I viewed the AIDS quilt at Broome Community College today. It’s hard not to feel sad when you look over each panel, lovingly crafted by the relatives and friends of AIDS victims. Victims who didn’t live to see better treatments for HIV/AIDS. Victims who never lived to see a cure, which as of this writing still hasn't been found. The ignorant and mean ones among us regard the terrible pandemic which ended these lives years before their time as a sign from above that love and pleasure are abominations. The rest of us feel our heads spin at the thought of so many promising lives lost for no reason.
The AIDS Quilt was the brainchild of San Francisco AIDS activist, Cleve Jones. Like many others, Jones was upset at the way Reagan-era America painted this then-new pestilence as divine punishment and its victims as human trash or worse. Many AIDS victims of the 1980's didn't even receive proper funerals. He and his co-organizers wanted to drive home the point that AIDS casualties were friends, relatives, parents, co-workers, not statistics in a seemingly endless body-count but people. People who loved and were loved by friends, relatives and life-partners. People whose loved ones were certainly devastated by their slow, excruciating deaths. The quilt, which rapidly expanded beyond the point at which the entire thing could easily be viewed in one place, traveled to dozens of American cities.
I last saw the quilt at a local high school in the early 1990's. Like the panels shown here, most were simple celebrations of the lives of those lost. Others included a call to action for social justice. One which sticks in my mind from that exhibition almost two decades ago was one which contained an embroidered mandala which on closer inspection turned out to be composed of ejaculating penises arranged in a circle. It made a huge impression on me that here in the middle of the worst sexually-transmitted disease epidemic since the emergence of syphilis, in the middle of the worst anti-sex backlash since the Comstock era of the late 19th century, friends of this one particular victim were not shunning sexuality, nor holding up their loved one’s death as a warning to sexually-active people, but actually celebrating sexuality, affirming life, affirming pleasure. Life, this simple artistic statement said, is not an underground shelter which we cram ourselves into while we wait indefinitely for the storm to pass, it’s meant to be lived, enjoyed. In the era of “just say no”, of yuppiedom, with its overemphasis on overwork and in-your-face conspicuous consumption, this was a radical idea. It still is today.
(Loyalty oath department - I’m a more or less ordinary straight person, one who recognizes that the same kinds of people who persecute or marginalize gay men and women for being what they are can mess with us just as easily. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, remember the hoo-haw over emergency contraception, also known as “Plan B”?)