YOUNTVILLE — The ravages of AIDS can be captured in the numbers of the thousands who have lost their lives to the disease over nearly four decades – or displayed, much more vividly, in vast swaths of fabric, one 3-by-6-foot panel at a time.
Sunday afternoon, Napa Valley residents had a chance to see up close the names of people claimed by the HIV virus and memorialized in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Eleven sections of the giant tapestry formed the centerpiece of a restrained, somber ceremony at the Community Center, where a group of speakers recited the names of hundreds of people who have died from the disease since researchers identified it in the early 1980s.
The first to recite the names of the dead was Rob Doughty, a Napa disc jockey professionally known as DJ Rotten Robbie. But after reading several names, the thoughts of personal acquaintances who also succumbed to AIDS briefly overcame him, and he handed the list to Eric Oesterle, his partner of 22 years.
“Part of the emotion is knowing that many of these people died just a year or two before we had some really effective treatments,” Oesterle said after completing his portion of the recital. “In the early ‘90s, all we really had was hope, and the fight, and events like this to grieve and to remember.”
To the peaceful strains of a harpist in the corner of the Community Center gym, about 50 visitors at a time slowly walked from one quilt panel to another, occasionally recognizing the name of someone they knew, or simply inspecting the embroidered, painted or marker-pen epitaphs for Reino Marttila Jr., Rick Matthews, Bill Burkell, Randy McCormick and others whose names have been kept alive through the AIDS Memorial Quilt, perhaps the largest such tribute of its kind.
First assembled in 1987 in San Francisco and overseen by the nonprofit NAMES Foundation, the complete quilt has grown to encompass more than 50,000 individual panels memorializing 105,000 people, according to the National AIDS Memorial website. The tapestry was last unfurled in its entirety in 1996 when it spanned the breadth of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and smaller sections are exhibited at events nationwide.
The tributes sewn into each quilt-within-a-quilt displayed in Yountville ranged from the heartbreakingly emotional – in one case literally so, in the cracked red heart placed above the name of Glenn A. Franklin – to life-affirming messages like “They were always there for all of us, with family values,” which shared a panel with snapshots of a male couple that spent 30 years together. Another panel in memory of Peter Ansin, who died in 1992, captured the angry defiance of those a generation ago who demanded that Americans stop ignoring the disease’s toll; the tapestry described Ansin as “34 and killed by his nation’s indifference to AIDS.”
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Portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were shown in Napa in the 1990s during fundraisers for AIDS research at the Napa Valley Expo, according to Doughty. In October, Napa-based LGBTQ Connection began planning a new quilt exhibition with Michael Berg, a board president of the NAMES Project in the mid-1990s who moved to Yountville two years ago.
While medications created over the past quarter century have greatly extended the lives of HIV-positive patients, Berg called the quilt and its meaning as pertinent today as it was in its early days – not only to remember those who lost their lives but also those who advocated for them in the face of homophobia and intolerance.
“The reason we need to keep this quilt going is to let young people know about an important part of history,” said Berg. “It made people consider their position on gay and lesbian rights. People who had been on the sidelines could no longer be on the sidelines.”
While the great majority of the death dates in the Yountville exhibition were from the 1980s and 1990s, Berg urged observers not to lose sight of the thousands of new infections that continue to occur each year.
“People think now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but a chronic condition they can manage,” he said. “Well, being infected means taking a regimen of drugs that’s not only very expensive, but have a host of side effects that not a lot of people talk about.”
One spectator who had planned to see the AIDS quilt for years found the experience even more forceful than she had imagined. “There was a photo of a young man sewn into one quilt, and just seeing his face and thinking of the life cut short, it’s really heartbreaking,” said Cara Mae Wooledge.
“Things like HIV, we can see the numbers, see the statistics, but seeing that quilt brings those people to life and how much loss our community has experienced, because of a disease that’s preventable. It’s really tragic.”