Categories: Lambda Lore

Community growing pains

At the beginning of 1987, the topic of AIDS was the number one conversation in Utah’s gay and lesbian communities. AIDS prevention conversations became so repetitious that many in the gay men’s community complained about constantly hearing about it, even as the disease continued impacting lives and changing the gay culture.

In the 1980s, there were no straight allies and no government protection from discrimination, while homosexuals were coming to terms with the deadly plague. The gay and lesbian communities were afraid to draw attention to themselves. We hoped to thrive out of Utah’s conservative religious spotlight that was condemning homosexuals as a public moral and health danger. Elder Theodore Burton of the LDS Church gave an address at BYU the previous year calling homosexuals an abomination, which was the general position of the Mormon hierarchy. Sexual acts of homosexuals, consensual and in private were illegal in Utah.

The media, rather than providing positive news articles on homosexuals, continued to stereotype gays and lesbians as depraved, while at the same time trying to calm the public by reporting that heterosexuals were relatively safe from AIDS. Those heterosexuals who contracted AIDS were labeled “innocent victims”.

One of the most controversial bills passed by the state legislature in 1987 was one sponsored by Salt Lake Republican Senator Stephen Rees. His bill made it illegal for people with AIDS to marry. The legislation which became law could invalidate marriages if a partner contracted AIDS. Several insurance lobbies which didn’t want to pay benefits to surviving family members backed the measure. The law was eventually overturned years later when AIDS activists Cindy Kidd and Peggy Tingey sued the state.

In this climate of ignorance and fear,  the AIDS Project Utah and the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation provided different, but not competitive services to the AIDS community. The APU offered physical support for people infected and operated out of the Carriage House in downtown Salt Lake City.

SLAF, which was mostly a speakers bureau, focused on AIDS education and prevention. Dr. Patty Reagan, SLAF’s founder and a health professor at the University of Utah faced scrutiny by right-wing elements for her AIDS education in high schools. She always faced criticism for any mention of condoms, homosexuality, or premarital sex or any violation of Utah’s sex-education laws.

To try and stem the spread of HIV infection, volunteers from AIDS organizations regularly came to gay men support groups to demonstrate the correct way to put on a condom, often using a banana or dildo. Condom use wasn’t widely practiced at the time, and many didn’t know how to use them.

Holy Cross Hospital was the only medical institution treating people with AIDS in Utah. Their staff physician, Dr. Kristin Ries, was the AIDS doctor for Utah. During Gay Pride Day 1987, Dr. Ries received a Community Service Award for her work with AIDS patients. Dr. Ries was the first recipient of the award, named in her honor.

When Jeff’s Gym, a gay men’s bathhouse, closed in March, after deciding not to contest efforts on the part of the city to close it down, a reporter wrote, “The decision of Salt Lake City officials to close that institution is a clear sign that AIDS has inalterably affected gay life — not only medically but politically and socially as well.” However, by agreeing not to contest the city’s license revocation, the move deprived the court of the opportunity to set a precedent by labeling gay meeting places as “public nuisances”. An adverse court decision, in effect, could have shut down the bars and social organizations in Utah.

In 1987 Utah’s health department had decided to exclude the gay community from safe sex AIDS information. A gay activist named Graham Bell was on a crusade to expose the state epidemiologist’s refusal to use federal funds for AIDS awareness and prevention within the gay community. Bell informed any organization that would listen that the state epidemiologist misinformed the Centers for Disease Control about what was being done for the gay men’s community by the state. Bell took it upon himself to be a media spokesman for the gay community. He went on various local talk shows and had formed a connection with the Salt Lake mayor’s office of Palmer DePaulis.

By September, The Utah Department of Health had established a 30-member advisory board to develop policies and strategies to deal with the AIDS crisis. It occurred two years after the grassroots organizations like APU and SLAF formed by members of the gay men and lesbian communities.

By 1987, the HIV virus had been identified as the cause of AIDS. AZT was the only approved treatment for HIV, and it was difficult to take as it caused severe side effects. The annual cost per patient for AZT was $8,000–10,000. As there was no other treatment for AIDS beyond AZT, death occurred within months of diagnosis for those who couldn’t afford the drug.

With the lack of affordable treatment, various forms of metaphysical support groups appealed to at-risk populations. They were mostly based on methods promoted by Louise Hays, a self-help guru out of California. John Gatzmeyer facilitated the “Loving Yourself” support group which met at the Holy Cross Hospital. Gatzmeyer was a disciple of Hays and was a proponent of positive reinforcement thinking in the fight against AIDS infection or if HIV positive living longer.

The Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists invited David Sharpton to speak at the UofU in October. Sharpton was an AIDS activist whose association with an LDS counselor named Alan Gundry brought him to Utah from Texas. Initially, Sharpton hoped to work as a bridge between the gay community, the People With AIDS Coalition of Utah, and officials of the LDS Church. Sharpton’s arrogance and brashness were off-putting to some, but later he became the most dynamic proponent for AIDS education and activism in the state. He was a founder of PWACU.

At the end of October, Rosanne Barr performed a benefit performance for AIDS Awareness Week at Abravanel Hall. The Salt Lake Men’s Choir and a local drag group called The Lovebirds had the distinction of being the first gay drag performers to perform at what was then Symphony Hall.

By year’s end, the Utah Department of Health’s AIDS Advisory Committee had recommended “a contact tracing process of sex partners” for Salt Lake County to receive its 1988 “AIDS control grants.” The decision made it difficult for the gay community to comply with, as that many casual sexual encounters were anonymous. Also, there was the fear of being on an official list, as someone who has sex with other men. It was frightening to gay men, especially closeted homosexuals and bisexuals.

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Ben Williams

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