt is a deeply feminine object, I think we can all agree. It doesn’t have to be. It maybe shouldn’t be. But it is. Women make most of the quilts in this country and that’s the way it’s been pretty much since the first stitches were taken around here. So a lot of the people who called the AIDS Quilt “the death tarp” — can you believe it? — were coming from a place of distaste for what they felt, maybe even subconsciously, was a girl thing. A pointless thing. A cuddly grandma thing and, therefore something that wasn’t going to help anyone stay alive or change culture.
That makes me mad. Women, quilts, and grandmas have a lot of power. Making the largest piece of textile art in the history of the world seems like a pretty good example of that. We can change culture as much as anyone — so back off, buddy.
Writer, activist, and AIDS historian Sarah Schulman visited my campus last year and I got to ask her a question about social movements. She said something really interesting that has stayed with me. She said that the reason ACT UP was so successful in combating the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s was because it wasn’t centralized. There was no ACT UP rulebook on how to fight, so people got creative.
“Some people made phone calls,” she said. “Other people marched. Other people got meetings with lawmakers. It was like, ‘What do you want to do? Great, go do that.”
It’s hard to argue that this panel for a Vietnam veteran is “pointless” or ineffective in the fight against AIDS. Image: Wikipedia.
And some people affected by AIDS wanted to make a panel for the NAMES Project, so they did. Some people simply went to see the quilt when it was presented on the National Mall. Some donated to the foundation so it could keep running. All those things mattered, and still matter. So, backlash to the AIDS Quilt, while understandable to certain people in pain, doesn’t help anyone. Whatever works for someone, that’s what they should do — because it all matters. Even a quilt.
The AIDS crisis is not over. There is no vaccination for HIV and no cure for AIDS. According to the CDC, close to 5,000 people a day are infected with the virus. But because most of those people don’t live in America, we don’t hear about it much.
On this map of Africa, the darker the color, the more cases of AIDS. The darkest areas mean that 20-30 percent of the people are infected. Image: Wikipedia.The majority of people getting HIV/AIDS today live in sub-Saharan Africa. There, the AIDS crisis is just as bad, or worse, as it was in the States 30 years ago. What’s heartbreaking is that there is medicine available to treat the sick. Many people who live in first-world countries live with HIV/AIDS and do pretty well. The reason so many die in Africa from the awful disease? According to the CDC in 2016:
“Political, financial, and social barriers [keep] the most effective prevention and treatment strategies from reaching those at highest risk.”
To me, this is unacceptable. And the same barriers are what keep the most at-risk Americans infected and sick, too: In our country, the people who get HIV/AIDS the most are young, gay, black men. Half of those individuals will have HIV by the time they reach the age of 35. Black women are 20 times more likely than white women to get the virus. Clearly, race is a huge factor in the AIDS crisis today, both here and around the world.
At the end of my AIDS Quilt lecture at QuiltCon this year, I asked for donations to an organization called NMAC. They “lead with race” to combat the AIDS crisis, and I think they’ve got the right approach. I donated my pay to them and we raised over $1k, right there on the spot. I encourage you to give even a little something to NMAC, too. Even
$20 is helpful.
Learning about the AIDS Quilt was an incredible experience. As usual, diving into quilt history is diving into history, period. I’ve learned about a plague. I’ve learned about the state of the world today. I’ve learned about the biggest quilt on the planet that is still growing. I’ve learned that as quilters, we’re connected to the AIDS Quilt, big time. We’re connected through the stitches and the fabric — and through the fabric of humanity, too.