Guest column by Brittany Otter/ AS ROP director
1995 was a time when HIV and AIDS were quite controversial, stigmatized and hard to talk about. It was during that time that a core group of determined and hardworking individuals in Bellingham who were passionate about HIV and AIDS awareness brought the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to our community with the goals of AIDS education, awareness, remembering and healing.
Edye Colello-Morton, a member of the Bellingham planning committee, had to raise over $15,000 within a few months to bring a part of the quilt to Bellingham. The fundraising efforts were kicked off by informing audience members of the project during the Western theater department’s production of Falsetto’s, a play dealing with AIDS directed by James Lortz, who was also a committee member and associate professor in the theatre arts program.
Shirley Osterhaus, a Fairhaven professor, and Paul Brower, the preservation and museum specialist for the Western Gallery, were also involved in the planning of the AIDS Memorial Quilt event.
The events had to battle the uneasiness most people felt about the disease and the people who had it. Additionally, the events had to support the people and close relatives or friends who experienced HIV and AIDS. Before the quilt even arrived, organizers set up a panel-making event at Allied Arts where they collected homemade panels from the community and helped others make panels of their own to be added to the quilt project. Community members donated their panel to the growing AIDS Quilt. Dressed in all white, the facilitators commemorated those who had lived and lost their lives to AIDS as pieces of them were donated to history.
On May 20 and 21, 1995, over 5,000 people witnessed the emotion in Carver Gym as hundreds of people who died from health complications due to AIDS were remembered. Tissue boxes were placed at each panel for people to dry their tears and counselors knowledgeable about HIV and AIDS were available to talk with those who needed support. For two days, the coordinators of the project read the names of people across the country that had died from AIDS complications. The event was free, but they accepted donations to support Sean Humphrey House and Evergreen AIDS Foundation. The project was so successful that it won the Mayor’s Art Award that year.
Many people traveled from far and wide, including Nelson Pardo of Portland, Ore. “The quilt has really helped the collective awareness about AIDS. People see all the women, babies, young people, men, all sorts of people who have died, not just gay men,” he commented in The Bellingham Herald in May 1995. Sixteen years later, there is still stigma and support is needed for those living with HIV and AIDS and their families. However, Colello-Morton reminds me that we have come very far. We can put on events about HIV and AIDS in open spaces and not worry about hate crimes or violence. In a sense, people like Colello-Morton and those that helped plan and implement the AIDS quilt have paved the way for more open, safe and inclusive discussion. We must not forget the hard work, love, and respect that it took for people before us to dynamically change how we are educated and positioned to think about AIDS.
Those who attended the second presentation of the quilt this year commented that “the quilts were beautiful and effectively captured spirits of the people they stand for.” I liked that some people saw “that AIDS victims were actually people with stories, families, children” and found that “the media was illuminating and heartbreaking.” We must never forget how the blood, sweat and tears of those before us allowed us to look ahead for a more hopeful and informed future. I want to say thank you to all of those who put together the first-ever AIDS quilt to reach the Pacific Northwest.