Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, an opportunity to remember those lost to HIV/AIDS.
It is also a day to spread awareness about the virus, encourage progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, and celebrate those who are surviving and thriving.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is one of the best visual representations showcasing the history of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Fueled by activism and passion, the Quilt is the world’s largest community arts project. Activist Cleve Jones started the Quilt 35 years ago as a way to honor and remember his friends who died of AIDS. Today, the Quilt is 56 miles long, weighs 54 tons, and features people of every demographic.
“It started out as an activist movement and then quickly became a memorial of love, hope, and remembrance,” Kevin Herglotz, Chief Operating Officer of the National AIDS Memorial, said.
More than 50,000 colorful panels honor those lost to the virus. Singer Freddie Mercury, actor Rock Hudson, and artist Keith Haring are memorialized on the Quilt. Each panel is about 3 feet by 6 feet or the size of a human grave. So are the names of 110,000 other people who lost their battle with AIDS.
“My best friend died of complications related to AIDS almost 40 years ago,” said Duane Cramer, Director, Quilt Community Engagement for the National AIDS Memorial. “It changed the trajectory of my life forever. My best friend was my father, Joe J. Cramer, Jr., PhD. At the time of his death, and because of stigma and shame my sisters and I told people that he died of cancer. Ten years later we made a panel for him to be sewn into the Quilt. In 1996, the panel that my mother and sisters made was laid on the ground with over 50,000 panels included in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We knew it was important to remember him, and show the world that Black and Brown people too were dying of the virus at alarming rates. And the most effective way to combat the virus was to be open and honest about how he died and use it as an opportunity to educate the community about HIV.”
Many other panels pay tribute to unknown names who are loved and deeply missed. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks created a panel for one of her friends who died from AIDS.
“The Black community, in particular, has been disproportionately impacted all these years, and so we want to make sure those stories are told on the quilt,” said Herglotz.
While the lives and accomplishments of famous athletes and entertainers of color like Arthur Ashe, Eric “Eazy E” Wright of NWA, and Sylvester. Each is celebrated on the Quilt; historically, most panels honor more white people than Black ones, despite the reality that HIV/AIDS is more prevalent among communities of color.
There’s a new push to create new quilt panels to honor the lives of Black and Brown people who died from AIDS. “There are a lot of names and a lot of stories still to be told on this quilt,” said Herglotz.
“Quilting is a tradition in the African American community,” said Cramer. “Making a panel for the Quilt loved one is a wonderful way to remember, honor and celebrate our ancestors' lives. It’s also a way to write our own narrative.”
According to the National AIDS Memorial, in 2020, the South made up 38% of the U.S. population but represented over half of all new HIV diagnoses. Florida is third in the nation for new HIV diagnosis, topped only by California and Texas, according to the CDC.
That’s why this year’s theme for the AIDS Memorial Quilt is Change the Pattern. Funded by a $2.4 million grant from Gilead Sciences, Change the Pattern will engage communities through Quilt displays, interactive experiences, storytelling, and advocacy.
“The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a weapon of Love,” said Cramer. “It is a social justice tool that continues to educate and empower people to protect themselves and others - to be healthy. HIV is preventable.”
Twenty-five Quilt panels will be displayed at Compass Community Center in Lake Worth from Dec. 1 through Dec. 15. On Dec. 1, the ceremony, which typically features a candlelight vigil and guest speakers, begins at 6 p.m. Visit www.compassglcc.com for more information.