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Lambda Lore

Lambda Lore: AIDS in Utah

From 1981 to 1988 officials in the state of Utah did nothing but sit back and watch people die of AIDS. That is not a hyperbole. You see, AIDS was one of those moral diseases that separated “us from them.” Good people would never catch such an infliction, so why spend scarce resources on people that essentially brought death upon themselves?

I became a gay historian because of the AIDS epidemic. Whether I would survive it or not was unknown to me at the time, but I wanted to record it. I wanted future generations to know what we endured. I needed to tell the stories of my friends who couldn’t speak from the grave.

Between 1981 and 1985 the official national position was the disease was simply confined to homosexual males, intravenous drug users, and Haitians. Obviously Utah did not have a Haitian community to speak of, and well, homosexuals and drug users; they hardly fit Utah’s family-friendly image.

When Wyoming Attorney Gerry Spense sued the State of Utah, on behalf of a family whose mother died of AIDS, for not informing the gay community to not donate blood, so as to prevent the spread of the disease, the state countered that in 1984 there was no gay community to inform. The state lost its case when, as the archivist for the Utah Stonewall Center, I supplied the Wyoming law firm with information proving that, indeed, in 1984 there was a vibrant gay community in Utah. It was not until AIDS was shown to be transmitted by blood donations that Utahns began to decry the horrors of AIDS.

During these early years within the gay community there was a gnawing festering fear, as reports poured in from the West Coast of the rising number of victims of the gay plague. San Francisco and Los Angeles were ground zero on the West Coast as was Manhattan Island on the East. America’s medical community was quick to identify the disease as a gay pathology. It was called gay cancer then Gay-Related Immune Deficiency until it entered the blood banks of America. By then, however, Americans had made gay a synonym for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome and AIDS was a synonym for death.

Many gay men with the AIDS virus were dead within days of being diagnosed. Healthy, strong, active men weakened, wasted and died – often shunned by friends and family. Some people were afraid to even be in the presence of gay men.

In Utah, AIDS education or the concept of safer sex, did not exist before 1985. I take that back. The Best Source, a publication for the gay community, listed an AIDS-information 800-number for panicky Utahns. However, by the time the purple lesions appeared and the night sweats drenched the beds, death was imminent.

In this information void, heroes arose. They will never be honored in the halls of power, they will never have memorials named for them, but they are heroes none the less in the truest sense of the word. For the limit of this space I can only name a few.

Dr. Kristen Ries came to Utah in 1981 from Pennsylvania originally to work with a geriatric population. She had specialized in diseases that affected the immune system. I am convinced that Providence sent the good doctor to Utah as the AIDS tide began to roll in. During all of the 1980s and for most of the rest of her career, Dr. Ries carried the majority of the case load of AIDS clients in Utah. She was assisted compassionately and capably by Maggie Snyder. The pair, along with the Catholic Sisters of Holy Cross Hospital, eased the suffering of the AIDS community by compassionately allowing gay men to die with dignity when much of the rest of Utah’s health professionals were loath to deal with gay people at all.

Becky Moss became the main voice and producer of Concerning Gays and Lesbians in 1983 on KRCL. For much of the rest of the decade, she was the only source of reliable and up-to-date information on AIDS. It became more than an abstract for her when she learned that her sister Peggy Tingey and nephew Chance had contracted AIDS and died in 1994 and 1995.

In the fall of 1985 a handful of health professionals from the gay community saw the looming health crisis that was heading toward Utah as swiftly as any tsunami from the West Coast. While state health officials viewed AIDS as not a clear-and-present danger, Dr. Patty Reagan, a health educator at the University of Utah, and Duane Dawson, a registered nurse, stepped in to fill the breach. Amazingly they did so simultaneously without knowledge of each other’s endeavors.

Dr. Patty Reagan, with the help of the University of Utah Women’s Resource Center created an information organization she called The Salt Lake City AIDS Foundation. She said it sounded impressive but to her chagrin she later realized a foundation usually gives out money and much of her time when not teaching was begging for donations to keep the phone lines operating. At a low point she even asked her mother for funds to keep the lines open.

Because of Dr. Reagan’s academic training, she was asked to speak to groups up and down the Wasatch Front, occasionally raising the hackles of conservative groups, like Family Alert for once demonstrating how to put a condom on a banana.

Dr. Reagan, who was the only AIDS educator in the entire state, begged for the funds that the Center for Disease Control had allocated Utah for AIDS education. However, the state epidemiologist, Dr. Craig Nichols, refused her, saying that the gay community was capable of taking care of itself and didn’t need the state’s intervention.

Duane Dawson, RN along with other health workers in October 1985 created the AIDS Project Utah with an entirely different mission from the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation. APU’s primary goal was to provide services to people infected with HIV or had developed full-blown AIDS. While SLAF dealt with AIDS prevention, APU assisted people with AIDS in finding the medical and physical attention they needed. People with AIDS often lost jobs, friends and shelter at the most critical time of their lives.

In 1986 Ben Barr began to volunteer at the AIDS Project Utah and soon began organizing AIDS awareness and fundraising events involving his sister Roseanne Barr who at the time was a rising star on the comedy circuit. She agreed to perform at two fundraisers for APU.

The very nature of being a health care provider is exhausting work and it was quickly burning out leadership at both APU and SLAF. APU folded in 1988 due to several reasons; not the least the lack of support from the gay community as APU had tried to distance itself as a gay organization to achieve a more mainstream appeal.

Ben Barr was asked by Dr. Patty Reagan to take over the flailing SLAF which he did in 1989, changing the name of the organization to the Utah AIDS Foundation. He combined the jobs of providing AIDS information and services under one roof. His drive and commitment to combating the AIDS onslaught built the UAF into the organization it is today. He left the organization only after he realized that it had outgrown his capabilities; however, leaving it a sound, thriving and respected nonprofit enterprise.

David Sharpton was a native Texan and a Mormon convert. He came to Utah in 1987 as a guest speaker at an LDS health conference. As an outspoken, articulate person with AIDS, Sharpton soon became the face of AIDS in Utah. Sharpton knew his time was limited but he fought hard to educate the ignorant on Capitol Hill about AIDS, and to keep them from passing damaging legislation. Mandatory testing and quarantining on Antelope Island were a couple of the more draconic measures bandied about. The worse offending law passed was prohibiting people with AIDS from marrying. The law was so worded that it invalidated legal marriages wherein one of the partners had AIDS. Peggy Tingey and Cindy Kidd sued the state and had the law overturned.

David Sharpton’s acerbic tongue became more caustic as AIDS took its toll on him and even his closest friends called him David Sharp Tongue, but not to his face. With all his bravado toward a deadly foe, David was failing but he managed to found an ACT-UP chapter in Utah and was also co founder with Thomas Lindsey of the People With AIDS Coalition. David died in 1992 in Texas and thus was robbed of being a Utah statistic.

In 1990 Dick Dotson and Donald Steward [our own Ruby Ridge] founded the Horizon House and an annual retreat for people with AIDS at Camp Pinecliff. Dick had a passion to serve the AIDS community as does Donald who has spent countless hours and has raised thousands of dollars to benefit the community.

AIDS deaths peaked in Utah in 1995. One hundred-thirty deaths were attributed to AIDS according to the Utah Health Department that year. However, since the state only counted those who were diagnosed and who died in-state, that number is probably much higher.

As a man in my 30s during the 1980s I lived much of my life in fear, supposing that I would not live much past my 40s. All around me it felt like I was living in war time. We had AIDS fatigue. We had safe-sex fatigue. We had funeral fatigue. We even had survivor’s guilt.

I am now 60 years old and am one of the oldest persons I know from that period. Many of my contemporaries are gone. My adversaries have become my friends due to attrition. AIDS in the 1980s was the refiner’s fire that shaped us. We managed to keep the Civil Rights struggle alive even though we could not keep our friends and lovers alive. Having gone through our own gay holocaust I can witness that we are a strong, noble and compassionate people. I hope we will remember that as our legacy.

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About the author

Ben Williams

2 Comments

  • I am a 46 year old gay man with hiv. I was diagnosed in 1986. My primary dr did not know what to do with me. Thank God for Dr Ries. I still see Maggie Snyder. I was there when APU started. Back then the Royal Court gave 100 dollar Christmas presents to those with AIDS. Thank you for not letting people forget our past. Personally I cried like a baby when I turned 30, sure I was doomed. I am 46 now and healthy. Thank you again.

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