'When We Rise' Highlights The AIDS Quilt's Origins

Eike Schroter/ABC

Though we're no longer in the height of the AIDS epidemic, as When We Rise shows, it was nothing short of a plague in the '80s, especially among gay men. It's impossible to talk about the LGBT rights movement without discussing the prevalence of the HIV virus and AIDS, and ABC's miniseries pays special attention to the effects of the disease and activists' efforts to make treatment available to those who need it. As its second and third episodes jump to the time of its creation, When We Rise showcases the AIDS Quilt, a real-life project dedicated to memorializing victims of the epidemic. Since the series won't reach the present day until its fourth and final episode, however, it hasn't yet revealed where the AIDS quilt is now, and whether or not the project is still active.

Since it was started in the mid-'80s, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has become larger-than-life and is currently made up of over 48,000 individual memorial panels, according to its website. While the Quilt isn't easy to ship around, The NAMES Project (the organization behind it) is dedicated to allowing as many people as possible to see the Quilt and commemorate those lost. The NAMES Project website features a display schedule that lists where the Quilt will be in the upcoming months and has an application for anyone interested in hosting the Quilt in their community. For anyone who cannot get to one of the places where it is displayed, the entire Quilt is also available for viewing online.

The Quilt was the idea of Cleve Jones, who serves as one of the many protagonists of When We Rise. In November of 1985, he came up with the quilt when he and his fellow activists put up placards in honor of their fallen friends. Inspired by the image, he created the first panel for the quilt dedicated to his friend Marty Feldman.

The Quilt was displayed publicly for the first time in 1987 on the National Mall. The act was a huge statement and generated a great deal of visibility for not just The NAMES Project, but for LGBT citizens and the AIDS epidemic as a whole. The effect of the quilt grew as more people started contributing to the project, which was showcased in the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt.

Since its debut, more and more panels have been added to the quilt commemorating the increasing number of HIV and AIDS victims. In the 30 years since the Quilt's inception, the rate of annual new HIV infections has lessened significantly, while the rate of Americans living with the disease continues to rise, according to the CDC. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the Quilt still accepts submissions for panels to be added, and makes it very easy for interested parties to submit them.

The AIDS Quilt website features step-by-step instructions on how to make a panel in someone's memory. It encourages using durable material and writing a letter to more fully memorialize the person the panel is dedicated to, before sending the panel and additional information to the NAMES project or bringing it to a local chapter. From there, it can take between 90 days and six months to have the panel added to the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The AIDS Quilt is just one of many major milestones in When We Rise that show how the LGBT community managed to both communicate the pain that being treated unfairly has caused and fight for equality and justice.