IAGSDC Memorial Panels

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(Originally written by Freeman Stamper for the Program for Dance Up A Storm, the IAGSDC 2012 Convention held in Vancouver, BC.)

From the inception of the IAGSDC which was born at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, several actions had been attempted to honor those dancers that have been lost to the illness. Nothing seemed to be effective.

It started with listing names in the Convention program. Then there was the reading of names at the Memorial Tip. Finally, a diary was placed on a table at the 1993 Seattle Convention in which attendees were requested to write the names of the deceased club members with the intention of reading the names at the Memorial Tip. That didn’t work because attendees, not reading the sign, inscribed their own names which was obvious because some of the names were dancing (or it was a cruel joke by several people). Lynn McCasland (then dancing with the Wilde Bunch) was the person who was leading the charge, and I asked Lynn if he would mind my attempting to do something. With his approval, I started thinking. What was missing from these tasks? The friends and club members of these fallen dancers were not actively involved in the remembrance process – they had not completely grieved.

I knew from the start that the Panels would not be represented for HIV/AIDS deaths alone. All our friends who had died were missed regardless of the reason. I had been asked several times in the prior years what should be done with a square dancer’s badge when he or she died. I just didn’t know an answer. You could, of course, bury it in a coffin; but you couldn’t cremate one to be included in ashes. My thought was how to create a graveyard for club badges which are the outward and visible sign of the inner joy of belonging to your club and to the greater gay square dancing community.

One day in early 1994, I was walking from the bus stop on Castro Street up to the Golden Boot Ranch at Sanchez and 21st Streets, and the idea of the graveyard came to me as a complete vision. Borrowing from the AIDS Quilt (even the size of 6 feet x 3 feet), I saw panels that were decorated with IAGSDC themes that would be the interment vehicle. At any time the Panels were on display, a club or an individual could attach a badge anywhere they chose. I encouraged people to try to use the actual badge without all the dangles that could be affixed to the basic badge. I wanted the essence of the person who wore it to be there – all the sweat, all the joy, all the sadness, all the experiences of that person’s life that had been a part of square dancing.

The 1994 Convention was in Washington, DC, and I have a long-standing friend Gene Boemer from my drag days in the Nation’s capital city who is an artist and now lives in Rehoboth Beach, DE. I contacted him to see if he would paint a canvas for me. He agreed, I purchased heavy artist canvas in San Francisco, shipped it to him, and gave him a crude drawing of an image I had in my head. Prior to the Convention, I went to visit him and his lover. Upon arriving he was in the process of completing it, but he refused to finish it without my actually being involved in the painting. The design is the interlocking squares of the IAGSDC, and, yes, they do truly interlock. (read the history of the IAGSDC badge to know more) It was everything I envisioned, and I proudly took it to DC to make its inaugural appearance – complete with “In Memorium.” Oops, my bad. At a later date the “u” was transformed into an “a.”

A few badges were affixed at that Convention and more at subsequent showings. It soon was getting too full, so I asked Gene to do another. He graciously did, and the concept was to creating gender-neutral dancers in a square. I called upon him one more time before I found a new project manager for the Panels, and he did his impression of a sequence of images evolving from a circle to a square.

The first quasi-permanent display structure was done with PVC pipe and was engineered by George Fox (who dances with the Sacramento clubs). For this structure, the panels, and the tools needed to install the display, a carrying case was needed. In a Sharper Image catalogue, I saw a hard-sided golf bag “luggage.” The dimensions seemed perfect. “If ‘no’ is an appropriate answer, it never hurts to ask.” How many people have heard me say that? So, I sent an email to Richard Thalheimer, Founder and President, explaining the project and asking him to authorize a discount for two cases. He did! – a very generous discount.

I forget what year I relinquished control of the project, so someone else would have to continue the story. I believe that the intent and impact of the Memorial Panels has been a powerful display of the humanity of our gay square dance community. I’m not aware of any other memorial process of its kind in the world. After all, if you want something fabulous, ask a queen!

For both the Medallions and the Memorial Panels, I reached outside the square dance community to my long-standing friends. I was permitted in 1998 at the Portland Convention to announce the wonderful angels for the Medallions, and they were in attendance to receive the last two medallions I presented prior to relinquishing the project to Rick Hawes. Gene Boemer never asked for anonymity for his generous contributions to the Memorial Panels, but I memorialize that fact now for the world to always know.
Freeman Stamper