The modern LGBT rights movement and its activists of all genders have produced a substantial body of published and unpublished literature of many types ranging from biographies to historical accounts and new theoretical frameworks for the researching of sexuality. It has also brought to a wide audience certain symbols and images, some, such as the pink triangle, drawn from specific historical periods of oppression and reclaimed for affirmative purposes, while others such as the rainbow flag are more contemporary creations that have become widely applied. The most spectacular example of this latter category is unquestionably the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, born in the early years of the pandemic in the city of San Francisco. While images of its displays at various venues including the National Mall in Washington, D.C. are instantly recognizable, less known is the variety of documentation that has been created in various formats from printed matter to the performance stage to tell the story of the Quilt and the lives whose legacies it preserves.
The idea for the Quilt originated with San Francisco activist Cleve Jones, who, as part of a candlelight march in memory of assassinated Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1985, asked people who had lost someone to AIDS to make a sign with whatever decoration seemed appropriate and carry them during the march. After the march was completed, Jones and his fellow marchers taped the signs to the wall of the San Francisco Federal Building. The resulting image gave rise to the idea of continuing this type of memorial in the more permanent form of a traditional patchwork quilt, each of whose squares would be a unique creation of men and women who wished to signify to the world that the life of the named person had been one of worth and value. In June 1987, Cleve Jones and Mike Smith gathered a group of people at a storefront on Market Street to formally create The NAMES Project Foundation. The idea was quickly picked up by the American gay and lesbian community in those cities which had at that time been heavily impacted by the AIDS pandemic- Atlanta, New York City, and Los Angeles in addition to San Francisco. Quilt panels began to arrive at the Project, and on June 27, 1987, the first forty panels of the Quilt- each the size of a human grave- were displayed from the Mayor’s balcony at San Francisco’s City Hall. By the time the Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. four months later, the number of panels had grown to 1,920. In the spring of 1988, the Quilt began a nationwide tour that would reach twenty cities and see its size expand to over six thousand panels. It returned to Washington, D.C. in October 1988, when 8, 288 panels were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House.