Lambda Lore

AIDS, Activism and Angst

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Like many of you, I have been following the latest hullabaloo going on over at the Utah AIDS Foundation. My opinion about the assertions of certain young activists regarding the shelf life of nonprofit agencies’ executive directors, I will keep to myself. However, over the course of its stormy 25 years of existence, the Utah AIDS Foundation has had some rough squabbles. So gather around children and you shall hear the tumultuous beginnings of the first AIDS years.

Serendipitously in October of 1985, two organizations were founded by individuals from within our community to deal with the encroachment of the AIDS plague into Utah. While these two organizations were founded almost simultaneously, the founders were from different sections of the community. Dr. Patty Reagan, Ph.D., had just returned from a sabbatical in Berkeley, Calif., which by 1985 was near the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the western United States. Upon returning to the University of Utah she, as a health educator, was horrified at the lack of AIDS awareness in the state. So, with the help of other women health care workers, she created the Salt Lake AIDS Foundation. SLAF’s main purpose, according to Reagan, was to educate Utahns and the gay community specifically on how to take precautions to stop the spread of the fatal disease.

That same month, former health care workers from the defunct Gay and Lesbian Community Center and Clinic formed the AIDS Project Utah. It was patterned after other AIDS organizations in California. Duane Dawson, a registered nurse, spearheaded the formation of this AIDS organization, which was created to provide services to people with the disease. These two organizations were not rivals, but they served two distinct purposes: one to educate and the other to provide services.

Some of the early conflicts in the AIDS community were simply due to the largeness of the personalities of the people involved in the crisis. You must remember that back then no one was getting paid for the long hours of volunteerism, and there was an official prejudice against those working with what was perceived to be a gay man’s disease. This made people hypersensitive and very weary, but what choice did we have back then but to plod on? Our friends and lovers were dying.

The first faux pas by the newly created AIDS Project Utah was on the part of its acting Director, Richard Cochran. In October 1986, APU sponsored an AIDS Awareness Week featuring Roseanne Barr, sister of Ben Barr, an APU emotional support volunteer. Cochran, however, caused a rift in the community when he expressed his gratitude for what he thought was “the first AIDS Awareness Week,” even though the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire had twice sponsored such activities. This rift led to Cochran’s resignation and Ben Barr’s succession as director in November 1986.

SLAF and APU both struggled over which organization could best get its message out and also provide services to the rapidly-growing AIDS community. The Salt Lake AIDS Foundation seemed, to many, to be more actively involved in the gay men’s community at a time when AIDS Project Utah was marketing itself more towards the general heterosexual population. Differences over the direction that APU’s board of directors was taking the organization caused Ben Barr to leave in 1988, when he joined the SLAF. Dr. Patty Reagan, fatigued by burn- out, had begun stepping down as director, and later in the year she turned the organization over to Barr.

After the departure of Ben Barr from the AIDS Project Utah, their board selected Richard Starley to serve as its director at a time when there was increasingly less support of that organization from the gay community. The Utah Commemorative AIDS Quilt Project was especially peeved with APU when they used their name without permission in an application for AIDS grant money. Toward the end of the year general support for APU was so low that their annual AIDS Awareness Benefit was canceled. The organization itself was dissolved in December.

At the beginning of 1989, the Utah AIDS Project’s direct services programs, such as the “Buddy Program” and emotional support groups were absorbed by SLAF as there was no state or federal funding for the continuance of these essential programs. A few months into 1989, Dick Dotson, who founded a food bank for SLAF, left the foundation along with Donald Steward, program director of the People With AIDS Foundation, and David Sharpton, the founder of the People With AIDS Coalition. These AIDS activists felt that Ben Barr was spending SLAF’s resources inappropriately “by hiring too large a staff, and not making adequate efforts to use the trained volunteers.” Shortly after the departure of these critics the name of the organization was changed to the Utah AIDS Foundation to reflect its outreach to the entire state and not just its capital city.

David Sharpton and Ben Barr’s professional relationship had been stormy for some time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Sharpton had become an increasingly vocal critic of Barr, complaining that he was not doing enough to provide services to the AIDS community. The conflict between the two men came to a head in 1991 when Ben Barr was instrumental in having the Board of Directors of the People With AIDS Coalition kick Sharpton out as president. One of Barr’s complaints against Sharpton was that he threw Eugene Giditus, a PWAC volunteer, up against a wall in a fit of temper, and that the progress of Sharpton’s disease was making him increasingly unstable.

After Sharpton and the other critics left UAF, they formed the Horizon House to provide client services to the general AIDS community and perhaps, as some critics insinuated, to placate the LDS sensibilities of Utahns who viewed UAF as a gay organization.

Bad feelings were rife between the two AIDS service providers from the start, but they boiled over that year, when after a disparaging letter written by Stuart McDonald, a supporter of UAF but who didn’t have any authorization, was sent to the National People With AIDS Coalition. McDonald attacked the Horizon House and the integrity of Dick Dotson, causing the national AIDS conference that was scheduled to be held in Salt Lake City to be pulled.

By 1992 Ben Barr had enough of the bickering and squabbling over how its scarce resources should be allocated and resigned after six years laying the cornerstones upon which UAF was built.

Barr left UAF with 14 full-time employees, many of whom had master’s degrees – which he, at the time, did not have. In 1992 the top annual salary of any employee was $28,000 with Ben Barr earning just $25,000. In fact, on many occasions he took nothing in remuneration when the foundation had cash flow problems. Barr left the Foundation owning a building at 1408 S. 1100 East. The organization also boasted 200 active volunteers donating 10,000 hours monthly to run the food bank, serve prepared meals, staff counseling and education programs, and fight for patients’ insurance and financial benefits.

Successive directors of UAF were LaDonna Moore 1992-1994, Rick Pace (interim director) 1994, Barbara Shaw 1995-1999, and Stan Penfold 1999 to present.

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