I could see it so clearly in my head and it was starting to make me crazy. All I had were words, and apparently the words I had were insufficient to paint for others the image in my brain: the National Mall, covered in fabric stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. But whenever I began to talk about it, I was met with blank stares or rolling eyes.
Even the word had power for me. Quilts. It made me think of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It evoked images of pioneer women making camp by the Conestoga wagons. Or African slaves in the South, hoarding scraps of fabric from the master’s house. It spoke of cast-offs, discarded remnants, different colors and textures, sewn together to create something beautiful and useful and warm. Comforters.
I imagined families sharing stories of their loved ones as they cut and sewed the fabric. It could be therapy, I hoped, for a community that was increasingly paralyzed by grief and rage and powerlessness.
It could be a tool for the media, to reveal the humanity behind the statistics. And a weapon to deploy against the government; to shame them with stark visual evidence of their utter failure to respond to the suffering and death that spread and increased with every passing day.
As I continued to work for the Friends Committee on Legislation, I couldn’t shake the idea of a quilt. I traveled frequently throughout California to visit the local Quaker meetings that supported the FCL’s work on criminal justice issues. One Sunday at the Palo Alto Friends Meeting I met a young man named Atticus who had just graduated from Stanford University. I could tell he hadn’t been to a Quaker meeting before; he was wearing a jacket and tie while the Friends were more casual. He had a cold and I could tell he was embarrassed by the sound of his sniffles in the otherwise silent meetinghouse. I thought he was adorable.
We started to date. I decided that it was not fair to the Quakers for me to work with them while I became more and more distracted by the idea of the quilt. I’d saved some money and Atticus was well paid. We eventually got an apartment on Hancock Street near Dolores Park in San Francisco. It was a beautiful little apartment with spectacular views of downtown from the bay windows. Al and Mila Schneider, the landlords, lived next door. Al was Swiss, his wife came from the Philippines, and they liked us. Mila was especially fond of Atticus and would call out to him in the morning as he left for work, “Good morning, Atty-koos.”
Atticus listened to my ideas for the Quilt and encouraged me. He also noted that I needed an administrative type, someone with managerial skills, to help me. He introduced me to a friend of his from Stanford named Mike Smith. Meanwhile, my friend Joseph and I started making quilt panels. The first was for Marvin; I painted it in the backyard. It wasn’t very good, and I fear Marvin would have disapproved. He would have wanted something suitable for the Museum of Modern Art, or at least for a display window at Barneys on Madison Avenue. Joseph and I made a list of forty men we felt that we had known well enough to memorialize and began painting their names on 3‑by‑6‑foot blocks of fabric. We both remembered that night on Castro Street and talking of how much land would be covered if the bodies of our dead were laid out head to toe. Each panel was the approximate size of a grave.
Mike and I called a meeting in the spring of 1987, rented a room in the Women’s Building for a few hours, and put up posters around the neighborhood. Hardly anyone showed up, but two who did were Jack Caster and Cindy McMullen, who preferred to be called “Gert.” Both had already created panels for their own friends, and they were far more elaborate and artistic than the crude first attempts that Joseph and I had painted in my backyard. Jack would volunteer for us until he died. Gert is still sewing.
For over a year, activists from around the country had been working to organize a mass march for lesbian and gay rights to be held in October 1987 in Washington, DC. I was determined to unfold the Quilt on the Mall at the march.
By June we had several dozen panels created. Some of them were quite plain; others were magnificently artistic. Gilbert Baker made a hot pink panel for Bobbi Campbell. Gert sewed them eight at a time into squares that were 12 by 12 feet, and edged them with canvas with evenly spaced grommets to enable the squares to be linked together or suspended.
As the annual Gay Freedom Day celebration approached, we asked Mayor Feinstein for permission to hang the first five squares from the mayor’s balcony at City Hall, overlooking the main stage and Civic Center Plaza. To our surprise, she readily agreed.
We had a new Member of Congress representing San Francisco and I asked her for help with some trepidation, having campaigned for her opponent in the election, Harry Britt. Nancy Pelosi agreed to help, but she was skeptical. “Cleve, I actually know how to sew and enjoy it, but do you really think people will find the time to do this?”
She, Leo T. McCarthy, and Art Agnos hosted the first fundraiser at her posh home in Pacific Heights. The Castro Street Fair was organized as a nonprofit and we began to operate under their auspices. We had a name now: the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Almost immediately we came up against two bureaucracies. The organizers of the national march didn’t like the idea of us draping a couple blocks of the Mall with fabric, and neither did the National Park Service.
Nancy Pelosi met with the Park Service officials. They expressed concern that the fabric would kill the lawn. Pelosi told them we could “fluff” the Quilt every hour to let the grass breathe. It was an utterly ridiculous promise to make but the Park Service bought it and issued the permit.
Ken Jones and San Diego activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez helped persuade the march organizers to not oppose our presence.
On Sunday, June 28, 1987, over two hundred thousand attended the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade and celebration. The day was dedicated to the memory of people who had died from AIDS. Everyone in Civic Center Plaza could see clearly the multicolored Quilt sections hanging from the mayor’s balcony.
I finally had more than words to describe my vision. People could see it now. They lined up at our information booth up to talk with Mike and Gert and Jack and to get copies of our first brochure with instructions for creating memorial Quilt panels. Those brochures would travel back to the hometowns of all the visitors. Across America people began to sew.
We rented the cavernous old building at 2362 Market Street, where Harvey Milk had moved his Castro Camera store after being evicted from Castro Street back in 1978.