Ready to gather memories of her youngest son, who died on Oct. 13, 1993. Photos of him as a blond toddler, a curly-haired teenager and a balding, emaciated man of 30. Pieces of his clothing, Teddy bears, even some of the pills left over from his losing battle against AIDS.

With loving care, she has stichted those memories onto a 3-by-6-foot section of his favorite green and white bedsheet. The finished quilt will be a lasting tribute to a man whose unintended legacy was to turn his parents into gay rights activists.

“We never would have gone on this journey if it hadn’t been for Peter,” said his father, Ted.

Today is World Aids Day. Throughout the country, more than 44,000 quilts commemorating AIDS victims will be on display as part of the Names Project. This year, Peter’s quilt will be join the traveling exhibit during a ceremony at San Jose City Hall.

Last week the quilt was still laid out on a table in the Johnsons’ family room, awaiting finishing touches. Helen and Ted used the quilt to tell me the story of Peter’s life.

“That hat was sort of his signature,” said Ted, pointing to a red knit cap that is sewn onto the quilt and also appears in several pictures of Peter as a little boy that have been stitched to the fabric.

“And he was always bringing home dogs, so I had to have a couple of dogs on there,” said Helen.

Ted pointed to a photo of a smiling 11-year-old.


“That’s about the age he was when he figured out he was gay,” he said. “He was 8 or 9 when he began to feel that he was different. The hard part for me as a parent is knowing that he grew up in our home all those years hiding his identity from us.”

The Johnsons are devout Catholics who raised five children in a tidy ranch house near Overfelt High School in San Jose. Ted, an avid sailor, served in the U.S. Coast Guard before going into the equipment repair business.

One night during the summer after he graduated from high school, Peter told his parents he needed to talk with them. He built a fire in the famiy-room fireplace even though it was a warm night.

“I think he was trying to make us comfortable so he could tell us something serious,” his father said.

It took the Johnsons a while to absorb the news. His father said they didn’t talk to others about it.

“We wondered what we had done wrong with Peter,” he said. “How could we possibly have ‘made’ him gay?”

Growing up, Peter was a popular boy, a natural leader who loved politics and community service. He was elected class president twice and student council chairman. A plaque in his honor hangs in the Overfelt Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I bet he would have been the first gay city council member, before Ken Yeager,” says his mother with pride.

Over time, they grew to love and understand Peter and his friends. And when his partner died of AIDS in 1989, Helen made her first AIDS quilt and started attending a support group. By then she knew that Peter also had the disease.

“It was a death sentence,” she said, “and I didn’t know how to handle it. Your kids aren’t supposed to die before you do. That’s not playing by the rules.”

Four years later, Peter died. “The hardest part was watching him waste away,” said Ted.

The Johnsons have been active in the fight against AIDS and for gay rights ever since. Most recently they campaigned against Proposition 8, the gay-marriage ban, infuriated that their church and other Californians would want to deny people like Peter the right to marry.

“This is not a lifestyle; this is not a chosen profession,” said Ted, his voice tight with anger. “Peter was born gay. He loved children and would have been a wonderful father. Today there are kids growing up who know they are different like Peter did, and we are telling them they aren’t good enough to get married.”

It was during the Proposition 8 campaign that Helen finally got serious about making a quilt for Peter to donate to the Names Project. After 15 years, she needed some closure.

“I wanted to have it finished in time for World AIDS Day,” she said. “I figured it was about time.”