An Epidemic of Apathy

In 11 years traveling around the country bringing the AIDS Memorial Quilt into redneck backwaters and fundamentalist strongholds, activist Cleve Jones has been picketed, condemned, banned, spit upon, burned in effigy, damned, and threatened with death.

Then he came to Broward County, where the reception was worse.
"I prefer anything to this stupid, quiet apathy," Jones says after the recent monumental failure of the largest-ever quilt display in Florida history. "Y'all are living in a fool's paradise down there. You've got a terrible problem, with young people infected every day, and how do you respond? With stupid, idiotic, apathy. It really makes me angry."

The AIDS quilt, which Jones organized in 1987 as a memorial to an ever-growing circle of friends who had died of the disease, came to the Broward County Convention Center as the centerpiece of a weeklong series of events commemorating World AIDS Day 1998, which occurred on December 1. Consisting of 384 separate sections, with each section comprising eight individual panels, the quilt filled all three of the center's exhibit halls, some 58,000 square feet of floor space. And hardly anybody came to see it.

"I think we were all pretty disappointed," says Gary Morey, one of the display's organizers. "That building looked pretty empty. At any one time, there were probably an average of 25 people wandering around, that's all." The estimated total for the entire three-day display: "Less than a thousand," says lead organizer Maurice Maddox. By contrast, the Chicago World AIDS Day quilt display, the only other comparable-size display in the country this year, drew a total of 15,000.

Now, in the frustrating aftermath, some local AIDS activists are accusing World AIDS Day organizers of failing to reach out to the local gay and lesbian population. In a recent article in the local gay magazine Scoop, the columnist known as Beasley (Jay Lynch) writes: "No one knew! Four thousand of our friends, lovers, and family were represented here [in the quilt], but I missed them as most of South Florida did. Why? Because no one knew!"

To Maddox, though, it's ludicrous to suggest that South Florida gays could have remained oblivious to the quilt in the face of a blitz of publicity that included newspaper ads, radio spots, and even a billboard on Interstate 95. For his part he wonders whether the local gay community is becoming complacent. "What I want to know is, where were the PWAs?" he asks, using a common acronym for "people with AIDS." "There are more than 14,000 PWAs living in Broward County. Where were they?"

Well, a lot of them were probably sleeping off the effects of White Party Week, which happened to be winding down in Miami Beach just as the quilt display was kicking off in Broward.

The annual White Party bacchanalia, with its Muscle Beach Party and its White Knights Extravaganza and its Fashion Fest with Jocko (not to mention "all those little things that make the party so special, like the butterfly release and those charming Bacardi drink machines," to quote the press release), had its greatest year ever, says publicist Sharon Kersten, drawing an estimated crowd in excess of 15,000. Contrast that number to the quilt attendance, where "we expected more than 10,000 people to show up, and in fact, we had less than 1000," says Maddox.

In the end, though, Cleve Jones doesn't care how many -- or even whether any -- gays or PWAs showed up for the quilt display: "That's not our audience; that's not who we're here for." When Jones talks about South Florida apathy, he means the apathy of the Broward educators who ignored repeated attempts to organize field trips for students.

"That was pretty much the whole point of bringing the quilt -- to educate the young," Morey says. In fact, that's why Monday, November 30, was specifically designated as Education Day.

Education Day turned out to be not so educational. "I saw only one group of kids on a class trip all day long, with maybe 25, 30 kids in the group," says Todd Fogel, an organizer with the NAMES Project, the quilt's national sponsor. Local activist Stormy Schevis agrees, "It was a missed opportunity. I was not impressed at all. There were more convention center staff than students walking around."

The problem, these organizers say, goes back to apathy. "They don't get it. The school district just doesn't get it," Fogel says. It's not that the school district is philosophically opposed to HIV education. In fact, the district even has a full-time employee with the specific job title of HIV-AIDS education coordinator. But that coordinator, Mike Weissberg, faces a difficult job in trying to goad the bureaucracy into action.

Although three high schools did organize field trips to see the quilt, Weissberg admits that "when I was there on Monday, you could roll a bowling ball through the place and not hit a person. I was disappointed just like everyone else."

Weissberg says he did his best to encourage teachers and principals to utilize World AIDS Day events to educate their students. In the weeks preceding the event, he sent two memos out to every high-school principal in the Broward School District.

Apparently the message didn't register in some quarters. "Quilt? What quilt?" asks Flanagan High Principal Sharon Shaulis two weeks after the quilt had already packed and left. "World AIDS Day? Is that coming up?"

Flanagan was one of three high schools that, according to Weissberg, had organized field trips to the quilt (the others: Coral Springs and Western), but Shaulis says she doesn't know anything about it. It's possible she wasn't told, she says. Did she even know what quilt we were talking about? "Vaguely. I do know there's a quilt somewhere."

Over at Hollywood's McArthur High, 17-year-old Fallon Crayton says she never heard a word about the quilt or World AIDS Day from any teacher or counselor. If it hadn't been for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, which organized several after-school trips, the whole event would have passed the 11th grader by.

And that would have been a shame, because Crayton is at risk whether she knows it or not. According to the Broward County Health Department, the segment of the population with the fastest-growing incidence of new HIV infections is the segment aged 13 to 19. And, although the number of AIDS deaths has been declining since the advent of protease-inhibitor "cocktail" treatments, the disease remains the leading cause of death among Broward residents between the ages of 25 and 44.

Says April Palumbo, who organized Crayton's field trip under the auspices of the Boys and Girls Clubs, "Kids today, they're so used to facts being thrown at them from books, they don't really see this [disease] in personal terms. They don't think this could happen to me, my aunt, my brother, my father," she says.

Indeed, the sight of the quilt shook Fallon Crayton to the depths of her soul. "It was like it came all of a sudden," she recalls, struggling for words to describe the head-rush of emotion she felt at the sight of an entire epidemic's worth of misery inscribed, stitch by grieving stitch, into 58,000 square feet of quilted fabric. "I'd never really thought about all the family members, all the little kids.... Somebody had put a pair of shoes on their quilt. Somebody else put musical notes. Somebody else wrote a poem for their partner...."

In defense of Broward County teachers, Weissberg points out that they "are under a lot of pressure to get a lot of things done." Consider the burden a single field trip places on an already overworked high-school teacher, according to Weissberg: "They have to fill out a TDA [temporary duty assignment] form, arrange for a substitute teacher, get permission from every parent, make arrangements..."

"... for the buses, get permission from the principals, yeah yeah," finishes Pat Callahan in a near-perfect replication of Weissberg's argument and tone. Callahan doesn't need the sheet music to sing this tune. She learned it by heart when she volunteered for the World AIDS Day education committee in 1994. "I was just tearing my hair out trying to get some cooperation [from schools]," she recalls. "I finally had to quit. For my own sanity."

In Chicago 6000 schoolchildren were bused in to see the quilt, which Jones says is not an unusually large number. "I've been visiting school districts all around the country, and almost everywhere I see long lines of yellow buses, I see students coming and staying for a long time, I see discussion groups, I see kids writing essays...."

Everywhere except in Broward. "I have a challenge for the school board," Jones says. "I challenge them to let me come down there and put a section of the quilt in every high school in the county next year. They can reserve it right now. All they have to do is call me.

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Paul Belden