For many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who came of age during the time of antiretroviral drugs, the Ryan White CARE Act and local and state and national HIV/AIDS foundations, it is difficult to imagine the devastation wrought by the disease throughout the 1980s. Today, HIV/AIDS is a still a serious illness, but a manageable one with the right drug therapies; then, it was a death sentence.
When AIDS first appeared in Utah early in the decade, a number of heroic people stepped up to the challenge of caring for the people affected by it, including Dr. Kristen Reis, for whom the Utah Pride Center’s annual community service award is named. Another was Ben Barr, the younger brother of actress and comedian Roseanne Barr, who served as the executive directors of a number of HIV/AIDS organizations, including the AIDS Project of Utah and the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation, which soon merged into the Utah AIDS Foundation that serves the state today.
“AIDS brought about a lot of changes to the gay scene. I think the one that many people forget or can’t understand if they didn’t live through it is how fear and suffering changed our lives,” recalls Barr, now a graduate student at the University of Berkeley, California. “The impact of fear and anxiety during this time is hard to describe. People would start to look thin, then get really tired, and then often end up in the hospital with immune disorders that most people had never heard of like pneumocystis pneumonia. … It was overwhelming to watch this happen to people we knew and loved.”
“I think that AIDS changed the gay scene by forcing many of us to confront our own mortality and death at very young ages,” he continues. “We lost a generation of some of the most talented and extroverted members of our community. The epidemic changed those of us who provided care. To put it bluntly, you can’t change the diapers of people you love without learning a lot of lessons about love, patience and about a different kind of intimacy.”
Like all of the leaders profiled in this issue, Barr became involved in Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community at a time when it was still coming out of the closet and finding itself. In the mid-1980s, much of the “gay scene” centered around gay-owned bars, the University of Utah’s Gay Student Union, and what Barr calls “the gay arts district” on 1st South St. between 2nd and 3rd East Streets, which was then a haven for independent theatres, restaurants and bookstores like the Cosmic Aeroplane.
Around this time, Barr had dropped out of college and was unsure what to do with his life. Around this time he met psychologist Michael Elliot, who along with others in the health field was forming a group for people with HIV/AIDS. Elliot suggested that Barr get involved with Shanti, a San Francisco-based AIDS group that was training Utahns to be, as Barr puts it, “buddies for people who were dying of AIDS.” Barr soon joined the fledgling group — AIDS Project Utah — as a special event organizer. At age 27 he became
“I had watched my older sisters’ involvement in the feminist movement and that motivated me to get involved in work with the LGBT community,” Barr explains. “Plus, I grew up in a community that included many Holocaust survivors. My grandparents worked for United Jewish Appeal in Salt Lake City in the 1940s and 1950s bringing survivors to America. I felt that AIDS would define my life in much the same way that the Holocaust had defined my parents and grandparents’ time. I didn’t want to be one of the people who sat on the sidelines who later-on would say, “I didn’t know what was happening.””
“Plus, I assumed that I was also HIV positive,” he continues. “I thought that I had a couple of years to live and that I wanted to create some change while I was still here.”
In working to create some change for Utahns with HIV/AIDS — and for the community at large — Barr moved to Seattle in 1992 to get his masters degree in social work. He returned to Utah in 1996 and worked as Salt Lake Valley Health Department’s HIV/AIDS manager until 1999, during which time he also helped to found the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition (now known as the Intermountain Harm Reduction Project) — a group, he says, that still does “great work around HIV and Injection Drug use and with women caught up in prostitution.”
Barr says he is thankful for all of the hard work Utahns have put into fighting HIV/AIDS in the nearly 30 years since the virus’ first widespread appearance. And while the disease may be manageable for many today, he urges all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people not to become complacent.
“I live in a community that has seen three AIDS service organizations close in recent years. It is terrible to see people in need without adequate services,” he says. “Salt Lake is lucky to have agencies like the AIDS Foundation, the People With AIDS Coalition [of Utah], The Harm Reduction Coalition and the Utah Pride Center. So go volunteer or send them some money — they can’t provide services without your help.”
Showing support like this, he adds, is what will keep the community strong.
“I continue to believe that something transformational happens, both for the individuals and our entire community, whenever LGBT people make a commitment to take care of each other,” he says.