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Out of the Archives

By Ellen Holzman | Out of the Archives

[This edition of Out of the Archives was written by Ellen Holzman, who volunteered to watch over the panel of the quilt that is part of the exhibit Lambda Archives co-created at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. As part of the agreement to rent this portion of the quilt from The Names Project for display is that it must be monitored at all times the museum is open. The part of the quilt on display honors prominent San Diegans including Dr. A. Brad Truax, Lambda Archives founder Jess Jessop, people from Diversionary Theatre, and others who contributed to the local community.]

It didn’t occur to me, when I offered to be a monitor for the AIDS quilt in San Diego, that I would receive a special gift.

Generally, I tell people that when you volunteer, you get more than you give. But I’ve always seen that in the abstract. I give my time and I get to feel good about myself. And then I move on to the next thing in my life.

(l to r) Meredith with her wife Ellen Holzman

But this time, at the San Diego History Center, someone I don’t know, and likely will never see again, gave me a gift I didn’t expect and that I will always treasure.

I volunteered for a three-hour shift on Saturday at the History Center to monitor the safety of the quilt. The quilt memorializes people who died of AIDS and the fight to have their lives valued and acknowledged. The notion that it needs to be protected from vandalism disgusts me, which is why I volunteered to be a monitor.

The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a panel of the quilt on display at the San Diego History Center (By Lambda Archives)

Safeguarding the quilt is a requirement of having a section of it on exhibit. It will be there for 18 months, the length of the History Center’s focus on San Diego’s LGBTQ community.

My wife, Meredith, provided insight and film footage to the exhibit at the request of the curator, historian Lillian Faderman. Since I wanted to see the exhibit, it was no hardship to volunteer for a few hours.

During my shift, I watched as visitors approached the quilt. Most didn’t seem to notice the sign that provided information about it, they were just drawn to see the panels up close. Perhaps they wanted to read some of the messages written and sewn into it. So I went up to them and asked if they knew anything about the AIDS quilt. Most didn’t so I gave them a few sound bites of information such as:

  • Each section of the quilt is the actual size of a coffin.
  • The quilt was started in San Francisco in 1987
  • The names on this section are San Diegans: four were gay men, another was the founder of a local swap meet and another a boy who died at the age of 12. There are now more than 48,000 names on the full quilt.

One older man wasn’t concerned with getting a primer on the quilt. He saw that I was wearing a volunteer tag, walked up to me and without waiting for me to begin a conversation said, “I want you to know how good it is that this exhibit is here, instead of in some other area of town.” I knew what he meant. He was glad to see LGBTQ history being honored somewhere other than Hillcrest, the LGBTQ neighborhood of San Diego.  Then he marched off to join another man — maybe his husband, maybe a friend.

About an hour later, he came back. This time, he had no interest in having me pass on a message. He didn’t look in my direction. This time he stood quietly looking at the quilt. I walked up to him. He didn’t say anything, so I asked, “Did you know someone on the quilt?” He nodded, but couldn’t say anything. I should have respected his privacy but I didn’t. I pressed him. He seemed to be gazing at one panel in particular. I asked, “Did you know Dr. Truax?”

He nodded. Then left.

And it struck me in a visceral way that these people who were only a few factoids to me were known and loved. They touched the lives of others, and, unexpectedly, I was honored to stand witness to that legacy.

To volunteer at the LGBTQ+ exhibit, visit sandiegohistory.org/exhibition/sdlgbtq/

—Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at lambdaarchives.org.

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