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(GLINN)- Over two million people, according to the Washington Police Dept., viewed the AIDS Memorial Quilt over the weekend of October 11-13, 1996 in Washington, D.C. This marked the first time the entire quilt, now at 45,000 panels, has been displayed since the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights in April, 1993.
The Quilt, first displayed in Washington, D. C. in 1987 on the Mall near the Smithsonian Castle, then contained a modest 1,920 memorial panels stretching one city block. The Quilt became both the human face of AIDS and a battle flag against the ignorance and fear that surrounded the disease. Those displaying the Quilt in 1987, innocent and full of hope, believed that the nightmare would soon end. The Quilt, as massive as it is in panels and weight (45 tons), represents only one in ten of the deaths from AIDS. Now, 15 years into the epidemic, AIDS has claimed 350,000 lives (including more than 9,000 in Washington D.C. compared to 2,031 for all of Wisconsin) and takes one more every 15 minutes.
Among the vast numbers viewing the Quilt were 55,000 school children, each of whom had to get parental permission to participate in the visit which included an orientation to deal with the emotions they might experience or witness, and frank discussions about AIDS. Half of all new HIV infections occur in people 25 or younger, and event organizers and educators said they hoped to drive home the point that AIDS can hit anyone.
The display of the Quilt required over 10,000 volunteers, beginning in San Francisco, where crews folded and packed one full railroad car per day for two weeks. 400 volunteers spent 3 days prior to the display cris-crossing the Mall with 21 miles of black fabric to create the giant grid of walkways. Each day 1,200 volunteers were needed to unfold and refold the Quilt, packing it away for the evening, and moving it to a secure storage site. Plastic was hidden under the corner of each section allowing the entire Quilt to be covered in under one minute in the event of rain. According to the Quilt's founder, Cleve Jones, this is perhaps the last time it will be displayed in its entirety. Since that display in 1993, the size of the Quilt has more than doubled, filling all the space of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building, and spilling off into the tree lined areas along the Mall's edge.
Another first was the surprise appearance of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday who viewed the panels guided by Cleve Jones. Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper Gore read names as the Quilt was unfolded at 8 a.m. on Friday. Tipper Gore was very warm and moved by the experience, giving hugs to just about everyone she came into contact with. The reading of names continued non-stop during the display of the Quilt from four stages, ending Sunday night with Cleve Jones reading the names of Quilt volunteers who had died and concluding with his best friend's name "Marvin Feldman", the Quilt's first panel.
With the quilt display as the centerpiece, Washington was gay/lesbian central for a wide range of activities and events.
Of the thirty of more events, the largest certainly was the National AIDS Candlelight March, entitled "Rage Against the Dying of the Light" held Saturday evening. Over 150,000 candle-carrying marchers walked from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial where the multitudes heard speeches by Elizabeth Taylor, Judith Light, Steve Gunderson, and many others, plus enjoyed a range of live entertainment. Thousands watched the event broadcast live on the Internet and on C-SPAN. At the same time two thousand more enjoyed a VH1 sponsored benefit concert at the Warner Theater featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Chaka Kahn, Patti Smith, and the Metropolitan Community Church Choir of D.C., and hosted by Martina Navratilova, a portion of which was shown on the four huge projection screens at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Human Rights Campaign and other organizations held a National Coming Out Day celebration on Friday night, the highlight of which was a speech by Chastity Bono and her mother Cher. Aids Action, GMHC and Mothers' Voices held the "Hands Around the Capitol" demonstration Saturday afternoon. The weekend's excitement was provided by ACT UP with a downtown demonstration against profiteering drug companies on Friday afternoon, and a major demonstration at the White House calling for national leadership on the AIDS crisis on Sunday afternoon during which the cremated ashes of loved ones were poured onto the White House lawn. The highlight Sunday evening was the "Music for Life" concert at the DAR Constitution Hall put on by a 280 voice GALA Chorus. Monday night, for those still in town, there was a Flirtations concert, and the only night there weren't long lines waiting to get into the most popular Dupont Circle bars.
Other notable events included the Sixth Annual National Skill Building Conference with a record turnout of 2,300 participants, PFLAG's 15th Annual Conference, the 2nd Annual Youth Festival and March, Youth Day, National Gay Pilot's Association conference, an Interfaith Service of Prayer and Healing at Washington National Cathedral, and a benefit for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As if there wasn't enough to do, the city also held its annual "Taste of D.C." street festival.
October 11, Friday was National Coming Out Day. The date commemorates the March on Washington in 1987, as well as the inaugural visit of the Names Project Quilt to the nation's capitol. It also happens to be Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday. As one female speaker said, "If it's good enough for Eleanor, it's good enough for me." It was decided that October 11 would be the day to focus attention on coming out, raising the visibility of gay people in their communities and in the media.
YOU'VE GOT THE POWER - VOTE" is the message the speakers delivered to the audience of over 2,000 people led by Candace Gingrich, Chastity Bono, and Cher. Actress Judith Light introduced Elizabeth Birch, Human Rights Campaign executive director to the enthusiastic crowd. Speakers that followed included Patricia Ireland, president, National Organization for Women; Harold Phillips of the National Minority AIDS council; Sean Sasser, HRC spokesman and Pedro Zamora's lover who appeared with him on MTV's "The Real World III"; Medlinda Paras, outgoing executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Daniel Zingale, HRC political director introduced Candace Gingrich, and then Richard Socarides, White House liaison to the gay and lesbian community. All national gay/lesbian organizations were represented by speakers. Openly gay, former major league baseball umpire, Dave Pallone spoke, followed by openly lesbian LPGA golfer Muffin Spencer-Devlin.
The highlight of the evening for most in the crowd was super-star Cher, introduced by her daughter Chastity Bono. Chastity Bono is a writer for The Advocate and interviewed Cher for a recent issue, which she said was the most professionally fulfilling thing she has done.. This National Coming Out Day appearance by Cher was the first in support of her daughter who came out on the cover of the Advocate, which Chastity said "was probably the greatest experience I've ever had ... I think much like the way we as gays, lesbians and bisexuals come out, parents also come out.... My mother recently did that."
Cher took the stage to thunderous applause. She smiled broadly and thanked the crowd. She said, "One of the cool things about being a minority is that you get to come together and have these kind of fun events. You really have to be a minority to feel this spirit, this kind of brotherhood, and know we're really kicking ass now! I'm here because of my daughter, and I think I had a particularly difficult time, as I've said in the Advocate, I was very un-Cher-like in the acceptance of my daughter's choice. It was real difficult for me, it had a lot to do with many things associated with Chastity but also things I was dealing with myself about what do you do when this person is not doing the normal thing, and they're supposed to be an extension of you and you have these ideas about them. And do we love our children because they're our children and are like us, or do we love our children because they're our children and like themselves. And that's an interesting moment to come to for any parent. So, I love my daughter, no matter what she does, because she's one of the coolest people I know."
She told the audience that this experiment we call America was built on coming together, on loving each other, and on tolerance for people, so people of unlike visions and natures could come together and enjoy one another. That the biggest problem is living up to this ideal. She said, "When one of us doesn't get his human rights, we're all in jeopardy. Then, this experiment we call America doesn't work. This has to do with everything across the board. As long as we have to qualify ourselves as gay Americans, or black Americans or Chicano Americans or whatever, the word American is the part that's getting lost. If we were all equal under the law and under our beliefs, we would all just be Americans, and we wouldn't have to qualify it. I don't have much faith in the political system, I must say, I just think it sucks big time. If nothing else you have to vote against the person you like the least. Get out and vote. Either vote for the person who can do the most for you or against the one you think is going to hurt you the most I would encourage you to get out and vote. Politicians have to realize that you are children of parents like me, and we just aren't going to take this shit any longer!"
"I'm really proud of all of you. We are all so creative, and everyone should be loved because they are a person, and that's it. The Bill of Rights says you get to have your rights. You have to be your creative self, you have to explore yourself, and how can you explore yourself in a closet in the dark. The important thing is to get out and see who you are. And people will just have to get used to it, people will just have to get used to you guys being who you are, whatever that is. So, I'm fine with it!"
Also on stage during her speech with Chastity Bono were her younger brother and sister, the children of Congressman Sonny Bono and his wife Mary, who also was there to show her support After the rally, Cher attended a reception sponsored by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national organization offering advocacy, education and support for families and friends of gay people. That event kicked off PFLAG's annual conference in Washington.
The rally, which was aired live on C-SPAN, ended with an emotional appeal by Patsy Clarke and Eloise Vaughn, the co-founders of Mothers Against Jesse in Congress (MAJIC), a North Carolina organization working to defeat Sen. Jesse Helms in this year's election. Clarke said, "Our sons died of AIDS -- they're represented in that quilt that made us cry today. It's a terrible thing to say that my son had to die before my eyes were opened, but thank God they are open now.... We do hope, we really pray, that you will go to that ballot box." Patsy concluded, "A young man asked us, in a group like this, what advice would you give to us in dealing with our parents. We stood there and thought a moment, and then we said, `Give us a chance. We diapered you, we rocked you, we loved you then and oh, we love you now!' "
During the Quilt display on Saturday, a number of events took place, chief among them "Hands Around the Capitol" starting at 1:30. Thousands of concerned Americans affected by AIDS gathered on the West Front Terrace of the U.S. Capitol for a rally. Speakers included people living with HIV and AIDS, national AIDS advocacy leaders and concerned personalities. "Join Hands. Fight AIDS. Vote." was the solidarity message for this event which saw a joining of thousands of hands around the nation's Capitol to symbolize unity in the fight against AIDS. More than 200 young people -- from senior high school through the college level -- acted as event Marshals, including a gay and lesbian youth group from Indiana.
One of the young women from Indiana said: "if you got AIDS by using public toilet seats, the government would put out a bill to pay the wages of a million janitors. Every kid would know about it, and anyone who spoke out against it, against education for kids, would be laughed at. But that isn't the way it is, and boy don't you and I know it."
Pedro Zamora, who walked the Capitol steps many times in his work as an AIDS activist, was present in spirit through the appearance of his sister and his best friend, and through his 13 panels of the Quilt.
Conceived as an active affirmation of the living struggle against the epidemic, the circle of hands presented a counterpoint to the viewing of the 45,000-panel AIDS Memorial Quilt. Gay Men's Health Crisis' Ed Galloway said: "The quilt reminds us of the losses of the past, but we're here today to fight for the living." GMHCA's Andy Sterm adds, "Thousands living with AIDS are counting on our government leaders. Just as we join hands today in unity, we will be united at the ballot boxes in November."
Mark Robinson, executive director of GMHC said: "When we join hands here today, we show America that each person in this land is linked to the next one. The circle is unbroken. And the chain of humanity that will circle this Capitol represents the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children living with AIDS. We stand together to remember all of the family, friends and lovers that we have lost. We stand together to show our leaders in Congress and in the White House that every life is precious, that AIDS is political. We will be heard. Our tears must not be ignored. Our voices must not be ignored. Our anger must not be ignored."
Sunday evening tens of thousands gathered at the Capitol for the opening rally of the National AIDS Candlelight March. There were a few short speeches and the New York all-female group "Betty" performed a moving song they composed for a young friend who lost his lover of nine years. (Visit "betty" at Hellobetty.com.) During the opening ceremonies of this historic march, tens of thousands of people filled all available space in front of the Capitol, and once the march began, many tens of thousands more joined in, bringing the total to about 150,000 people. It took over two hours for the marchers to travel down Pennsylvania Avenue, to Constitution Ave., past the White House and onto the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial for the main program. Six lonely protesters protected by far more police officers were a minor irritation while marching past the Washington Monument.
Soon after arriving at the Mall, the minister of Washington's Metropolitan Community Church gave an invocation, followed by DC representative Maxine Waters. A live video presentation from the Warner Theater was presented on the four huge projection screens, which featured a performance by the Metropolitan Community Church Gospel Choir backing singer Chaka Kahn. Candles moved with the beat, creating a massive wave of light, moving back and forth over the crowd. Country music star Kathy Mattera performed next.
Then, ten people, famous and unknown, stepped from the darkened stage set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, into a brilliant spotlight holding a candle. Each identified their affiliation with the AIDS epidemic as a care giver, advocate, or person living with AIDS.
A young woman took the stage. She said: "AIDS is ravaging my body, but even as AIDS is destroying my body I must say, with the aid of God, it cannot have my joy. I will never surrender my joy." A young male athlete, living with AIDS for ten years, told about pushing his body to the limits, as an example of how strong we can be in surviving AIDS. Cristina Saralegui, the Univision talk show host, spoke in Spanish and English. The mother of Ryan White who died on April 8, 1990 spoke about her continuing efforts to educate the young about AIDS. An American Indian women spoke about her struggles with being an AIDS educator in the Indian community. A HIV+ five year old girl spoke, saying: "I am the future. I am a face of AIDS."
The last two "faces of AIDS' stepping onto the stage were Judith Light, who starred in the ABC-TV hit comedy series "Who's the Boss?" and Steve Gunderson, the openly gay Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Judith Light said, in part: "We are the famous and the unknown. We are the young, we are the old. We are the HIV infected and affected. We are the care givers. We are all the face of AIDS." Judith Light and Steve Gunderson then took turns reading the poem of Dylan Thomas which inspired the theme, "Rage Against the Dying of the Light."
A triumphant Teddy Pendergrass was introduced and performed "I've Been Truly Blessed." Teddy was a member of the Cadillacs before getting recruited by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in 1968. In 1977 he launched a successful solo career. Following a serious auto accident that left him confined to a wheelchair, he released four consecutive gold albums.
Quilt Founder Cleve Jones spoke, thanking President Clinton for visiting the Quilt, saying the four words he has been waiting for many years to say, "Thank you Mr. President." He implored him to approve more funding for AIDS research, and encouraged those in California to vote to allow the medical use of marijuana. Jones said, in part, "There are new drugs available, but they cost too much. Thousands of our brothers and sisters are denied access to these new drugs. We need $195 million dollars more. We need protection from a pharmaceutical industry that puts profits before people. We need more AIDS research... and we demand access to drugs for all... " He called on the President to support needle exchange, a theme echoed by 350 Act Up supporters at Sunday's demonstration at the White House.
"We know that politics requires compromise, but there can be no compromise when it comes to equality,." Jones emphasized. He called upon the President to repair the welfare safety net that was torn apart by the current Congress, and pledged that we will give him a better Congress to work with. He said, "In time Mr. President, I believe you will come to understand that the love shared between two men or two women is no less than the love you share with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and no different in the eyes of God!" He concluded: "Never Surrender!" Broadway star Betty Buckley then entertained, singing "Till the Days Go By.".
Elizabeth Taylor, an advocate since the earliest days of the epidemic, was welcomed with loud applause and people hollering "Thank you," "We Love You" and Taylor saying back, "Thank you. I love you too."
Miss Taylor spoke, saying: "Memories. Love. Grief. Passion. Sorrow. Redemption. There are a few works of art that invoke such pure and powerful feelings such as the Quilt. Perhaps that is why it so fascinates us. Its endless panels invite us to step into the private space of people's lives. We share the same timeless personal moments of their lovers, parents, friends. We are forced into the deep intimacy of their death. It is easy to be afraid, for we may drown in this overwhelming wave of emotion. But you go forward, we must come back, because we must acknowledge the grief and the loss. And we must confront the collective pain. And once we do, once we've achieved that hard-won sense of peace, then, and only then, can we channel our energy and our anger at the real enemy, the virus itself. The Quilt has taught us much about how vibrantly life can be lived, and how eloquently it can be lost. It has brought us a sense of closeness and family, and community. It has taught us that although we are all different, in some ways, we are all the same. It has shown us how to turn our collective grief into group action. It has so transformed our lives, they will never be the same. I stand here today, to ask you to remember. I ask you that you remember and grieve, and love and hope. Mostly, I ask that you never forget. For as long as you don't forget, more than 300,000 Americans will not have died in vain. " Sustained applause.
"It is now time to unite all our energies into one pure and solid flame. I want you all to extinguish your candle. As you do, say aloud the name of a loved one. Please extinguish your candles. Please call out the name. (God Love You.) Bless you." I called out the name of a dear friend, Gregory Jay Hanson and also a friend loved by the entire community, Rodney Scheel, having cried over their Quilt panels earlier in the day. From the darkened stage, an Olympic-sized cauldron was lit shooting a flame high into the sky. "God Bless," Miss Taylor prayed.
The evening was brought to a conclusion by all the speakers and entertainers, and the audience, accompanied by D.C.'s Eastern High School Choir singing "We Shall Overcome" in an emotional finale.
The crowd was so massive that thousands were unable to make it into the Mall around the reflecting pool and stood in the street and upon the hill holding the Washington Monument. Countless thousands of candles continued to burn up and down the bordering street and up the walkways to the monument giving the impression of a sea of flames -- flames that we all wished could burn away this terrible disease. Until there is a cure: "ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS." Be safe!