Gay Urban Truth Squad brought new level of activism, but it took awhile to convince even gay Dallasites that it met an important need
When former Dallas resident William Waybourn and several of his friends formed the Gay Urban Truth Squad in the mid-1980s to bring attention to the need for substantial government funding to fight the AIDS epidemic, they didn’t think of it as a courageous act.
“We didn’t think we had any choice,” Waybourn said in an interview.
Waybourn said he came up with the idea of forming the group, which billed itself as GUTS, after attending a health conference on AIDS in San Francisco in 1985. He witnessed demonstrations by AIDS activists at the conference and realized it would be necessary to stage similar protests in Dallas to influence public opinion.
During a subsequent trip to New York City, Waybourn said he was rebuffed when he asked the leadership of ACT UP to allow Dallas activists to use the same name. Undeterred, he and his associates christened their new group GUTS.
“We would have used the ACT UP name, but they wouldn’t let us,” Waybourn said. “Being perfect Dallas children at the time, we didn’t question authority. We just accepted that at face value instead of just using it, which is what other people did.”
Later ACT UP officials asked Dallas activists to become a part of the national group because of GUTS’ success in attracting the media to its demonstrations and drawing public support for more funding to fight the AIDS epidemic and help AIDS patients.
Dallas activists had seldom before resorted to street activism, so the first GUTS demonstrations in the late 1980s made headlines.
Waybourn and his associates, who included Bill Hunt, Bill Nelson, Bruce Monroe, Gary Bellomy, Bill Travis, Deb Elder and John Thomas, shocked public officials and the city’s gay and straight residents with dramatic demonstrations never before seen in Dallas. They planted crosses in a vacant field to highlight the number of people who had already succumbed to AIDS, threw stuffed dummies on the front steps of the county’s health department building and drew chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks at City Hall.
An army of AIDS patients who were physically able to help participated in the demonstrations, Waybourn said.
“It was pure street theater,” said Waybourn, who now lives in Washington. “The only way we could appeal to people’s consciences was to do something that was really dramatic.”
Waybourn said dramatic action was needed for the time. Public officials hedged on providing adequate funding to provide treatment for AIDS patients while they were advocating spending big money to test people for the HIV virus.
“It was very controversial at the time because there were no protections for people who tested positive, and the fact that the information could be used by insurance companies and anybody at the time,” Waybourn said.
A variety of issues prompted the demonstrations as the GLBT community struggled to deal with the epidemic, Waybourn said. Some AIDS patients walked the streets, rejected by their families and friends, and many people feared the disease would wipe out the entire gay male population as they attended countless funerals.
“You couldn’t blame it on one thing or the other,” Waybourn said. “There were a lot of things going on at the time.”
They succeeded in getting attention but in the process they angered many people, Waybourn said. Many gay and straight people viewed the demonstrations as inappropriate and disrespectful to political friends, he said.
“In the early days we were social pariahs,” Waybourn said. “People just couldn’t believe were being so difficult by embarrassing everyone.”
Waybourn said some public officials became so angry about the demonstrations they threatened the activists.
“At that point we were told that not only were we not going to get anything, but we would never get anything,” Waybourn said.
Waybourn said many gay and lesbian people condemned them also. The reaction was “shock, horror and embarrassment,” he said.
“There were times when you walked down the street that they wouldn’t even speak to you,” Waybourn said.
Waybourn said the activists always hoped they were doing the right thing, even if they sometimes were not sure. As outrageous as the demonstrations could be, they always wore ties so no one could criticize their appearances, he said.
“We knew what we were doing was very unpopular and would be criticized, even by our friends,” Waybourn said.
Attitudes began to change in Dallas as the AIDS epidemic began touching more people’s lives, Waybourn said. Every socially prominent family in Dallas was affected by either a family member’s or a friend’s sickness, he said.
Mayor Annette Straus agreed to join the board of directors of the AIDS Resource Center and she helped attract support from other wealthy people, Waybourn said. Kim Dawson and Harryette Ehrhardt also lent their support for the cause.
Deb Elder, who now lives in Florida, said she believes the GUTS demonstrations were a peaceful way to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic and get more people involved in the fight against it.
“Although a somewhat medium-sized group, I do believe GUTS packed a positive punch for AIDS activism and began a positive step forward for our GLBT community,” Elder said.
Elder said she also credits GUTS activists with providing role models for closeted gay people who later came out after being inspired by the demonstrations.
“GUTS helped create a strong role-modeling for our community because there was much publicity and openness for those of us actively involved,” Elder said.
Waybourn said he believes Dallas’ GLBT community has achieved much of its success in fighting the AIDS epidemic and providing care for HIV-positive people because its members finally realized the politics of the past would no longer work. GUTS helped influence that change in attitude, he said.
“It was very effective,” Waybourn said. “People realized we were not going to get there by the route we had always taken and we had to do something different.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 30, 2006.