A Brief History of the Founding of Queer Utah Aquatic Club
written by Q Salt Lake Staff writer, Brad Di Iorio
In life, there are those individuals who help us create, learn and grow. Some would argue that this is the essence of living, that interaction with other humans is essential in feeling emotion, building and creating the world we choose to live in, and bringing meaning to the direction of the lives we have chosen for ourselves.
It could also be said that this is true for groups, too. Behind every organization or club, there are usually one or two people who inspire the formation of that group. The Queer Utah Aquatic Club had such an inspirational spirit behind its beginnings, in a little known collaboration between a straight, female swimmer, wYllis Dorman-Li; a Masters swimming coach, Utah’s out, estate planning and wills-and-trust lawyer Doug Fadel; and David Ferguson, an aspiring tri-athlete honing his swimming skills.
“It was [Dorman-Li's] idea to start a gay and lesbian swim club. When I first met her she thought I was gay, but I didn’t tell her I was.”
A Helping Person…
That was the type of person Dorman-Li was, according to friends and the people she interacted with. She could have a gruff way about her but she wasn’t a gruff person, said Lucille Hesse, who along with husband Jim Gebhardt helped run the local Chavurah B’Yachad Jewish Congregation, which Dorman-Li formed after leaving the local Congregation Kol Ami in the mid 90s.
“WYllis was running the show for a couple of years [at Chavurah B'Yachad] and she didn’t pull any punches when she was communicating with people, so I was the person that joined as co-president during a two year period, maybe it was 94-95,” recalled Gebhardt.
Dorman-Li was born in 1937 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She received her BA from City University of New York with majors in political science and psychology, and a minor in business administration, and also joined a program that helped the poor in Haiti during Francois Papa Doc Duvalier’s presidency. She did graduate studies in psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York City and also studied fine arts at Newark State College, and human resources management at the University of Utah. Dorman-Li also volunteered extensively for the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training, a nonprofit organization that promotes understanding and appreciation of Jewish values through a global network of schools and training programs in 62 countries.
“She was her own person,” said Paula Forster, her sister, who now resides in Arizona. “She was a flower child, living in Greenwich Village, and she was always going to school to learn things and get degrees. She was just a helping person. She was an activist and was very involved in politics in New York.” So how did Dorman-Li come to reside in Utah? Her good friend Olga Nadeau was instrumental in her making the move to Salt Lake City. ”We met in New York,” said Nadeau, who was born and raised in Utah and went to New York to dance. “She helped me pack my things up and I moved back to Utah and she came out and stayed out here for awhile and then decided to stay out here.”
Nadeau and Dorman-Li had lived in the West Village, half of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, known for being an eclectic, active, vibrant and ethnically diverse place during the late 60s and early 70s, and a popular home for artists. Nadeau and Dorman-Li met at Kol Ami and also both volunteered at the ORT’s New York headquarters.
Dorman-Li was never married but cohabitated with Richard Ligh for over 30 years. Ligh followed her to Utah and lived with her until her death in 1998. He died several years later. At some point, Dorman-Li dropped the ‘gh’ of Ligh when signing her name, and Fadel said he knew her only as Dorman-Li.
“She was a contrarian, and if you had one thought she would take the other side,” said Doris Krensky, another friend who was part of the Chavurah B’Yachad in Salt Lake City. “She stood out in Utah and everyone loved her. Richard died after her but didn’t function too well after she left.” Dorman-Li also served as a Utah Representative, winning a two-year term as a Democrat from 76-78. She did run again after her term was up, but was not re-elected. A Deseret News article described her image as ‘militant feminist,’ especially as she actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and public funding of abortions.
According to her sister, Dorman-Li developed uterine cancer and though she did not have health insurance, she eventually had a hysterectomy to help fight the disease, and took up swimming for exercise at Steiner Aquatic Center. Here she met Fadel, who had been swimming and had become a Master’s coach in 1992.
As Fadel recalls, Dorman-Li just approached him [while sitting in the hot tub following practice one day] at the pool one day and suggested that he compete in the gay and lesbian swimming meets that were held in the U.S., specifically mentioning the Gay Games about to take place in New York.
I didn’t know her and I wasn’t that out, so I thought it was strange she was talking to me. WYllis did the research and found out about an international gay and lesbian swimming competition being held in United States each year. She was able to get me in contact with the Washington, D.C. team, and I competed in 1995 in several events with that team. -Doug Fadel
Meanwhile, Dorman-Li had been literally bumping into another male swimmer at the Steiner pool during lap swim. David Ferguson had always been semi-athletic while growing up in Murray, and attending Cottonwood High School and then the University of Utah.
“In my late twenties, I was running marathons and one of my friends suggested I try a triathlon,” said Ferguson, “So I began swimming. That’s when I started swimming at Steiner Aquatic Center. I pretty much swam on my own there until I met wYllis.” David recalls meeting wYllis…
Apparently, wYllis did not appreciate how I was sharing the lane and scolded me in a way my mother never could. WYllis’s scolding was so frightening that it felt like she had cast a spell on me. I warned friends I would see at Steiner not to share a lane with ‘wYllis, the witch,’ because the same might happen to them. -David Ferguson
One day, Dorman-Li approached Ferguson about starting a gay and lesbian swimming club, and mentioned that she had already been speaking with Fadel about it. Fadel and Ferguson had met at the Utah AIDS Foundation, where both were volunteering at the time. Fadel remembered that after he participated on the Washington. D.C. gay and lesbian swim club, he, Dorman-Li and Ferguson formed an informational meeting about creating Utah’s first gay and lesbian swim team. Here QUAC was formed.
“With a core of about nine swimmers, recruiting began at the Sun [a former Salt Lake City gay bar destroyed in 1999 by a tornado], with clipboards and personality. There was a core group of eight to ten folks and we sort of took over a lane or two at the Old South High pool,” said Ferguson . Doug initially did all the coaching, but eventually, more coaches were added.
Fadel said that the group quickly grew to about 100 participants in the first six months: It was important to have diversity, and so we were trying to recruit from all over. Dorman-Li became the treasurer, taking care of email lists and getting the information out, while taking in voluntary dues. We had a scholarship program if someone couldn’t afford the dues to get into the pool, noted Fadel.
“QUAC became a part of the already establish Utah Master’s Swimming organization and with that affiliation, there was some crossover in practice and meets. The first meet QUAC competed in was a Utah Master’s meet at the University of Utah,” said Ferguson. “We had bought swim caps with the QUAC logo printed on them and the idea was to wear the caps while competing. The trouble was that it clearly marked us as the ‘gay team,’ so folks were a little sheepish. An accomplished swimmer and friend of Dorman-Li, Priscilla Kawakami, who was a member of Utah Masters, came over to the team during the meet and asked if she could wear one of the caps. QUAC became a part of Utah Masters and is the largest swimming group in the organization to this day.”
“Soon after that, Doug and I convinced the team to go to Washington, D.C. , to compete at an [International Gay and Lesbian Association] IGLA meet,” said Ferguson. “I don’t remember how many swimmers joined us on the trip, but we clearly made a splash as the little team that could from Utah.”
In 1997, QUAC entered the Pink Flamingo competition at the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics meet and won the song and dance competition. “We created a synchronized swimming routine and that is what it has become to this day,” said Fadel.
Dorman-Li, Fadel, and Ferguson continued developing QUAC but also were accomplishing other goals and facing other challenges in their lives. Dorman-Li taught geography at Salt Lake Community College from 1993 to 1996. Fadel was busy establishing his law firm in Bountiful and was instrumental in establishing non-profit status for QUAC, SLC Frontrunners and IGLA. Fadel served as IGLA treasurer and then became IGLA’s president.
Meanwhile, Ferguson, who was working for an insurance company, learned that he was HIV positive in 1998 and left his job to find himself. I was hired at UAF to design HIV prevention and education programs for gay men in Utah, he said. I eventually became Programming Director and completed graduate school when I received my Masters of Social Work. I worked there for nine years.
Dorman-Li, Fadel, and Ferguson also created the first Aqua Aid in 1996, which has now become one of QUAC’s annual fundraisers. “Aqua Aid came about as part of UAF’s Soiree series that invited individuals to host parties at their homes and invite their friends,” said Ferguson. “QUAC had just competed in San Diego with its now legendary synchronized swimming routine performed to Doris Day singing Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. QUAC was the entertainment at one of these soirees doing its own version of water ballet.”
At her last AQUA AID wYllis participated in her wheel chair, dressed as a mermaid, and “sang along” to the song “I’m getting too old for the oldest profession”.
Held for the first ten years at the home of Joe Pitti and his partner Mark Chambers, Aqua Aid also has been held in the pool where Babylon is now located, and more recently at Quinn Richins and Cary Sanford’s home.
“Doug conceptualized Aqua Aid. We helped it grow,” said Pitti. “Mark and I performed with QUAC just for Aqua Aid. In addition to the synchronized swimming we had roaming performers, [a] raffle supported by the major arts groups in SLC, and an auction featuring a Sundance Film Festival package.”
Another QUAC event the trio founded was the annual QUAC Ski-n-Swim.
“Initially it was my idea. I was going to circuit parties around the country and I thought we should capitalize on having a party that focused on skiing and swimming in Utah,” said Ferguson. “We rented the Gallivan Plaza Skating Rink and had it all to ourselves and we held snowshoeing up Emigration Canyon, near my home, that first year.”
Ferguson remembers inviting many of the other swim clubs for the weekend, and said QUAC had about 100 visitors participate in the first Ski-n-Swim, which included a swim meet, a day of skiing at a local hill, and various parties and events like skating and snowshoeing.
Eventually Dorman-Li’s cancer became serious enough that she needed to use a wheelchair. However, she could still swim and she still participated in QUAC meets.
When she had difficulty walking and she was undergoing radiation, they took care of her when she was sick, said her sister, Forster.
Ferguson actually took Dorman-Li into his home when she was recovering from hip surgery. She died with dignity and self-respect surrounded by a beautifully odd and unlikely collection of people who loved her deeply, he said. WYllis’ death was and continues to be a powerfully moving experience for me because I got to witness the personal and far-reaching value of a life that is lived consciously and with authenticity. The spell ‘wYllis, the witch’ cast on me is one of my life’s great blessings.
Ferguson moved to San Francisco to be with his partner in August of 2009, and Fadel is still a substitute coach for QUAC. Fadel also participated in the most recent fundraiser for QUAC held at Club JAM where he donned a wig, lip synched and danced during the entertainment portion of the evening. Fadel also was honored with the ‘wYllis Dorman-Li, QUAC Founder’s Award’ for being the most inspirational and motivational member of QUAC since its existence, the first time the award has been given.
As swimming is a sport that can be learned at any time in a person’s life and improved upon with practice and determination, QUAC is a gay and lesbian community group that supports current, returning and new swimmers. Over the years, Fadel estimates that over 5,000 people have swam, played water polo or participated in diving with QUAC. Anyone can join and there are always three coaches at any given practice to help people of all experience levels, and there is a lane for those just beginning.