In June of 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on five strange cases of a rare pneumonia in homosexuals; by the end of that year, 121 men were dead from what appeared to be a severe deficiency of their immune systems. By 1982, AIDS had a name, and as the decade progressed, gays gradually began to fear for their community’s very existence as their friends and lovers died all around them. Finally, in 1987, the first retroviral drug—commonly known as AZT—at last provided enough hope that communities and families of victims could begin to think about a memorial for those who had been and would still be lost in the epidemic.
It was that year that the noted activist Cleve Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant’s Milk) and others created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an assemblage of 3’ x 6’ panels containing the names of those lost to the virus. When the Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in October of 1987, it comprised 1,920 panels and was larger than a football field. Today, the panels number more than 48,000 and celebrate the lives of more than 94,000 people, gay and straight alike, who have passed away.
Due to the massive scope of the epidemic, as well as the popularity of the project, the Quilt in its entirety is so large that it can no longer be displayed in a single place—which is why the Quilt-keeping NAMES Project Foundation (in partnership with Microsoft Research, the University of Southern California, and others) has digitized it. Users may now use Microsoft Bing mapping technology to view and zoom around the entirety of the Quilt online; and for more context, you can check out this new interactive timeline that details the history of AIDS alongside the development of the Quilt.
While spending time with the immense loss represented by the tapestry will undoubtedly evoke some sadness, don’t worry: The colorful, creative and often wonderfully funny memorials that friends and lovers have created for their loved ones are sure to inspire a smile or two as well. One of the first panels I came upon was for “Joe Cassella, Jr.,” and featured a sly-looking Gumby sporting a red lace skirt and (a conservative classic) a double strand of pearls. Another panel, for “Deano,” contains a long-lashed angel toting shopping bags from Neiman Marcus and Macy’s, each overflowing with what must be the most heavenly fashions.
To view the Quilt online, visit its new official home on the Web.