Viewing the AIDS Quilt panels for World AIDS Day

While walking through the maze of corridors of the Executive Office Building while heading to a briefing on World AIDS Day today, I turned a corner and, in this very unfamiliar place, saw something that I had seen before: a section of the Names Project quilt. The first time I had seen a section of the quilt was physically not so far away—less than a mile up on the National Mall. But in every other way, it was light years away from where we stand now.

In 1987 I came down overnight from New England for the March on Washington; the bus left us off along a curb just as the sun was rising. Through the fog, we heard a snapping sound, which turned out to be the great panels of the quilt being unfurled in the early morning light. I so clearly remember the brilliant colors of the panels and how they came alive as the sun rose and yet everything seemed so drenched in sorrow, in frustration at our inability to treat the disease, and in our anger at a government that was doing next to nothing. That day I discovered that someone I knew had died when I saw his panel—the first of many, many losses to AIDS. My image of that day—of our solidarity, tears, determination, beauty—formed a significant part of how I see who we are as GLBT people. You can view the history of the quilt on the Names Project website, including pictures of what I’ve described here.

That year, AZT was first introduced to treat AIDS, President Reagan delivered the first major address about AIDS, the activist group ACT UP began and successfully demanded a shorter approval process for drugs to treat HIV and the US instituted a ban on travelers with HIV entering the country.

In the years between then and now, so much has changed. I’ve lost a number of friends; I still feel guilty that somewhere between 50 and 60, I lost count of the number of funerals as they spiraled upwards steadily from there. Some of the people I am closest to are living with HIV/AIDS, some having narrowly made it until the advent of anti-retroviral drugs.

On this rainy day on the eve of World AIDS Day, seeing the panels displayed respectfully in the corridors that house the Executive branch of our government made me think literally that we have come inside. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton drew a strong positive reaction from those gathered (the first of only two times the audience responded with applause) when she talked about the commitment to stand against the marginalization of LGBT people anywhere it happens; she also emphasized the safeguard women and girls and recognize that while AIDS disproportionally impacts the marginalized, it spares no one.

Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, spoke personally about how fulfilling it was to sign the papers that lifted the HIV travel ban and the extremely negative impact that ban had on our work around the world to combat AIDS.

Over and over, the speakers address the ways in which the most vulnerable populations must be cared for and how the underserved must be addressed. They spoke of the specific needs of people of color, of gay and bisexual men, of Africa and, as Secretary Clinton said, “the ravages and complexities” of HIV.

Ambassador Eric Goosby, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, shared about the differences he has witnessed in Africa and other parts of the world before and after President Bush’s implementation of the PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) program. Elly Katabira, the President-Elect of the International AIDS Society announced that the International AIDS Conference would be held in DC in 2012, returning final to the US now that the travel ban has been lifted.

The speakers concluded by talking about the work done by so many in our country and around the world to ease suffering, heal illness, promote prevention efforts and reduce stigma—and that we are working towards the day when HIV will be a thing of the past. While there is so much more work still to be done, being a part of those conversations, those commitments and those actions is a very different place to be.

Getting inside isn’t enough … it’s what you do when you are there. But, it is better than being left out in the cold. May the words of the administration that we heard today translate into even more saved lives and progress towards a world where AIDS is no more.

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