“During the AIDS crisis, I could go and do something,” says chief coordinator Gert McMullin. “But now, I can’t. I’m not used to sitting around and not helping people.”

By Jason Sheeler
April 09, 2020 12:30 PM
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Courtesy Mike Smith

Gert McMullin has been with the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt from almost the very beginning.

The idea originated during a candlelight vigil in 1985, when activist Cleve Jones asked friends to write the names of loved ones who had died from AIDS on placards. Upon seeing the posters all taped to a wall, he got the idea for a quilt. Given that at the time many men who died of AIDS were not able to even have a funeral due to stigma, he realized a quilt could also function as a memorial.

“We in the LGBT community understood what was happening in the early 80s,” says Jones. “We had to create systems of care and support ourselves.”

He mentions the grassroots medical advocacy pioneered by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which worked with — and, at times, demonstrably prodded along — the pharmaceutical industry into faster clinical trials and created the practice of compassionate care. But when it came to bringing the AIDS Memorial Quilt into reality, Jones needed to find someone who could sew. In walked a woman named Gert.

“My mom died when I was 9 years old,” says McMullin, now 64, and an employee of the National Aids Memorial, now custodian of the quilt. “I didn’t like being poor, and I liked having outfits, so I took her sewing machine and I taught myself.”

By the time she got Jones’ call, she had two panels ready to go. One was for her best friend’s boyfriend, Roger Lyon. That panel, which includes part of Lyon’s speech to Congress, reads: I came here today to ask that this nation with all its resources and compassion not let my epitaph read he died of red tape.

“Cleve told me what size to make the panels,” says McMullin. “I actually put my address on them. I was scared they would get thrown away.”

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Gert McMullin
Courtesy Mike Smith
Gert McMullin
Courtesy Mike Smith

Needless to say, they were never thrown away. In fact, today Lyon’s panel is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The rest of the quilt just returned to San Francisco after a 20 year stay in Atlanta.

After the quilt got started in 1987, panels poured in from around the country and world.

“I started meeting people who were gone, when their panels would come in. People who I had never had the chance of meeting,” she says.

McMullin would, in turn, introduce her lost loved ones to others.

“Someone would be crying, looking at one of my panels, and I’d smile. And they’d ask, ‘Why are you smiling?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s nice to see someone else be upset over the death of my friend,’ ” she recalls. “It made me feel good that he was loved by somebody else.”

Aids Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C.
Shaun Heasley/Getty

McMullin has now made hundreds of panels — which, by design, measure the dimensions of a grave, 3 ft. by 6 ft. — more than anyone else. Her work has never stopped; there is still no cure for the disease. She has always called the 54 tons of fabric “my boys” — which now, 35 years later, of course includes women.

In early April, the National AIDS Memorial was going to display the quilt, to celebrate the 48,000 panels — as Jones and McMullin put it — “coming home.” The ongoing coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.

Around the same time, McMullin began feeling echoes of the past — and symptoms of PTSD. She knew just what to do. She returned to her sewing machine. McMullin started sewing masks.

Her masks are made from leftover fabric of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. They are being used at facilities run by Bay Area Community Services, which serves the homeless and people suffering from addiction. The face masks are helping both employees and residents. They are also helping McMullin.

“During the AIDS crisis, I could go and do something,” she says. “But now, I can’t. I’m not sued to sitting around and helping people.”

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