How To Survive A Plague, Ctd

A reader writes:

Whenever I see images of the Quilt, I always look for my friend Fernando Delgado, who was one of the first of my friends to die of AIDS, in 1986 or ’87.  Your post had an image of eight quilt panels – and one was Fernando’s!  This is not the first time I’ve seen his panel in a news story.  But it’s never really surprising when I do, since the man had at least four different panels!  Fernando was larger than life, a beautiful San Francisco man who was still running around Castro Street and having fun long after his OIs would have forced a more timid soul (like me) to become housebound.  The man was so loved, and so heroic, people couldn’t stop making him panels.  We’ve all known so many heroes.  Thanks for reminding me.

The quilt is coming again to Washington next month for the first International AIDS Conference in the US in decades. Why America now? Because we repealed the HIV travel ban (thanks to Bush and Obama), and the specter of Jesse Helms’ hatred was finally wiped from the law. I knew I wrote a little essay on the AIDS quilt for The New Republic. Zack Beauchamp dug it up and transcribed it. It was written in 1992. It’s not available online, so I thought I’d add it to this thread at the risk of self-plagiarism, because it reveals what in retrospect was a tipping point – for heterosexual involvement in gay rights and equality. Because in family there is no gay or straight; there is simply family. Herewith a blast from the past:

I first saw the AIDS quilt three years ago, on its last trip to Washington, when it was only a few thousand panels in size and fit comfortably in the Ellipse in front of the White House. Last weekend, at 26,000 panels (one-sixth of the number of deaths in the United States so far), it filled most of the vast space between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool. Neither experience was forgettable; and neither Aidsquilt1still even faintly morbid. Like the Vietnam Memorial, a few minutes’ walk away, the quilt has to be entered in order to be understood; a piece of interactive architecture of both public and private space.

But unlike the Vietnam Memorial, the quilt is a buoyantly colorful, even witty, monument. It doesn’t immortalize its commemorated in regimented calligraphy, its geography is not the remarkable, black snowdrift of casualties, but a kind of chaotic living room, in which the unkempt detritus of human beings—their jeans, photographs, glasses, sneakers, letters—are strewn on the ground, as if expecting the people to whom they belonged to return. People walk over this cluttered landscape, looking like tourists, caught between grief and curiosity, saying little, peering intently down at the ground. As you approach the quilt from the rest of the Mall, toward a place where tens of thousands of people are congregated, noise actually subsides.

The panels themselves are tacky and vital, and therefore more chilling: you are invited to grieve over faded Streisand albums, college pennants, grubby bathrobes, cheesy Hallmark verses, and an endless battery of silk-screen ‘70s kitsch. Unlike the formulas of official memorials, each panel manages to speak its own language in its own idiom; you have to stop at each one and rethink.

Camus suggested in La Peste that the most effective way to conceive of large numbers of deaths was to think in terms of movie theaters, but the quilt dispenses with such mind games by simply reproducing shards of the lives of the fallen, like overheard, private conversations.

Some panels are made by lovers, others by parents, friends, even children of the dead; and some are made by those whose names appear on them and speak with uncanny candor. “Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die,” quips one. Even the names themselves rebel against any attempt to regiment them. In the program, some people are identified with full names, others with first names, others with nicknames. There are sixteen Keiths; and one Uncle Keith; twenty-eight Eds; one Ed & Robert; eighty-two Davids; one David Who Loved The Minnesota Prairie; one mysterious David—Library of Congress; and one David—Happy Birthday. Some go only by two initials—T.J.; others spell it out in full—Dr. Robert P. Smith, Arthur James Stark Jr., HM1 James T. Carter, USN; others are reduced to symbols—five stars (unnamed) “commemorating five theater people who have died”; still others are summoned up by nothing but a baseball cap and an epitaph. Celebrities, of course, creep in—I counted four Sylvesters and twenty-nine Ryan Whites—but they are scattered randomly among their peers. The most piercing: Roy Cohn’s. A simple inscription: “Bully. Coward. Victim.”

The democracy of the plague is enhanced by the unending recital of names over the loudspeaker, as friends and relatives and strangers read out the death roll. The names resonate with metronomic specificity, adding an aural dimension to the visual litany. “Patrick J. Grace, Dan Hartland, Ron Lopez, Edwina Murphy, Mark Jon Starr, Billy, Kim John Orofino, Frank, Bob Flowers, Sergeant Rick Fenstermaker, U.S. Marine Corps …” Many of the two-minute recitations end in “and my brother and best friend” or “my sweet little sister” or some such personal touch. From time to time, a mother’s voice cracks over “my precious son and best friend,” and the visitors to the quilt visibly stiffen at once, their throats caught in another, numb moment of unexpected empathy. I bumped into an acquaintance. “What’s going on?” I asked, lamely. “Oh, just looking for friends.”

Just when you’re ready to sink into moroseness, however, the panels turn on you. Since this act of remembrance is one our public authorities have not sanctioned (neither President Reagan nor Bush walked the couple of hundred yards to visit the quilt), it is mercifully free of decorum. Drag-queen creations—taffeta, pumps, and pearls embroidered across silk—jostle next to the overalls of manual workers and the teddy bears of show-tune queens. There’s plenty of bawdiness, even eroticism, and a particularly humanizing touch you don’t find in cemeteries: a lot of the spelling is wrong. Many of the epitaphs have a lightly ironic edge to them, coming close to a kind of death camp: “The Fabulous Scott Tobin”; “Dennis. We Didn’t Get To Know Each Other Very Well, And Now We Never Will.” My favorite panel ornament was a Lemon Pledge scent furniture polish can.

Others simply shock you into reality: “Hopefully the family now understands” inscribed beneath a pair of someone’s jeans; “For the friend who still cannot be named—and for all of us who live in a world where secrets must be kept.” And another: “You still owe me two years, but I forgive you and will always love you. I never located your parents. Maybe someone will see this and tell them.”

The point of it all, of course, is not merely to release grief, but to affirm the dignity of those who have died so young and in the face of unique public disdain. For many of the families who came to D.C. last week-end, the event was the end of an extraordinary journey to grapple not simply with their loved ones’ deaths, but with their lives. A few short years ago virtually everyone I saw at the quilt was gay. This time the presence of families—predominantly heterosexual—was overwhelming. These were ordinary people who through their loved ones’ deaths were asserting, beyond their own sorrow, the overcoming of their own shame. Being there was a catharsis not simply of the horrors of the disease, but of the bigotry that stalked so many of those on the ground and, by association, those who reared them.

This is one way in which AIDS has surely changed America. With the collapse of the closet, a collapse accelerated by HIV, attacks on gay people are now attacks on our families and friends as well. They will no longer go unanswered. “I have done nothing wrong. I am not worthless. I do mean something,” as one panel put it. “This is my beloved son,” echoed another, “in whom I am well pleased.”