I remember when I first saw the AIDS Quilt, or a portion of it, in the mid-1990s. I had just come out, personally and professionally, in southern Colorado, a young professor making his first steps toward defining a career in rhetoric and sexuality studies. A decade earlier, in the mid-1980s, turning 18, away at college and just beginning to glimpse a possible life as a gay man, I saw the startling images of AIDS-ravaged bodies, such as a gaunt Rock Hudson, televised across the country. The message seemed clear: your longed-for gay life is dangerous, even deadly. Struggling over the next decade to come to terms with my sexuality, navigating the difficult shoals of personal and sexual relationships, and eventually negotiating a public articulation of my desires and identity, the AIDS Quilt spoke to me powerfully about love and loss, even though I myself did not have HIV and actually knew very few people at the time with the infection. Rather, the Quilt spoke of how all of our queer lives had been marked by the awfulness of AIDS, not only as a medical emergency but also as a rhetorical reality that shaped how we understood ourselves, our desires, our intimate relationships, and our articulation of those desires and relationships publicly.
The circulation of images of the disease and the virulent public debates about it and what to do with those afflicted by it revealed again and again how hated queers were, while the government’s slow move to act on the epidemic created its own rhetorical silences that spoke volumes about how little we were valued by our culture. Conversely, the emergence of AIDS activist organizations and the amazing coalitions formed between gay men and lesbians gestured toward possibilities of revitalized lesbian and gay activism, embodied in the emergence of queer activism in ACT UP and evolving forms of the queer community. Throughout all of this push and pull, voices of hatred, shouts of protest, and [End Page 179] cries of pain and loss, the Quilt circulated across the country, reminding queers of the crisis that pulled us together, that reshaped our sense of what activism could be, and that testified simultaneously about those lost to AIDS and governmental indifference as well as about the reality and persistence of gay lives—that same-sex people have loved one another and continue to do so even as we lose our loved ones. In many ways, queer love was made all the more palpable by the materiality of the Quilt itself—a quilt, made to cover bodies, in this case covering the absent bodies of lost friends, lovers, and comrades.
Charles E. Morris’s edited volume, Remembering the AIDS Quilt, brings together different scholarly and personal views on the historical and continuing rhetorical power of the AIDS Quilt. Contributors come mostly from communication studies, but they bring a diversity of methods and theories to their analyses of the Quilt as a rhetorical object, including perspectives from performance studies, media studies, feminism, and queer theory. Throughout, though, the volume comes back again and again to personal encounters with the Quilt. Cleve Jones, founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, offers a prologue to the collection in which he reminds us, “to this day, critics ignore one of the most powerful aspects of the Quilt. Any Quilt display, no matter how small or large, is filled with evidence of love—the love between gay men and the love we share with our lesbian sisters, as well as love of family, father for son, mother for son, among siblings. Alongside this love, the individual quilts are filled with stories of homophobia and how we have triumphed over it” (xvi). For Jones and other contributors to this volume, the Quilt is the thin skin that metaphorizes the dense relationship between the personal and the political. It conjures images of beds, lovers’ beds, family beds, and hospital beds, and the comfort and succor we have offered one another in the face of systemic neglect.