“Cleve Jones and Gert McMullin”, 1987. Photograph by: Deanne Fitzmaurice for the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the early 1980s, Gert McMullin was living in San Francisco, ground zero for a terrifying new disease: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Her friend David Calgaro contracted the disease, then another friend, Roger Lyon, and then more and more. As an increasing number of friends got sick, McMullin felt she barely had time to grieve one person before another passed away. “I’d go into a hospital and I’d go visit somebody,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle, “and turn to a friend and say, ‘Well, let’s go look.’ They knew exactly what I meant. We’d go look on the charts to see how many other people we knew in the hospital.”
Though she’d never considered herself an activist, grief propelled McMullin to take action. On November 27, 1985, she participated in a candlelight march marking the anniversary of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s murder. During this time San Francisco’s AIDS death toll had eclipsed over 1,000 people and many of the participants at the candlelight march also brought signs bearing the names of their lost loved ones and placed them on the side of the San Francisco Federal Building. The patchwork of signs gave AIDS activist Cleve Jones an idea. As Jones told NPR in 2016, “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,’ and when I said the word ‘quilt’ I thought of my great-grandma… it was such a warm and comforting and middle-American traditional-family-values sort of symbol, and I thought, ‘This is the symbol we should take.’”
Jones then held a meeting to start the quilt. Though fewer than five people were there, one of them was Gert McMullin. She would be one of the first people to sew a stitch in the now-famous AIDS Memorial Quilt. The first two panels were for Calgaro and Lyon. What began as an act of grieving became an act of protest and defiant celebration. For over thirty years, McMullin has been the quilt’s primary seamstress, a helping hand to those who are stitching panels, and a library of memories. Honoring the lives of her friends has become her life’s work.
“NAMES Project AIDS Memorial quilt in front of the Washington Monument”, 1992. Photograph by Mark Thiessen via the National Institute of Health.
Now known as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, this remarkable, collaborative work was first displayed on October 11, 1987, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, as part of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Though the trip from San Francisco was long and transporting the quilt was difficult, McMullin was committed to being there with it. “I was going because those were my boys. That’s the way I still look at it. All my friends are on that quilt.” Today, the still-growing quilt comprises more than 50,000 panels, bears over 95,000 names, weighs over 54 tons, and is considered to be the largest piece of community folk art in the world, now prominently displayed at The American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
“Detail of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt” via the Smithsonian Magazine.
Cleve Jones credited Gert McMullin with dedicating her entire life to this work, guarding both the quilt and its memory. McMullin has continued to use textiles as the material of activism. In 2020, as Covid-19 began to spread, she used fabric from old quilt panels (some of it from the 1980s) to make thousands of masks for frontline hospital workers and San Francisco residents.
Her work had an incalculable impact in raising awareness and fostering community during the AIDS crisis. But she still considers it a tribute to her friends, and one she is grateful for. “I loved my friends,” she says. “Through all of the tragedy and horror of watching all of my friends die one by one, I am truly lucky to have found The Quilt. It and the people who work with it saved my life. I walk through those doors every day to thank it. Everyday.”
“Gert McMullin in her sewing room”, 2020. Photograph by: Jessica Christian for the San Francisco Chronicle.
And by listening to The Kitchen Sisters Present podcast, Gert McMullin—Sewing the Frontline—From the AIDS Quilt to COVID-19 PPE, from Davia Nelson and Nikki Silvia.