Salt Lake AIDS Walk celebrates 30 years with an ’80s-themed stroll through downtown

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants warm-up before the Utah AIDS Foundation's 30th annual AIDS walk, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

After moving to Utah in 1982 to dance with Ballet West, Peter Christie said he enjoyed himself as a young gay man in Salt Lake City.

“Maybe a little too much,” Christie said.

His life “came crashing down” in 1995, Christie said, after he was diagnosed with AIDS. He rapidly lost weight and was at the edge of death, he said, adding that he felt as though his name was on a list that he somehow erased his name from.

“Lucky for me, some great medication came along at just the right time,” Christie said. “Because of that, I’m still here.”

Christie shared his story with a crowd of roughly 300 outside the Utah State Capitol on Saturday. Shortly after his remarks, a large group of pedestrians — many wearing neon green T-shirts, brightly colored leg warmers or rainbow tie-dye — left the Capitol to head toward downtown Salt Lake City for the annual Salt Lake AIDS Walk.

The event, a fundraiser for the Utah AIDS Foundation, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a “throwback” 1980s theme. In addition to the bright apparel, retro songs like “Electric Avenue” and “Flashdance ... What a Feeling" blared from loudspeakers before and after the walk while attendees danced and played yard games.

Ahmer Afroz, the foundation’s executive director, said advancements in medicine have shifted the AIDS conversation from testing and treatment to prevention and education. But stigma persists, he said, and there are gaps between HIV-positive individuals and the health care and educational resources they need.

“We recognize a lot has changed in the past 30 years, but there’s still so much work to do,” Afroz said. “Our work is not done until there is zero new HIV infections, zero HIV-related deaths and zero HIV stigma.”

During the walk — which began and ended at the Utah State Capitol and meandered around Temple Square and the city center — Megann Smith held a sign commemorating her mother, Kelli, who died 12 years ago. Smith said it was her first time participating in the AIDS walk, but that family members had participated in previous events.

“The more people talk about it, the less it’s going to spread,” Smith said. “People are ashamed of it. It needs to be talked about.”

Jim Peterson was another first-time walker, and said he and a small group of coworkers had fundraised for the event and the Utah AIDS Foundation. On Saturday, he said his group had raised $100, but he expected that to grow to $250.

“I think I’ll do it again next year,” he said.

Teresa Hyatt, chief financial officer for the Utah AIDS Foundation, said the event had a goal of raising $68,000. At the time of the walk, the organization had collected roughly $50,000, she said, but the donation window would remain open until the end of the month.

“We’re shooting for $68,000,” she said. “It will be a little more than we raised last year.”

Hyatt, who lived in Los Angeles during the 1980s, said she lost several friends to HIV. After moving to Salt Lake City, she began volunteering for the annual AIDS walk and ultimately joined the foundation.

She said that while there is still stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, a growing number of community members and partners have embraced the foundation and sexual health advocacy efforts.

“We’ve got drag queens, we’ve got Mama Dragons, we’ve got students from The U., we’ve got everybody out here,” Hyatt said. “We just want to embrace our diversity, be kind and loving, and walk through the city.”