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Lambda Lore

The Utah AIDS Memorial Quilt Project

AIDS memorial quilt
Written by Ben Williams

At the end of 1987, Ben Barr and I had created an organization called Utah’s AIDS Memorial Quilt Project — similar to the San Francisco Names Project. However, as Barr was involved with the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation, and I was busy with Unconditional Support we wanted to turn the project over to others within our committee to do it justice. Bruce Harmon, husband of Reverend Bruce Barton and a member of the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, agreed to facilitate the project. And by February the project was incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

We elected Harmon as chair, Connell O’Donovan as clerk, and Dennis McCafferty as treasurer. Other members included Barbara Stockton, John Bennett, Ben Barr, Chuck Whyte, Ralph Place, Mark LaMar, Terrie Thompson-Ferrio, Eric Christensen, Garth Snyder, Bruce Barton, and myself.

We were ambitious in our outreach. We discussed a proposal for some grant money from the Utah Folk Art Foundation and the Utah Arts Festival. Harmon approached David Sharpton and the LDS Social Services about involving the LDS Relief Society, and even Mormon celebrity Carol Lynn Pearson. O’Donovan said he had contacted his ward’s Relief Society about making a quilt and they said they would be willing to teach Affirmation people how to quilt.

We envisioned some of the quilt panels would come from such groups and include an elementary school as a project for a baby that recently died of AIDS. It was hoped that the AIDS Quilt would bridge the gay and non-gay worlds.

Ralph Place, who founded Utah’s first Gay Liberation group in 1969, talked about using his connections to get Norma Matheson, a former 1st Lady of Utah, to be a spokesperson for the quilt. I suggested that we also get an entry form for the AIDS Quilt in the Days of 47 Parade. I thought if they turn us down it would still be great publicity.

We discussed having the quilt tour throughout the state and displayed at Gay Pride Day, the Utah Arts Festival, and at Liberty Park’s Neighborhood Fair. We had ambitious aims but limited funds.

As money lacked for our grand schemes, we planned a fundraiser for the project at the Newgate Waterslide in Ogden. Terry Thompson-Ferrio, Bruce Harmon, Chuck Whyte, and I organized and promoted the event held in February 1988. We pushed it as an “all gay” private party fundraiser held for the Utah AIDS Quilt. About 80 people attended and took advantage of the soothing 95-degree water and the two new Wolf tanning beds. The fundraiser raised the sum of $350.

In March, we held an AIDS Quilt Open House which was a flop. Other than our members, only one person showed up. I told Harmon that if the project bought the materials, I would make a panel. I wrote in my journal: “I think people need something visual to catch the vision of this project. It’s been almost six months since I went to the March on Washington and I should have done one long before now.”

Harmon agreed and gave me money to buy some material. I decided to do one for Michael Spense (aka Tracy Ross), whom I never met but John Bennett said he wanted one done for him. I worked all day on it, hand stitching the lettering and border designs. All I knew about Tracy Ross was that he was a drag queen in the RCGSE, so I made it glitzy and sparkly. Little did I know at the time that it would be the only panel specifically made for our project. Also in March, there was a candlelight vigil in front of the Governor’s Mansion on South Temple. There David Sharpton and I held up the panel for Ross.

Nearly six months after the Utah AIDS Memorial Quilt was initiated, there was less and less enthusiasm for the project. Everyone turned to other ventures and organizations. The last hurrah came when we hosted a workshop in May for people to work on their quilt panels, but no one attended.

While it didn’t officially dissolve, the Utah AIDS Quilt Project faded away as that most of the community’s resources focused on people living with AIDS rather than commemorate those who had died.

At the July 1988 Gay and Lesbian Pride Day celebration held in Sunnyside Park, I displayed for the last time the Utah AIDS Quilt panel I created. I wrote in my journal: “I displayed the panel from the Utah AIDS Quilt I made for Tracy Ross. I hope to stimulate some more interest in the project. Everyone else has given up on it.”

On the first anniversary of the March on Washington and the first National Coming Out Day in October I wrote, “The AIDS Quilt is on display in the capitol and ACT UP AIDS activists have shut down the FDA for dragging its feet approving drugs for people with AIDS. President Reagan burned in effigy, and the police wore latex gloves to arrest the protesters. Sadly this protest has made more news here in Utah than the National March did last year. The oppressor only responds to something dramatic. Either a show of force or passive resistance.”

During the October AIDS Awareness week, Ben Barr called to give me some names of people who wanted to do some quilt panels for the Utah AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. I wrote in my journal: “There is a renewed interest in the project now that the Names Project will be bringing portions of the quilt to Utah next year as part of a national tour. I talked to Chuck Whyte the other day about meeting with Bruce Harmon for an accounting of the money we raised last Spring. Its about $300 and is just sitting somewhere. We have not had a formal meeting of the AIDS Quilt Project since last April.”

Nothing came about after that last entry, and the money went to the RCGSE’s AIDS Fund. In March 1989 when the AIDS Quilt displayed in the Salt Palace, I handed off the panel I made for Tracy Ross to David Sharpton of the People With AIDS Coalition. I have no idea what happened to it after that.

About the author

Ben Williams

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