Toronto
8 min

Astirrin’ & akickin’

A Toronto activist brings home the drugs

YELLOW KITCHEN GLOVES. The fall of 1987 was both tough and inspiring for AIDS activist Michael Lynch. Credit: Xtra files

Michael
Lynch moved to Canada from the US in 1971 and became involved in Toronto’s
flowering gay community – with The Body Politic magazine collective, with Gay
Fathers Of Toronto, which he founded, and, in the 1980s, with HIV/AIDS
politics. He died in 1991.




In the foreword to Ann Silversides’ new book AIDS Activist: Michael Lynch And
The Politics Of Community, Ed Jackson writes, “With the arrival of the
‘mysterious illness,’ the sudden deaths and the confusion and fear they
brought, Michael Lynch’s plea for an organized and calm resistance strategy in
the face of the pending crisis helped to shape an entire community’s response
to AIDS and keep it true to the principles of sexual liberation and democratic
organizing.”




In 1987, when the following excerpt from AIDS Activist opens, Lynch’s friend
and former lover Bill Lewis has just died, making it a very difficult time for
Lynch.




***


On Saturday, October 10, 1987, Michael Lynch left Toronto on an early morning
flight to take part in the March On Washington for lesbian and gay rights. It
would be a turning point for himself and Toronto gay activists. Washington was
“full of faggots and dykes and even my curmudgeonry won’t deter the ebullience
of it,” he wrote. The night before the march featured a “town meeting” on sex
and politics – putting the sex back into politics. Lynch noted: “Assumed and
unquestioned = more sex, more good sex, more better sex = a good thing.” He
wasn’t sure, though, about himself in that equation, at least for now. “My own
libido is on vacation.”




Estimates for the Sunday march, which was organized “for love and for life,”
ranged from 200,000 (official) to about 600,000. Lynch marched with fellow
academics Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and David A Miller, and Canadian Robin Hardy, a
writer he had known at The Body Politic. Hardy had moved to the United States
and was writing for The Village Voice and other publications. “Among half a
million people at the 1987 gay march on Washington, we somehow bumped into each
other and spent half a day together,” Hardy wrote later. “What was the point of
all that work, all that writing?” Lynch asked him. “It’ll all be wiped out by
AIDS.” At the time more than 24,000 people had died of AIDS in the United
States; about 1,150 in Canada.




It was during the march that ACT UP, the US activist group founded in New York
just seven months earlier, came to nationwide attention within gay and lesbian
circles. Lynch’s old friend Herb Spiers, a founding member of The Body Politic,
was by then chair of the powerful issues committee of ACT UP New York, which
met regularly at his loft on West 19th Street. “ACT UP was still new; its
tactics were still controversial,” Spiers recalled. During the march he was
with the ACT UP contingent, acting as a sort of monitor. “But I was also
free-floating to see what impression the ACT UP contingent was making with the
standersby.” It was very impressive, he decided. The ACT UP marchers all wore
T-shirts emblazoned with the motto “Silence = Death.” Lynch and many others
wore pins with same slogan.




Two days after the Washington march Lynch joined a civil disobedience
demonstration at the US Supreme Court….




Mimicking police, who at earlier AIDS protests had donned rubber gloves, the
Supreme Court protestors wore yellow kitchen gloves.




Lynch wrote “I love you Bill, 1950-1987” on his yellow glove, and also
collected signatures of several fellow protestors, including that of Franklin
Kameny, 62, an important early gay leader and founder of the US National Gay
Task Force…. Lynch was arrested and charged at the demonstration, and spent a
brief time in jail. “The whole weekend energized my spirits out of elegy and
into action. I wear sloganned T-shirts again, shouted cheers, even tease myself
w/ the idea of starting up an activist AIDS organization here. (God forbid!)”




Back in Toronto, that’s exactly what he did. “Billy, the activist in me is
akickin’ and astirrin’ again,” he told his diary (and Lewis) on Oct 15, 1987.
“The city has held up its AIDS budget, and held much of it back from ACT.” The
Toronto General Hospital had refused to purchase a PCP nebulizer for the AIDS
clinic. “We must hit the streets… The one time in the Washington March rally
when I really wept, it was to an old clichĂ© – About our not letting those
who’ve died die in vain…. Anger returns, mourn – by organizing.”




The creation of ACT UP reflected a growing consensus in the gay community that,
as writer Randy Shaw put it, “Politely accepting government, scientific and
corporate inaction was equivalent to accepting death sentences for thousands of
people potentially infected with or already suffering from AIDS.” A key focus
for the new organization was the state of AIDS research and the availability of
drugs….




On November 20 Lynch travelled to New York to get a supply of pentamidine and
bought seven doses at $141 (US) each, bringing the tab to nearly $1,000. He
investigated and publicized the situation in an article for Xtra – “Not My
Department: A Widely Used AIDS Drug Kept Out Of Canada While Ottawa Twiddles
Its Thumbs.” He discovered that while any doctor in the United States could
prescribe pentamidine, now considered by major AIDS doctors to be state of the
art therapy for preventing PCP, Canadian officials were waiting for a drug
company to propose a drug trial before even considering making it available. It
was a clear example of bureaucratic inertia putting people’s lives at risk. In
an interview with Lynch, the director of clinical trials at the Federal Centre
For AIDS, Michael Davis, dismissed the reports about aerosolized pentamidine
that had been published in medical journals.




“Anyone can get an article in The Lancet,” Davis told Lynch, “which doesn’t
prove anything scientifically. People say all sorts of things. It was
interesting, but the fact of the matter is it was totally biased… one needs a
bigger study to prove it.” Davis later told the Toronto Star, “You can’t just
say, okay chums, here’s the [pentamidine] powder, do what you like. That’s
stupid. It has to be fully investigated.”




For Lynch the question was, who was going “to monitor the slugs in the Health
Protection Branch?” Who was going “to pressure the Federal Centre For AIDS to
get off its executive ass and work to make aerosolized pentamidine widely and
easily available both as treatment and as outpatient prevention?”




Sharing the pentamidine that he brought back from New York with others – Lynch
noted that dosages were packaged so they were most efficiently used by three
people at a time – introduced him to other prospective activists who were also
ready to organize around the epidemic. “Scott Cline and one Chuck Grochmal came
over to take pentamidine,” Lynch wrote on December 1. “I felt like I was
running a clinic.” Lynch also shared the aerosolized pentamidine more widely.
In December Peter Wood on the Nova Scotia PWA Coalition sent him a cheque for
$530 for the drug. “If you know of anyone else who has some for sale, please
let us know,” Wood wrote.




The autumn long-time gay liberation activist Tim McCaskell had a chance
encounter with Lynch at the corner of Beverly and College streets, near where
McCaskell was working at the Toronto Board Of Education headquarters and not
far from Lynch’s home. Lynch said he thought Toronto needed something like ACT
UP and asked if McCaskell would be interested. McCaskell had “only vaguely”
heard of ACT UP, and didn’t really have a sense of what it meant, but was
interested. McCaskell had been one of the main leaders of the huge
demonstration in 1981 after the bathhouse raids, and responsible for
international gay news at The Body Politic. But he had been less in touch with
things since the newsmagazine had folded.




The main source of information for Toronto’s gay and lesbian community was now
Xtra, which had begun life as a supplement to The Body Politic. Appearing every
two weeks, the tabloid was still ad-heavy and copy weak, but it provided a
forum for Lynch’s journalism. On November 13, almost two months after Lewis’s
death, Xtra published Lynch’s article “Silence Equals Death: US Gays Are
Fighting Homophobic AIDS Policies; What about Us?”




The article was, typically, part of a conscious strategy. “When I resumed
writing after a silent period,” Lynch wrote to a former student in early 1988,
“I took on some short journalistic pieces, trying to stir into being a new
organization to fight politically for better AIDS policies.”




Lynch opened his article by relating a question that a head of a medical
science department at the University Of Toronto had put to colleagues: “Isn’t
it the case that, if we just let the epidemic run its course, the homosexuals
would die off and, since they don’t reproduce, the virus would die off too?”
The speaker, wrote Lynch, was a decent intelligent man who would not stick by
that scenario if he were under pressure. “But he’s not under pressure…
because gay men in Canada are not putting on pressure where pressure is
needed.”




***


Describing his experiences during the March On Washington, Lynch referred to
his “twinge of Canadian gay pride” when he had told fellow protestors that
Ontario was assuming the costs of his antiviral medication. Some Americans were
paying over $10,000 annually for the same medication. Canada had made other
advances. The 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code had decriminalized sexual
acts between consenting adults, and Ontario’s Bill 7, which became law in 1986
and prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, had given
gays “official legal protections still denied to homos in 49 of the 50 United
States.” But Ontario gays had not yet come to grips with or monitored other key
AIDS issues, including threats to job security, the need for good preventive
information, and, of course, treatment. Only when pressure was applied would
the established institutions deal with these issues, Lynch argued.




The early years of AIDS in Toronto had been focussed on education, prevention,
and palliative care. Staff at the AIDS Committee Of Toronto struggled to cope
with day-to-day issues and funding crises, and they functioned in the midst of
waves and waves of deaths. They had little energy to spare for opposing
government inaction. As well, government funding and the organization’s
charitable status limited their ability to protest. Although ACT had finally
received some stable funding from the Ontario Liberal government, which came to
power in 1985, the organization had charitable status and charities in Canada
have to limit political advocacy to a small percentage of their activities.
Lynch’s new acquaintance Chuck Grochmal put it this way: “ACT is not,
regrettably, in the business of social change. For a long time, this was a
sticking point with a lot of us who felt they should be.” It was much the same
in the United States, where the Gay Men’s Health Crisis struggled mightily to
provide care to the hard-hit New York community.




Hindsight easily points to conditions that bred the emergence of the new
activist groups – mounting deaths, government red tape and inaction – but
McCaskell speculated that the course of the events might have been different in
Canada if Lynch had not spearheaded the formation of the activist group that
was taking shape in late 1987. “I think something would have come together, but
what would it have looked like?” The strength of the new formation – to be
called AIDS Action Now! (AAN!) – came from its combination of experienced
activists and new people who, as McCaskell put it, “had been churned up by the
epidemic.” A key was that Lynch took the initiative when he was still well
enough to do so, and he helped to bring together a coalition of people,
including McCaskell, George Smith, Gary Kinsman and some others he was just
meeting. The result was a particular history and trajectory. “I think that
Michael’s initiative there was really crucial in terms of producing that
history,” McCaskell said.




Seasoned activist that he was, McCaskell recalls that until AAN! was formed,
AIDS hadn’t struck him as “an issue that politics could be done about.” For
him, politics was about law, not medicine. The community had experience,
especially after the bathhouse raids, with bawdy house laws, and members knew
about legal issues surrounding the age of consent and privacy. “Our politics
had looked at how the legal system was in fact shaping the lives of gay men,”
McCaskell said. “But nobody had ever really thought about how the medical
system might play a significant role.”




* Excerpted by permission from AIDS Activist: Michael Lynch And The Politics Of
Community, by Ann Silversides. Published by Between The Lines. $24.95.
Silversides is a Toronto-based journalist specializing in health policy.