World AIDS Day at USC: Assembling quilt sections

Workers and volunteers assemble sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on McCarthy Quad. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Social Impact

AIDS Memorial Quilt featured at USC on World AIDS Day

Program speakers pay tribute to those lost to AIDS and stress the importance of knowing your HIV status.

December 01, 2023 By Greg Hernandez

In recognition of World AIDS Day, panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt were put on display for several hours Friday in McCarthy Quad at USC’s University Park Campus. The quilt is a series of personalized, coffin-shaped panels made by loved ones that are designed to remember the lives and stories of those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS.

“I’m trying to hold my tears, but I’m going to cry,” USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work graduate student Nia Porter said after viewing some of the quilt panels. “It’s really an ‘aha moment’ witnessing some of the stories and what loved ones created for them. It’s an amazing experience to be here.”

At 23, Porter said that while she is aware of HIV/AIDS, she learned a lot more about its history on Friday. The USC event also included several speakers, a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and an emotional reading of the names on the quilt panels by two members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

“I just wasn’t aware of how big [HIV] was before I was born and just how many people were dying from it,” she said. “Just being here today, I’m gaining more knowledge.”

World AIDS Day at USC: Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles performs
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles performs during Friday’s commemoration. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

USC Trustee Amy Ross was among the speakers. She acknowledged that while many young people have not been personally affected by HIV, she remembers a time in the 1980s when she was losing an average of one friend a week from AIDS-related illnesses and patients were being shunned and isolated.

“How far we have come — that we could talk about this openly, that we can say to our friends, our loved ones, our children, our grandchildren: ‘Be careful, get tested and stay strong,’” Ross said.

World AIDS Day at USC: HIV remains public health issue

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Professor Paul Nash, one of the main organizers for the event, noted that the gathering was taking place on the 35th anniversary of World AIDS Day. The annual event is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.

Citing numbers provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nash said about 6% of all college-aged students are living with HIV. But he noted the percentage is likely higher since two-thirds of college-aged students have never received an HIV test.

“Today we are encouraging everybody young and old to get tested,” Nash said. “Together we can break the stigma and fear associated with testing.”

World AIDS Day at USC: Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Tootie Toot and Unity, two members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, chat with students and visitors. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Information about on-campus testing through USC Student Health was made available during the event, as was immediate testing by event participant AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Nash shared information about advancements in the field of HIV prevention and treatment including PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which can reduce the chance of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use, and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) — taking medicine to prevent HIV within 72 hours of a possible exposure.

He also noted “the huge success story of managing HIV, enabling people who are living with the virus to reach undetectable levels and have a life expectancy similar to those who do not have HIV.”

Nash’s comments were echoed by fellow speaker Cheryl Barrit, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV. She said there are still approximately 1,400 new HIV infections in Los Angeles County each year.

“Not all people know that they are infected,” Barrit said. “So that’s why it’s important that one of the best things that we can do to destigmatize HIV is to get tested and know our status.”

History of the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The display at USC was specially curated for Friday’s event and included panels for Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen; Pedro Zamora who came to fame as an AIDS activist on the MTV series The Real World; and Ryan White, who was diagnosed with HIV acquired from a blood transfusion at the age of 13 and was barred from attending middle school classes in the mid-1980s.

World AIDS Day at USC: Sara Schwartz
Sara L. Schwartz, an associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and board member for The National AIDS Memorial, speaks to the audience. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Sara L. Schwartz, associate professor with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and a board member of The National AIDS Memorial, described the quilt as “the largest piece of community folk art in the world.”

“It’s a living and growing archive,” she said of the memorial, which has grown to include more than 50,000 panels and represent more than 110,000 people.

The idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt was conceived by longtime activist Cleve Jones in 1985 while preparing for San Francisco’s annual candlelight vigil honoring murdered San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Jones asked people coming to the candlelight vigil to write the names of friends and loved ones who had passed from AIDS to be hung on the San Francisco Federal Building after the vigil.

The quilt became a call for action when it was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1987. It covered a space of a football field at that time.

“The public response was overwhelming and unexpected,” Schwartz said. “This was intended to be a one-time event. But so many people showed up and sent in panels to memorialize their friends and loved ones who had been excluded from traditional mourning practices because of homophobia and AIDS-related stigma.”

Friday’s event was sponsored by USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association, the USC Leonard Davis School, USC Libraries, the USC Price School of Public Policy, the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health and the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

World AIDS Day at USC: Panels up close
The panels offer a tribute to those who died of AIDS-related complications. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)