Lambda Lore

I hope he stays angry forever

As the AIDS epidemic spread into its second decade, Ben Barr, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, and David Sharpton, founder and executive director of the People With AIDS Coalition of Utah were at odds with each other over temperament and management style.

Barr and Sharpton, as public faces of AIDS awareness in Utah, had a falling out. Barr asked Sharpton to leave the UAF, and this conflict split off the PWACU, forcing them to relocate from the foundation’s home on 9th East and 5th South. Much of the clash was due to Sharpton’s increasingly erratic behavior due to his failing health and the ever-increasing workload within the UAF.

During the first six months of 1990 there had been a 400 percent caseload increase at the foundation. The total number of calls had increased from 35, during the first quarter of 1989, to 150 in the first quarter of 1990. The UAF was receiving up to five new clients a week. 

Voluntary pay cuts and staff reduction tried to close the gap between the increasing needs and services that the foundation provided and its meager funding. Barr lamented that while the number of AIDS cases in Utah was growing, the public seemed to be losing interest. AIDS fatigue was a real issue.

Barr stated, “It’s so frightening. We don’t have the resources to educate and treat folks, and the numbers of AIDS cases continue to grow.” As of October 1990, the Utah Department of Health showed 325 cases of AIDS had been reported in the state since 1983. Moreover, an estimated 2,500 Utahns carried HIV.

By 1990, Sharpton was the foremost AIDS activist in Utah. Ironically he was never counted in Utah statistics as he had been diagnosed in Texas where he eventually returned to die.

Besides being a founder and an executive director of the Utah AIDS Coalition of Utah, Sharpton was a member of the executive committee of the Governor’s Task Force on AIDS, vice chairman of the Utah AIDS Consortium, and one of the founders of Horizon House – a support center for those living with the HIV virus.

However by summer, Sharpton was forced out as the executive director of PWACU. His acerbic criticism of Barr and of the Utah AIDS Foundation deeply concerned the PWACU board. They worried that the working relationship with the foundation was being damaged by Sharpton’s accusations and his promotion of a rival AIDS organization. 

While gay men made up the largest percentage of Utah’s AIDS population, according to Utah’s health department, some AIDS advocates at the UAF worried that the stigma of homosexuality was inhibiting the foundation from receiving funding and support from the general heterosexual community.

Of the 188 AIDS deaths in Utah reported since 1983, 75 percent were homosexuals or bisexual intravenous drug users. The other 25 percent of cases were heterosexuals who were either IV drug abusers, hemophiliacs infected by contaminated blood products, or those who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion or from an infected partner. 

Utah’s attitude toward addressing the AIDS epidemic began to change when statistics were released showing that 40 hemophiliacs — “innocent victims” — were HIV-positive and eight of them had died.

Most alarming to legislators was that nine Utah children under the age of 13 had been diagnosed with AIDS. Another 10 or more were infected with HIV.

What was shocking was that Utah had more children with AIDS than Colorado, which had over 1,300 cases while Utah had less than 400 at the time of the report.

Ben Barr stated that the increase of the number of Utah children with AIDS was an indicator that HIV was spreading into the general population faster than the state was willing to admit. Barr also pointed out that Utah had no prevention programs for IV-drug users and was not reaching people who were putting their children are at risk.

The increase in HIV infection among children and heterosexuals was the catalyst for some UAF dissidents to create a new facility called the Horizon House. 

Dick Dotson and Donald Steward saw the need for a new organization while working as volunteers for the UAF. They, along with Sharpton, felt that some people with AIDS weren’t taking advantage of services offered by the foundation because of its setting and the perception that it was an organization run by, and for, homosexuals.

The organizers of the Horizon House wanted to steer the topic of AIDS away from being associated with homosexuals. According to Dotson, hemophiliacs and children with AIDS had been especially reluctant to go to the UAF because of that stigma. The Horizon House, he said, was designed to be open to any AIDS victim, their family care providers, and healthcare professionals. 

Dotson, Sharpton, and Steward secured a location on 1300 East in Salt Lake City for the Horizon House, which opened its doors to clients in October. The concept envisioned by its founders was to address the needs, especially of children, as well as others who were uncomfortable with being associated with homosexuals. The AIDS residence was intended to provide a home-like environment for social gatherings, therapy programs, and educational seminars,

The dissidents felt that the UAF couldn’t provide these services to these AIDS clients who were wary of the stigma of homosexuality.

Additionally, Dotson, Steward, and Sharpton were at odds with Barr over the salaries of UAF’s staff. Although meager, some objected to any resources be allocated to anything other than education and services. Dotson stated that the Horizon House was to be a nondenominational, nonpolitical project and that it was to be run by volunteers on a shoe-string budget. He was adamant stating, “There can never, ever be paid staff. This is a volunteer organization all the way.”

A 15-member board of directors of Horizon House was set in place to be a governing body for oversight regarding policies and programs. The board included Dotson, Steward, and Sharpton as was well as healthcare professionals, a person with AIDS, a high school student volunteer, and representatives of several community agencies.

Among the services provided by the Horizon House were weekly social gatherings for children, a therapy group conducted by a minister, art therapy, and a Saturday activity for hemophiliac children intended partly to “give the parents a break.”

One of the main complaints directed at the Horizon House within the gay community was its willingness to work with the Church of Latter-day Saints, which many viewed as being adversarial toward homosexual rights.

However, Sharpton believed there had been an attitude change toward homosexuals by the church since it no longer excommunicated members solely on the basis of an AIDS diagnosis. He claimed that, as the church also provided financial help and counseling to AIDS victims through its welfare system, the Horizon House should be encouraged to be LDS friendly.

Dotson, Steward, and Sharpton, while not stating it publicly, privately felt that the church would be more inclined to send members to a care provider not associated so strongly with the gay community as was UAF. Sharpton argued with detractors that “the church is not Utah.” His stated that his issues were with the state, not the church.

Sharpton was angry regarding Utah’s slow response to assisting people with AIDS. The State Bureau of Epidemiology had sent back, over the course of several years, $300,000 in federal funds which had been allocated by the CDC to educate Utahns about the HIV virus.

Sharpton stated that as Utah was about three years behind the national HIV transmission averages, he believed that the lost money could have been used to anticipate transmission trends and educate at-risk populations. In his opinion, Utah’s health officials were complicit in the death of many Utahns if more money had been spent on treating AIDS as a health issue and not a moral one.

Sharpton, hoping to prod Utah health officials to work more diligently to put resources into stemming the AIDS epidemic, organized a Utah Chapter of an “AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power”, commonly known as ACT-UP, in October.

The first ACT-UP meeting was held in his apartment’s clubhouse. I saw him a week later with his lover, Mike Andgotti, who told me that he had been in the hospital and that the virus had hit his spinal column.

I later wrote in my journal that he didn’t look well but he did say that he had formed ACT-UP the prior week. I also wrote “I think David’s anger is the only thing keeping him alive so I hope he stays angry forever.”

Photo: David Sharpton

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