Classic Documentary: Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt

In 1993 as a freshman at the University of Louisville, the gay community I took my first, tentative steps toward coming out into was sick, angry, and exhausted, after twelve years of fighting on the front lines of the battle against AIDS. ACT-UP protests were a regular feature of the evening news, as armies of gay men, wearing their militant-chic black boots, blue jeans, and pink triangle “Silence=Death” t-shirts shut down the Golden Gate Bridge, pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, the New York Stock Exchange, and a mass at St. Partick’s Cathedral. This was the only gay visibility at the time. No Ellen. No Glee. Just these hurt, ailing, furious men on TV who had buried their lovers and half their friends. The first wall of denial I had to scale when I began to realize the truth about my sexuality was, “I can’t be gay; I have a sense of humor.”

Last time the quilt was shown all at once in its entirety, in 1996. With nearly 50,000 panels covering 1.3 million feet, it is now too large to display on the National Mall

Watching the classic documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) brought that era into clearer focus for me. I looked up the film because I was intrigued by the recent 20th anniversary display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, and a new map, created by Microsoft Research, which makes it possible to view the entire quilt and zoom in on specific panels. Common Threads was an Academy Award-winning film from the gay community’s most prolific documentarians, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Epstein directed the ground-breaking Word is Out, 1977, and The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984. Epstein and Friedman directed Common Threads, 1989; The Celluloid Closet, 1995; Paragraph 175, 2000; and Howl, 2010).

Common Threads breaks no new ground in the documentary form: it’s a mixture of talking heads, news clips, and footage shot for the film, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, with a simple score by Bobby McFerrin. What makes the film important is that it both helped create and document a moment in history when the initial hysteria around the disease finally began to give way to compassion for its victims. It is probably a matter of both correlation and causation that this breakthrough happened at the end of the Reagan administration, which insisted on seeing the AIDS crisis as a moral issue rather than a public health emergency.

The film profiles two “stereotypical” survivors of AIDS, Vito Russo and Tracy Torrey, gay men who had buried partners, and were infected themselves. To create a sense of the scope of the disease, the filmmakers also interviewed Sara Lewinstien, a lesbian who married her gay best friend, Gay Games founder Dr. Tom Waddell, with whom she had a daughter; the Mandell family, who lost their 12 year-old son David to AIDS after he was infected by blood products meant to treat his hemophilia; and Sally Perryman, the widow of a man who had contracted the virus through intravenous drug use.

The film demonstrates how the disease began to break down barriers—between heterosexual-led middle class families who found common ground with the gay community, and between these communities and urban minority communities that were also heavily impacted by AIDS. At one point, the Mandells describe themselves as “middle Americans” who found themselves, after their son’s death, in the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in San Francisco, volunteering for the NAMES Foundation, which sponsors the making and showing of the quilt. When it came to AIDS there was no “Middle America,” everybody affected had to cling to each other at the margins.

Before moving on, let’s take a moment clear up a misconception about the origins of AIDS. The accusation made by anti-gay forces in the first wave of the crisis was that hemophiliacs died of AIDS because gay men had “tainted the blood supply.”

According to recent research published by epidemiologist Dr. Jacques Pépin, many hemophiliacs were in fact infected by blood products sold to United States from plasma centers in Haiti. An official in the infamous Duvalier administration, known as “The Vampire of the Caribbean,” ran a business that bled impoverished Haitians for their plasma and reused infected needles and tubing on the donor/victims. The virus, always more effectively transmitted through blood exchange than sexual contact, spread quickly through repeated donors; and unscrupulous blood traders and medical corporations in the U.S. had no compunction about making a profit off the blood of the Third World.

This whole “gay-tainted blood supply” was never a very convincing theory to begin with. Supposing the gay community makes up about 5% of the population and half of them, 2.5%, were gay men. And yet the most promiscuous and therefore at-risk group for developing HIV in this relatively small population were so civic-minded they were regularly donating blood? Enough to kill thousands of hemophiliacs and transplant recipients? Amazingly, this accusation still comes up from time to time from blowhards like Pat Buchanan and Bill Donohue. It’s time to put this blood libel to rest.

Taking a look at the quilt reminds the viewer of how many people from how many walks of life died of this disease: children, from infants to teenagers; brothers and sisters; husbands and wives; priests, teachers, doctors, musicians; people of every race and ethnicity. Rectangles that represent whole groups of young male friends, or panels for people like author Paul Monette, who buried two lovers before succumbing to the disease himself, give you a sense of the scope of the devastation in the gay community. But the most awful panels must be the ones with stuffed animals and baby pictures, representing tiny bodies ravaged and dead before they could ever have filled up the 6×3’ burial plots the large panels are supposed to represent.

Each story in Common Threads is compellingly told by the survivors of the person represented on the quilt. Sally Perryman tells the story of her husband Robert and his struggle with addiction in a way that makes him highly sympathetic. The Mandells’ story is of course heartbreaking, as we watch their once-vibrant preteen get sicker and sicker in videos and pictures. Also important to his story is the family’s grappling with prejudice, which was often aimed most harshly at young kids like Ryan White and the Ray brothers, who had to fight just to stay in school and interact with their peers. It is a joy to see Vito Russo in his prime, before he died of AIDS in 1990. Russo was the activist and film historian who wrote the original book of The Celluloid Closet—both the book and the film have had a tremendous impact on my scholarship. Perhaps the most striking story is that of Tracy Torrey, a Naval officer who lost his partner, David C. Campbell. Torrey speaks from his bed, dying, KS lesions eating away at his skin. Most movingly, the film shows him making panels both for Campbell and himself, knowing their two names will soon be stitched next to each other on the quilt.

There’s much more to explore if you check out the map, this ChronoZoom interactive timeline, and the “AIDS Quilt Touch” app at the NAMES project Web site. One of the facts I learned from the timeline is that there has been a “final panel” donated to the quilt, in the hopes that this, the largest community art project in the world, will one day be “completed,” when the final victory over AIDS is won.

Panel for St. Aidan's Episcopal in San Francisco with 32 names of members and friends of the church--displayed at Washington National Cathedral.














To find out more about the St. Aidan’s panel of the quilt, see this online PDF file.