In June 1987, a group of activists gathered in San Francisco to pay their respects to friends and lovers who had recently died of AIDS. At a time when many victims of the ‘gay plague’ – as the disease was then referred to in the media – were being denied religious burials, it felt important to honour them.
To ensure the deceased were not forgotten, Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay activist, hit on the idea of painting the names of 40 AIDS victims on placards and hanging them from the balcony of City Hall.
Lined up beside each other, the placards resembled nothing so much as a quilt. What, wondered Jones, if he were to make a real quilt with each panel measuring the size of an average grave? And what if the panels were laid head to toe at a national landmark? It would be a fitting memorial and, he reasoned, a symbol politicians would find impossible to ignore.
So it was that in October 1987, on the occasion of a mass march for lesbian and gay rights in Washington DC, the first section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, embroidered with the names of 1,920 victims, was laid on the National Mall. Today the quilt has nearly 50,000 panels and weighs approximately 54 tons, making it the largest piece of community folk art in the world and, more importantly, the weightiest memorial to any pandemic in history.