The AIDS quilt came about through a significant turning point in both politics and society for people who classed themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) as more and more activists protested for an end to discrimination. Starting in 1977 in America, only 4 years before Reagan came to office, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected in to office as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor. (Milk foundation, n.d.) Milk was widely respected and admired as he provided hope and inspiration not only for the LGBT communities but also spoke out on behalf of other segregated communities and groups. A key event during Milk’s upstanding was the defeat of a Californian Ballot Initiative which sort to consent the dismissal of gay teachers in the states public schools. Milk had the bid declined through gay pride marches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as the LGBT community stood behind him, this is today seen as a key event during the fight for gay rights as at the same time other mandates were being passed, enabling discrimination against gays all around the country. However in 1978, Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone, by a former city Supervisor. When their assassin was let off with a light sentence for manslaughter the day before what would have been Milk’s birthday mass riots were sparked in what is now known as the White Night Riots, which was a far cry from the silent candle lit march which went through Castro the night of his assassination. The riots saw large-scale violence,
Enraged citizens stormed City Hall and rows of police cars were set on fire. The city suffered property damage and police officers retaliated by raiding the Castro, vandalizing gay businesses and beating people on the street (Milk Foundation, n.d.).
It could be argued that this retaliation by the LGBT citizens of Castro compromised all of Milks hard work, however during one of Milk’s many speeches in his year of being supervisor saw him encourage LGBT’s to stand up for themselves in order to enforce equality around America.
“Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.” (Milk Foundation, n.d.)
Milks activist approach to the government and politics, along with his open views on LGBT matters encouraged this community to pull together and be heard as one loud voice, rather than individual voices which could be ignored by leadership figureheads. Though the White Night Riots may have fueled the governments ability to push for discrimination the words of Milk would not be forgotten and LGBT’s would continue to use activism to push for an end to discrimination (Milk Foundation, n.d.)
Crucially in 1987 San Francisco chronicle journalist Randy Shilts published a book titles ‘And the Band Played on: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic’, which forced the society and politicians to stop and take notice of what was seen as a mysterious and unmentionable disease. Upon reflection of the book after Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 stated, “But Randy’s contribution was so crucial. He broke through society’s denial and was absolutely critical to communicating the reality of AIDS.” (Smith, D 1994) Shilts forced the topic of AIDS upon society, making them understand its severity and consequences.
Between the death of Milk and the publication not only of this book but newspaper articles by Shilts, brought gay rights to the forefront of American politics and paved the way for the AIDS Quilt to be formed. Inspired by the activist actions of these two motivational characters many LGBT’s were encouraged to carry out activist actions in order to be heard and enforce public attention. The Aids quilt defines its purpose, as ‘The mission of the NAMES Project Foundation is to preserve, care for and use the AIDS Memorial Quilt to foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the age of AIDS.’ (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010) The quilt was formed as a result of an activist stand by a San Francisco gay rights activist, Cleve Jones, ever since the assassinations of Milk and Moscone Jones has played a role in helping to organize the candlelight march which takes place in honor of these men. Whilst planning the 1985 march he learned that over 1000 San Franciscans had died from AIDS. He responded to this by asking
‘each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.’ (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010)
After this demonstration of respect, reflection and great sadness the comments that the wall looked like a patchwork quilt thus became the inspiration that would form the start of the quilt. The quilt is still ongoing to the present day and currently consists of more than 48,000 individual panels, which total 1.3 million square feet (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010).