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Lambda Lore

Utah was the first stop for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1989

AIDS memorial quilt
Written by Ben Williams

It was announced in January 1989 that Salt Lake City had been chosen as the first stop on the U.S.-Canadian tour of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. However, only a portion of the quilt was to be on display as it had grown to include 8,288 panels and weighed 16 tons. Only 576 panels of the quilt was scheduled to be shown at the Salt Palace March 16-19. As enormous as the quilt had become, for each panel in the quilt, five other people had died.

By bringing the quilt to Salt Lake, it was meant to illustrate the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Utah. Ben Barr, who was the Utah AIDS Foundation director, said that the value of having the quilt come to Utah was that it visually “provides a really safe, non-threatening way to educate kids about AIDS.” David Sharpton, who was the director of the People with AIDS Coalition of Utah, told reporters, “For those of us who have AIDS, the quilt is a part of us. The reality is that one day, there will be a panel with our names.”

On March 15, panels of the Names Project Quilt arrived in Salt Lake City where some of them were temporarily displayed in the state capitol building. The three by six foot panels were sewed into squares of twelve feet by twelve feet and some of these larger sections were displayed on walls in the Utah State Capitol Building prior to the opening ceremony.

In conjunction with the quilt’s arrival, an interfaith candlelight service was held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, followed by a candlelight procession from the cathedral to the Arts Center south of Abravanel Hall. I attended the service at St. Marks and participated in the candlelight procession which some have referred to as being the first large scale gay action in Salt Lake City.

I wrote in my journal an account of the event: “We were there around six fifty and it was already packed. We barely got a seat because there were probably five hundred people in attendance. The service was really moving. We then went outside with our lit candles.  The Salt Lake Police had estimated that only fifty people would attend the march. My, weren’t they way off by tenfold. Curtis Robinson and I walked down South Temple while holding each other and it was so beautiful. The weather held up for all of it. I can’t ever remember another candlelight procession in Salt Lake City. The solemn energy was tremendous as the five hundred of us streamed past Temple Square carrying our candles. I thought about the social significance of us walking arm in arm in front of Utah’s Kremlin. The march ended at symphony Hall with us singing We Shall Overcome.”

The next day on March 16, the quilt display was officially opened to the public at the Salt Palace. My observations were written as follows.

“The Quilt was displayed in the Assembly Hall of the Salt Palace where Coronation is held. Curtis Robinson said you could feel a level of energy in the air surrounding the event. The walkways were already laid out in the assembly hall but the center squares were empty until the unfolding. Many of the 12 x 12-foot panels sections were already hanging on the walls including twenty-five individual panels of Utahns who had died, including the one I made for Michael Spence whose drag name was Tracy Ross.

It was a somber atmosphere within the Salt Palace as if we were at a funeral. At seven the unfolding ceremony began. David Sharpton was the conductor of the event and he introduced the dignitaries who read off the names of people who had died of AIDS as the unfolders laid out the squares to fill the empty spaces.

My emotions and senses, as well as those of others participating, were reeling. I didn’t think I’d cry after seeing the Quilt in Washington DC in 1987 but I did. On stage, reading names, were Mayor Palmer DePaulis and his wife, Bruce Lindsey from KSL, Cathleen Block from KUTV, Bruce Barton and Bruce Harmon, Ben Barr, Larry White of the Golden Spike Empire, and many, many more.

“The unfolding ceremony lasted about an hour then people began to mill around on the walkways between the squares to read the epithets. Curtis and I walked arms around each other and looked at the colorful and tragic memorial. While I was viewing the panels I came upon Clair Harward’s. He was the Ogden man excommunicated for being Gay while dying of AIDS. I burst into tears. It was an emotional evening with people weeping, consoling, and hugging each other. I walked home by myself in a slow steady drizzle. Even the heavens are weeping.”

On Saturday, I went back down to the Salt Palace several times as I was scheduled to be one of the readers of names. Names of people who had died of AIDS were constantly and consistently being read although out the day and into the evening and many of us were asked to take turns reading so as to avoid fatigue.

That was a powerful experience and I really tried to choke back the tears when reading the list I was given with all the single names of just Bill or Billy. No last names. There must have been 30 of them or more and to read one after another nearly broke my heart. I spent much of my time today in the company of Ben Barr and David Sharpton who both looked exhausted.

Sunday was the finally day of the AIDS Quilt display in Utah. I had intended to be at the closing ceremony but because of my commitment to taping a program for Concerning Gays and Lesbians, I was unable to do so.  “At the KRCL studios I did a program with Becky Moss and Jim Rieger. I wanted to be done by eight to go back to the Salt Palace to see the closing ceremony but we didn’t get finished in time.  It was a wonderful program with interviews of people’s reactions to the opening ceremonies. It was a nice tribute and I dedicated the show to Ben Barr and David Sharpton and all the many volunteers who made this event possible. There are too many emotions swirling around me to even articulate one, and write them down. My thoughts are so, so elusive and they melt away as soon as I start to write.”

Today, the quilt weighs 54 tons and is composed of more than 48,000 panels dedicated to more than 94,000 individuals. The NAMES Project stages more than 1,000 Quilt displays each year in a variety of venues from schools and universities, corporations and community centers, places or worship and galleries – all in the hopes of making HIV/AIDS real and immediate and turning statistics into souls.

About the author

Ben Williams

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