She wears a black appliquéd mini panel that reads “Handmaidens of The Quilt,” making it easy to identify which woman in the room is Gert McMullin. Gert is a living legend in AIDS Memorial Quilt lore for likely having touched nearly every single panel in it. In many ways, Gert is the inspiration behind the Folklife Festival’s re-creation of the original AIDS Memorial Quilt workshop, which was located in San Francisco from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The goal for building this historic space in the 2012 Creativity and Crisis Folklife Festival program area was to evoke the same kind of spirit that existed in that workroom twenty-five years later; a spirit that made no judgment and drew in those desperate for a place to talk about the ways in which AIDS was devastating their lives.
Ironically, Gert herself has a plethora of names. As she recounted the years she has been the keeper of The Quilt for The NAMES Project Foundation, I learned that she has made up five different names to fit the imaginary personas she adopted when “Cindy,” her given name, could no longer cope with the trauma of watching so many friends die. “At times, I’ve been Lorelei, Olivia, and then there is tough, old Gert,” says McMullin. Gert’s the kind of person who doesn’t flinch in the face of life’s bitterest tragedies and keeps fighting.
It was April 1987, when Gert first got information about creating an AIDS memorial quilt, after Cleve Jones created the very first panel in honor of his close friend, Marvin Feldman. In June 1987, she attended a small meeting with a core group of early organizers. “It was extremely difficult emotionally and politically to make those first few panels—I was angry my friends had died. I felt no one cared and that there was nothing I could do about it. But I could sew.” The earliest panels were often spray painted on bed sheets, made “quickly and out of anger” on fabric measuring three by six feet, the approximate size of a human grave. “When you think of quilts, you think of our grandmothers taking care of us when we’re sick, of warmth and comfort, which is the opposite of how the AIDS community was being treated,” says Mike Smith, one of the co-founders of The NAMES Project Foundation. “We wanted to lay the equivalent of bodies of the dead at the feet of our government. We’re a traveling cemetery.”
Smith remembers, “We covered the Castro neighborhood with posters: ‘Let’s start an AIDS memorial.’ But we needed a physical place for people to sew. I signed the lease on the space at 2362 Market Street for a decade or more on June 10, 1987, and it immediately developed into an emotional community center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual community. ”
“The original workshop was the heart of The Quilt,” says McMullin. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s where every idea, every art inspiration was built, and how we dealt with AIDS. Everyone needed a place to tell their stories, to comfortably say the names of their friends, to talk about the frustrations, the anguish, and the heartbreak. We needed a place to tell bad jokes, to dance. We held onto that building—it was the only place that was safe for us, and every emotion you could possibly feel was felt through those doors.”
Roddy Williams, The NAMES Project Foundation director of operations and project manager, toured me around the configuration and design of the tent in the 2012 Folklife Festival. He pointed out that the tent featured hardwood floors where Gert could continue bundling panels into larger blocks, a disco ball for illumination, and a few, cherished sewing machines, all bearing names like Big Bitch, Mother, and Connie Consew. The 2362 Market Street workshop is the prototype for all of the panel-making workshops that continue all over the country today.
Click on images to enlarge and view captions. All photos by Patricia Wakida.
“The history of The Quilt is absolutely important,” says Mike Smith. “We’re in such a different place now, and so many young people don’t realize the cost of HIV, the struggle we went through to get here today. They see the compassion, but they don’t see that this quilt was made in anger and enormous frustration. People involved in the early Quilt were fighting for their lives, we all thought we were going to die soon.”
In the Summer of 1986, Proposition 64 was introduced in the state of California with the idea of restoring AIDS to the list of communicable diseases and even quarantining people who were HIV-positive. NAMES Project Foundation activists were angry and frightened and unsure of what to do, especially with all of their documentation. “There was talk of having people turn over names of lovers for quarantine,” says Smith. “We had two copies of the database—Cleve was to go to Oregon, and I was to go to Las Vegas. It was all set to go the night before, but the bill died late at night. It was a very scary time.”
Smith says that it wasn’t until The NAMES Project Foundation began receiving panels from other victims like children with hemophilia and heterosexual women that Americans began to realize that AIDS affects everyone. The Quilt slowly evolved from a protest banner into a medium for talking to the nation.
On May 9, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly voiced his support of same-sex marriage, recognizing that our civil rights laws and principles are at the core of our nation. Smith believes this is of significance and acknowledges the work of The Quilt in this announcement: “Essentially, the President said that Gay and Lesbian people deserve equal rights and should be treated as full citizens of this country. Ronald Reagan would not have done that. It shows how far we have come as a nation. Our government and other leaders have taken up the call, that sets the tone that impacts our culture.”
“The Quilt is made by the people for the people and is the most democratic memorial, both homage and harbinger,” says Julie Rhoad, president and CEO of The NAMES Project Foundation. “It’s about civil rights and social justice and issues surrounding public health and public health response. It’s global, it’s personal, it’s domestic, it’s intimate, and totally epic.”
Gert McMullin thanks The Quilt for keeping her alive, and she believes she was formed from birth to become the keeper of The Quilt. “There were points in my anger and grief where I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction, although suicide isn’t really an option for me. My friends were the ones who told me, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re going to march.’ “All of Gert’s friends who died are in this room. They fought with her, marched with her, and as she reminds me, they are the people we should be thanking for getting us here together.
Today, there are over 93,000 names on The AIDS Memorial Quilt. The Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 1987, during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. “I made my first panels thinking about taking them to D.C. for the march,” says Gert. “I liked the idea of throwing them down in front of the White House, embarrassing the government. I’ve got my own list of three hundred people that I marched down the streets with, carried The Quilt with around the world. They continued when no one would listen. To me, it’s not history. To me it’s still going on.”
# # #
From July 22 to 27, 2012, the International AIDS conference 2012 will be held in Washington, D.C., the first time in the U.S. in over twenty years. For this occasion, the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed on the National Mall and in over fifty locations around the region from July 21 to 25. During this time, there will be a total of 35,200 panels –8,800 different panels per day–on display from 8th to 14th streets on the National Mall. Find out more about the upcoming Quilt displays in July.
Patricia Wakida is a writer and historian based in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.