The AIDS Quilt’s Visit to Bowdoin

On Monday February 2nd, an important piece of the troubling history of the AIDS epidemic in America came to Bowdoin, when a panel from the AIDS Quilt goes on display in Lamarche Gallery. The AIDS Quilt was an initiative started in San Francisco, by gay rights activist Cleve Jones. The idea originally came to Jones in 1985, when, as a part of his organization of the annual candlelight march to honor the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, he learned of the over 1,000 San Franciscans who had already died of AIDS. He asked each of the marchers at the event to place a card with the name of one their deceased fellow citizens on the side of the San Francisco Federal Building. The final effect bore a striking resemblance to a quilt.
Thus the idea for the Aids Quilt was born, and two years later, in June 1987, the project was started in earnest. People from all over the country began sending handmade quilt panels into the project’s San Francisco office, with high volumes of panels sent from cities in which the epidemic had been heavily affected, such as Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco itself. On October 11, 1987, the Quilt made its most remarkable public appearance, carried by demonstrators onto the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. The Quilt, which at this point was composed of 1920 panels – making it larger than a football field – was visited by over half a million people that weekend.
Not long after, in the spring of 1988, the Quilt made a four-month, twenty-city national tour, which raised almost $500,000 for AIDS service organizations. In each city, new panels were added to the quilt, and by the end of the four-month period, it had accumulated 6000 new panels. Within four years, the Quilt contained panels from every state and twenty-eight countries worldwide. Today, the Quilt has 48,000 panels, making it the largest community art project in the world. And it’s still growing – anyone can design their own panel to add to the collection and to honor the life of an AIDS victim. Out of necessity, the Quilt has been separated into smaller collections of panels, one of which is housed by our campus this week.
The Quilt was a way of both honoring the individual lives lost to the AIDS epidemic as it first swept across America while insisting on public (and, in the context of the 1987 March on the National Mall, governmental) acknowledgment of the huge number of lives lost to the disease. This was necessary, as governmental and administrative reaction to the very real epidemic was reluctant at the start. It wasn’t even until 1981 when the CDC released its first warning about the disease, describing AIDS as a “rare form of pneumonia affecting a relatively small number of gay men.” Although our research, treatment and general understanding of the AIDS virus has vastly improved since that time, the Quilt reminds viewers that the support and treatment available for people living with AIDS today has not always been there. And with new panels being submitted to the project, it also reminds us that the virus has not gone away.
Indeed, despite huge amounts of scientific research and education regarding prevention measures, 56,000 new HIV cases and 18,000 HIV-related deaths are reported annually in the U.S. alone, and there are currently 1.1 million Americans living with the disease. And even with advancements in highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART, also known as the AIDS cocktail), living with the disease is no small task. Generic versions of this treatment were approved and introduced between 2009 and 2010, making it more affordable to patients around the globe, but the cost is still hugely expensive. The CDC estimates that the average annual HIV treatment cost for HAART was $23,000, with the most recently published estimates of lifetime costs coming out at a staggering $379,688. This cost makes treatment out of reach for many Americans living with HIV. Individual access to life-saving HIV treatment may be one of the largest ethical dilemmas facing our medical system today. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that HAART treatments make patients more vulnerable to developing diabetes, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and contributing to bone loss.
Although the face of AIDS has changed since the inception of the AIDS Quilt project in the eighties, the realities that surround the virus have largely stayed the same. There is still undeniable stigma attached to the label “HIV-positive.” There are still huge obstacles for Americans living with HIV, of whom (according to the AIDS charity AVERT) less than 20% have private health insurance and over one-third do not have any health coverage at all. There is still educating to be done concerning HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention. The landscape surrounding the AIDS epidemic in America has changed in many ways, but there is still work to be done, and the Quilt reminds us of this. By enshrining each life lost in a beautiful, distinctive quilt panel, the AIDS Quilt sends a powerful message urging us all onward in the search for a cure to this virus.

Starting Monday, February 2nd, a panel of the AIDS Quilt will be on display in Lamarche Gallery on the second floor of Smith Union. On Tuesday, February 3rd, there was a reception at 6:30 followed by a talk at 7:00 by Birgit Pols entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward: AIDS in the 21st Century.” The Quilt will be on display until the 9th. We encourage everyone to go see it, reflect on the past, and the long road that is still ahead of us.