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Proud Life: Activist and rebel John Alan Lee

'Scientist of Love' challenged authority as an early public advocate for gay rights

Gay activist John Alan Lee died Dec 5. He was 80. Credit: Courtesy of James Dubro

Canada lost a longtime gay activist this month when John Alan Lee died Dec 5. He was 80.

Lee was best known for helping found the University of Toronto’s Gay Academic Union, chairing the Right to Privacy Committee, which fought back against police bathhouse raids, and as an activist for the pro-euthanasia group Dying with Dignity.

In a self-written obituary published in The Globe and Mail, Lee says he lived in the care of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society until he was 21, was involved in the labour movement and was an “undercover gay activist” since 1964.

He taught at U of T from 1971 to 1999, during which time he published more than 300 articles and books, mostly on his favourite subject: sex. His 1978 book, Getting Sex, caused a splash with its frank discussions of gay cruising.

Lee was very proud of being one of the first professional men to come out on radio, during a 1974 interview on Judy LaMarsh’s show on the CBC. Later that year, he helped organize the first “Gay Days” picnic at Queen’s Park, a precursor to the modern annual Pride festivities.

In 1979, amid a climate of ongoing police harassment of gays in Toronto, Lee organized a group of activists to stage a sit-in at attorney-general Roy McMurtry’s office to demand equal treatment of gays and lesbians. He followed that up a few months later with a kiss-in inside the legislature. Eventually, Lee’s radicalism and eccentricity began to alienate him from more moderate parts of the gay rights movement.

In later years, Lee became notorious for placing personal ads in gay newspapers and making prospective boyfriends answer four-page questionnaires before meeting.

“I admired his gutsiness in writing about sex early on. I really did admire his pioneering role and fearlessness,” says David Rayside, a professor at University of Toronto’s Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. “It almost became his persona, shocking people.”

In an autobiography Lee has given a permanent home on the internet, he calls his suicide “long-planned” and describes spending his final months saying goodbye to friends and giving away his prized collection of books and art.

“The night before he died, we watched Prospero’s Books,” James Dubro says. “It’s all about the last play of Shakespeare. ‘Every third thought the grave,’ and ‘I shall drown my books,’ and Lee gave away his books and all his art. It was very moving watching it with him the night before he died.

“I found in the last 10 weeks, I’ve never seen him so absolutely serene,” Dubro says.