30 Years of AIDS Walks In KC Began Quite Quietly

The 1988 shirt design for Kansas City's Walk for Life, which later became AIDS Walk. Photo courtesy of GLAMA.

April 1988 was a busy time for Kansas City’s LGBT community. The Heartland Men’s Chorus was preparing for its spring concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. A summer bowling league was starting at Mission Bowl. Pegasus, at 5024 Main St., was holding a “Going Out For Business” event to stifle rumors of a lost liquor license. And an AIDS Awareness Week was under way, with activities and programs each day highlighted by the first Kansas City display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at Municipal Auditorium. What’s missing from surviving LGBT-oriented and mainstream media accounts is any mention of a new AIDS fundraiser called “Walk for Life.”

Recollections from early and current organizers indicate that the first Walk for Life started at Theis Mall south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum and included fewer than 100 walkers. The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department provided a portable sound stage, and funds raised were tallied telethon-style during the day. By 1995, the event was officially renamed AIDS Walk, in part to reflect the evolution of the management of the disease.

The absence of information about the beginning of this important annual fundraiser in the files of the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America or other historic sources was very surprising. Upon reflection, though, this fact really points to the notion that one can’t predict whether an event will have lasting impact as it is being launched. Thirty years later, of course, we all recognize the power and passion that surrounds and results from AIDS Walk.

In the search for information about the birth of the Walk, plenty of vivid reminders were found of just how ugly a time it was. Death was a constant focus of coverage of the disease, as was fear. Page after page of newspaper clippings screamed of the latest indicators of the potential spread of AIDS, the unsuccessful attempts of the medical community to address it, and the new populations affected by it. Horrid examples of the bigotry that was rampant were a daily occurrence, from calls for a national quarantine of those carrying the virus to the hundreds of protesters at a Miss Gay America pageant who wore surgical masks. In Kansas City, the challenges of responding to the disease were manifested in the turbulent evolution of the Good Samaritan Project as it underwent a significant transformation in leadership and turned over the operation of Good Samaritan House, the local AIDS hospice, to SAVE Inc.

Such a challenging climate imparts an air of heroism onto the founders of the 1988 Walk for Life and its participants. This endeavor was an affirmative rallying cry to the families and friends who sought to do something – anything – in the face of this terrifying new disease, the ravages it imparted, and the hatred it engendered. To sustain that incredible generosity and charitable vitality over three decades is an astounding achievement.

Heartfelt congratulations to the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater Kansas City, the agencies it sustains, and, most important, to the thousands of volunteers, walkers, and other supporters who have raised millions of dollars for this crucial cause.

Stuart Hinds is the associate dean for collections and discovery services at UMKC libraries. He is also co-founder and curator of the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA).


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