AIDS Quilt Returns to Washington Amid Anger, Mourning

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt has returned to Washington, D.C., for the first time in 16 years, marking the 25th anniversary of The NAMES Project and thirty years in the struggle to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS around the world.

Every morning volunteers take on the laborious process of unfolding the panels of the quilt on the National Mall and then packing them up in the evening, a process that can only be described as a labor of love.

The quilt has over 94,000 names of AIDS sufferers on it and has been seen by over 18 million people worldwide. Through tours and special events, the quilt has raised over $4 million for direct services for people living with AIDS.

For the quilt's creators, this patch of green lawn in the heart of the nation's capital holds special significance -- the quilt was first displayed there in October of 1987 during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a time when many felt the federal government was turning its back on the AIDS epidemic. For Gert McMullin, the quilt production coordinator, it's a place of anger.

"I'm here to throw (the quilt) in front of my government and lay down my dead friends and hope that somebody will start caring and do something about it," said McMullin.

McMullin said she was close to losing her mind in the early 1980s, when many of her friends were dying of AIDS during the height of the epidemic in San Francisco.

"I had to find something I could do that I could talk about them," McMullin said, fighting back tears.

That "something" was the NAMES Project: for 25 years she has been sewing, stitching and displaying thousands of quilt panels dedicated to those who lost their lives to the AIDS virus.

"It's a place you can be with people who feel the same pain, and will let you talk about these people," McMullin said.

The quilt is the brainchild of San Francisco gay-rights activist Cleve Jones, who in 1987, helped found The NAMES Project. Today, the quilt consists of 48,000 panels and takes up 1.3 million square feet, making it impossible to view in its entirety at any one time. If a visitor were to spend one minute to view each panel, it would take over 33 days to see the entire quilt.

Joan Juster is the Reader Coordinator at NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. She oversees the reading of the names, where volunteers memorialize those who have lost their lives to HIV.

For Juster, working with The NAMES Project is her way of doing something about an issue that is close to her heart.

"You know, I remember when I was a kid asking my Daddy, 'What did you do during World War II, Daddy,' and he told me that everybody had to help," Juster said. "Well, when AIDS came along in the early '80s, I was living in San Francisco. It was our war. Our community was decimated. I had to help, I had to help somehow."

"People did see the quilt, and they got it. They got that they had to do something about AIDS," Juster said. "They got that it was about real people and real individuals, they saw that the love sewn into the quilt and it changed their minds about, about gay people, because it was all about gay people in those early days, and about the quilt itself, and about AIDS."

The quilt is on display from June 27 to July 1, and July 4 through July 8, as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. A full list of display times and locations can be found at http://quilt2012.org/quilt-display-locations/.

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