Activism Lives on in Atlanta
As a country, we have come a long way on the issues of AIDS research funding and LGBT rights. According to HIV.gov, “The U.S. government investment in the domestic response to HIV has risen to more than $26 billion per year. Funding for HIV services and activities is spread across multiple federal departments, including Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Justice, Veterans Affairs (VA), and Defense.” An increase in HIV funding would have never been an idea on the table back during the 1980’s. Our federal government has taken proactive steps to fund and help find a cure for HIV/AIDS.
In addition, LGBT rights have extended over time. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell vs. Hodges that the law must recognize same-sex couples, resulting in the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a majority opinion that
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” With the majority opinion of Justice Kennedy, a recognition is illustrated. Not only are LGBT allowed to marry, they are now seen as equal, but most of all, they are seen as people. This is exactly what Dr. Rob Eichberg was fighting for. He wanted to see a society in which gay individual didn’t have to hide and could be reassured that their society reflected the ideals of equality.
It is clear, the as a country the United States has shifted attitudes in relation to AIDS research in LGBT acceptance. However, this does not mean that the role of activism in America has diminished. In fact, activism is extremely relevant in today’s society. I would assert that the NAMES Gallery Atlanta is a symbol of activism in the 21st century and that the NAMES Gallery Atlanta helps us remember the mistakes of the past to ensure a promising future.
The NAMES Gallery Atlanta is home to blocks of quilt. As I explained in my introduction, the gallery serves as a place to educate the general population about the importance of curing AIDS in our society, As each block contains the stories of individuals who died because of AIDS, it is a raw reminder that the AIDS epidemic was one that had consequences.
However, one final question remains? Who was the force behind such a bold statement and piece of community art?
A student, instructor, or observer of the AIDS Quilt cannot fully understand the message the quilt is communicating without understanding the importance of Cleve Jones. In an interview with NPR host David Bianculli, Cleve Jones was able to speak out and tell his story. Before the works of Feinberg and Eichberg, Jones was a teenage boy growing up in America during the 1960’s. However. Jones was growing up in America as a gay teenage boy. Needless to say, attitudes towards a multitude of individuals during the 1960’s were discriminatory. In a post-segregation America, the country was attempting to find its identity and preserve a culture that had constantly put minorities on the bottom. However, Jones says that as a gay teenager, he never came out because “the penalties for homosexual conduct were – would vary from state to state. But they were – it was a felony in most states, punishable with prison terms of varying lengths.” Even as a young teenager, Jones knew that being gay was something to hide, and not something that society seemed as acceptable by any means.
From losing his mentor Harvey Milk to contracting HIV, to growing up in San Fransico and fearing imprisonment for being gay, I found the Cleve Jones had seen the worst of the worse growing up, yet through immense adversity, was able to promote a cause greater than just himself. However, Jones’s work aligns with the timeline of the work of Feinberg and Eichberg. Jones would go onto say in his interview with Bianculli that “Reagan did so little. And it’s frustrating for me in the following decades to see how he’s been elevated to sainthood in some quarters. For me and for my community, his presidency was a disaster. I think when we look back at those early years, it’s very clear that the one nation on earth, ours, the one nation that had the resources and the advanced warning and the institutions and the money that could have made a difference failed to do so. And we failed for really one reason.This was identified as a gay disease and then when we discovered it wasn’t just gay people, we discovered it was black people. So this combination of homophobia and racism just led to this attitude that was expressed quite clearly by almost all of the politicians of that time, which was let them die. They weren’t interested in funding the research.” Jones’s claim proves a point that I had investigated earlier. Through attitudes of homophobia and discrimination, the Reagan presidency lets an epidemic occur under their watch. Cleve Jones’s life can be used as a source of temporal context. From growing up in the 1960’s to seeing President Reagan fail to stop an AIDS epidemic, Jones can attest to the fact that a push for social change did not come easy and was in fact met with vehement opposition.
As Jones would live a life full of uncertainty of if the world would accept him, he would go on to find that social change could not be done without making a bold statement. However, his platform of activism relied on visual and artistic expression in order to illustrate the urgency for raising awareness towards HIV/AIDS.
In his most in personal part of his interview with Bianculli, Jones describes how his idea of the NAMES Quilt came to be. Jones told Bianculit that “I had the idea for the quilt on November 27, 1985, at that year’s annual candlelight tribute to Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Every year in San Francisco on November 27, we gather at the corner of Castro and Market Street and light our candles to remember Harvey and George. That year, as we were getting ready for the annual tribute, the death toll in San Francisco rose to 1,000. And there was a headline in the paper about 1,000 San Franciscans dead from AIDS as I was walking around the neighborhood putting up posters reminding people of the candlelight vigil that was coming up.And I was just so struck by that number, 1,000. And I remember standing at the corner of Castro and Market and, you know, its beautiful Victorian homes and buildings with cafes and restaurants and clubs. You hear music and smell food and coffee and hear laughter. And you have no idea that you’re standing at the epicenter of this really horrendous tragedy that at that time was rapidly spreading. And I just got so frustrated by the lack of evidence. And I thought to myself, you know if we could knock down these buildings if this was a meadow with a thousand corpses rotting in the sun, you know, then people would look at it and they’d understand it. And if they were human beings, they would be compelled to respond.But there was no response. Reagan was president and he wouldn’t even talk about it. And Bush followed and, you know, it was really just overwhelmingly frustrating. And so that night of the march, I had Harvey Milk’s old bullhorn and I got stacks of poster board and sacks of markers. And I asked everybody to write the name of someone they knew who had been killed by the new disease. And at first, people were ashamed to do it but finally began writing their first and last names.And we carried these placards with us with our candles to San Francisco City Hall where we always leave our candles. And then I had everybody go another two blocks down to UN Plaza and the building that housed the Health and Human Services West Coast offices for the federal government, for the Reagan administration. And we’d hidden ladders in the shrubbery nearby and climbed up the front gray stone facade of this building and taped the names to the wall. And after I got off my ladder, I walked through the crowd. There were thousands of people. It was gentle rain. No speeches or music, just thousands of people reading these names on this patchwork of placards up on that wall.
And I thought to myself, it looks like some kind of quilt.”
While I attempt to say way from excessive quotes, I find that no one tells the story of the NAMES Quilt better than Jones himself. While my quote used from Jones is detailed, I find that his story and his imagination behind the idea of the quilt is a story that needs to be told. Jones was tired. He was tired of seeing his friends die, he was tired of feeling that no one was listening to the problems facing the AIDS-stricken community, and he was tired of feeling like this epidemic was never going to end. However, as tired as Jones may have been, he was ready to take action. Jones wanted Reagan to see the lives that have been lost, but most importantly, he wanted the country to see that we could not carry on like this. The United States could no longer let innocent lives be taken with resources that were at disposal to prevent an epidemic of this proportion.
Today, the AIDS Quilt and NAMES project simply would have never have ceased to be if it weren’t for Cleve Jones. Jones wanted the country to come together and recognize that AIDS was killing gay individuals along with minorities. Jones knew that if America became fully complacent towards AIDS, more lives would be lost. Jones can inspire us all to find our own strength within ourselves. No matter how much loss, suffering, and adversity one faces, one has the power to create change. Jones did just that and was a revolutionary in the movement for AIDS awareness. Jones saw a problem and said it must change, and I find that to be the essence of social change.
For the Jones Bianculli interview, click here.
You Are BOLD Names
The quilts that memorialize individuals send a strong message: don’t forget. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is using activism as a platform to ensure that the past can help shape our future.
The NAMES Gallery is not just a place that is home to legacies. It is a gallery that is home to values and calls to action.
According to the AIDS Memorial Quilt website, “through programs and activities of The AIDS Memorial Quilt, The NAMES Project Foundation endeavors to provide a creative means for remembrance and healing. Effectively illustrate the enormity of the AIDS epidemic. Increase the general public’s awareness of HIV and AIDS.Assist others with HIV infection-prevention education. Raise funds for community-based AIDS service organizations.”
The gallery itself is a testament to the strength that activism holds. Activism is a force to be reckoned with. Activism is a tool that can be seen all over the world, and even in the booming city of Atlanta. Feinberg and Eichberg paved the way for others to bust the doors of opposition down. Feinberg and Eichberg, along with many other individuals at the time helped reshape the narrative when it came to AIDS and LGBT issues, and in doing that, brought to light issues that had been pushed aside and dismissed for years.
Where would we be today without the tireless work of David Feinberg, Rob Eichberg, and Cleve Jones? While Feinberg, Eichberg, and Jones all were leaders in their work, they would want us to remember that we ourselves have the potential to change injustice. All of the individuals I researched have one thing in common, they are average citizens who saw injustice and worked to rewrite the narrative. They would all want us to know that we have to power to be a force of change.
The NAMES Gallery would not be able to stand if it weren’t for the individuals who stopped and said enough is enough, we demand to be heard.
Today, their voices are still heard. Just wonder to 117 Luckie St. and you can hear the echoes of the voices that came before us.