Kenyon College

The Historical Significance of the AIDS Memorial Quilt


If I Die of AIDS-forget burial-just drop my body in front of the FDA.

-David Wojnarowicz, American artist and activist (1954-1992)

Textiles and craft have played a vital role in shaping America’s political narratives. Today projects like the NAMES: AIDS Quilt Project constitute a framework for understanding US and global policy on the civil and political rights of members of the queer community.  Conceived in 1987 by human rights activist Cleve Jones and a collective of San Francisco-based individuals, the NAMES Project originally protested the Reagan administration’s silence in tackling the AIDS pandemic. The placement of the Quilt on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and its continued tour across the country affects change in perceptions of members of the queer community.   What was cast publicly as countercultural, immoral and underground now becomes human and part of the mainstream dialogue. Ultimately, many people from the generation that experienced the peak of the AIDS epidemic knew or were related to someone who was affected by this inequality and medical crisis. The lack of funding, religious differences, medical practices, and politicization of conservative action led to a deeper polarization in global politics. When the quilt was shown at the National Mall in 1987 it stretched out for miles and remains both a form of monument and rebellion, exemplifying an individual and collective format for talking about the health and identity in the country to affect policy change.

In the Gallery, the three panels of the quilt on loan reflect crucial connections to our mission and work. Two of the panels honor  Kenyon College community members impacted by the crisis. The third panel memorializes Latinx artist Mundo Meza (1955-1985), whose work is shown in Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. These personal narratives are a fraction of the many individuals involved with this project. 

Many nations continue to have forms of legislation that criminalize the basic dignities of the queer community. This is in contrast to the basic global principles shown in international law such as the United Nations Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. The quilt is a reminder of the historic fight and what lies ahead in the fight for equality. 

While there is still no cure for AIDS, the numbers of individuals impacted can be limited through the availability of medications such as PREP and condoms. PREP is also now covered by most US major insurers (something that has only happened as of last summer). 

In addition, if you have a personal narrative regarding the AIDS epidemic, or fighting towards medial, social and political equality, the AIDS Memorial Quilt project continues to welcome contributions and personal narratives. To learn more, visit or follow them on Instagram through @aidsmemorial.


Jamie Sussman ’21
Gund Associate Leader


Image: The AIDS Memorial Quilt being shown on the National Mall in 1996. Photo courtesy of the National Instituts of Health.