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The gift of a life

Notes on the passing of Rick Bébout

INTELLECT TO ENVY. "You were in awe, and you were irritated, for the same reasons: because he was smarter than you, better read, more thoughtful, more strategic. It probably made it worse that he didn't flaunt it." Rick Bébout (left) with Robert Trow

It’s a sad task, clearing out someone’s apartment after he dies. Our culture measures a person’s worth in stuff, and Rick Bébout didn’t leave much for us to pack and give away — several garbage bags of clothes destined for Goodwill (even that was a surprise, given that the Bébout uniform seemed to consist almost entirely of dark jeans and black T-shirts). A respectable, but not extraordinary, number of books — though the breadth of his interests was humbling: gay stuff that covered the range from the literary to the novelistic to the theoretical to a history of American musicals; Canadian history in volumes both mainstream and arcane; books on architecture and design and the life of cities; several guides to speaking Japanese; Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters; almost everything published, it seemed, on the Bloomsbury Group; histories of the Russian revolution and the rise of Nazi Germany; biographies…. Many of the volumes still carried the small, neat Post-It squares that marked pages he intended to reference. Rick Bébout would never dog-ear a book.

The bathroom walls offered a gallery of images he’d downloaded off the Web — cute boys, “skinny puppies” he’d call them, never ashamed of his predilection for men the law might consider underage, always eager to over-romanticize, sometimes at wearying length, the semiotics behind their erotic appeal.

The bedroom, the closet and the sun room were lined with bankers boxes, 27 of them. They are meticulously identified and labelled, and they are filled with file folders, also meticulously identified and labelled. They seem sad at first — a monument to an obsessive neat freak. Then you open any one of the 20 that are his (seven bear the name of his erstwhile lover, Michael Wade, who died in 1990).

The contents crackle and hum and yearn and sigh and weep; they protest and acclaim; they laugh and agonize. They shout. They fall in love. They plot. They think: So much energy spent on thinking and debating and analyzing but allowing time, always making time, to lick some cute dancer boy’s belly at Remington’s or revel in being called an amazing cocksucker by some blissed-out, lucky neighbour. Those boxes are the gift of a life, Rick Bébout’s life, recorded in journals, letters, memoirs, email exchanges, photographs.

He was a scrawny, American-born, Toronto-loving gay man and civic activist, someone you’ve probably never heard of, a man who helped save Union Station from the wrecker’s ball and, as a member of the collective that produced The Body Politic, helped set the agenda that galvanized a community into a potent cultural and political force and then, to his enduring dismay and disappointment, watched that community dissipate its energies in a struggle to win something not worth the winning: the right to marry. After The Body Politic ceased publication in 1987 he devoted his considerable energies to AIDS work, in particular with the AIDS Committee of Toronto. In 1999 he received the Ontario AIDS Network Honour Roll Award for his contributions to preventing the spread of HIV (diagnosed as positive in 1988, he was a long-term survivor, finally succumbing to heart problems and a stroke).

He cherished gift culture, a way of life in which a person’s worth is measured not by how much he keeps but by how much he gives away. Rick did more than gift his life on paper, destined for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and likely to be accessed mostly by the diligent and scholarly. He launched his own web site, Rbebout.com, on Jan 11, 2000, his 50th birthday, setting the tone for a memoir he called Promiscuous Affections with these words: “What I hope to make happen, or at least encourage, is a fresh look at who we are and have been as gay people. Whatever ‘gay’ may mean…. In the mad rush to ‘equality’ with everyone else we have leaned on claims that we are ‘just like everyone else’…. But many of us, thankfully, are not. We are truly queer — our lives and our values distinct, not ‘normal.’ Maybe even (though we rarely dare say it these days) better than normal: more open, generous and humane.”

Bébout arrived in Toronto in 1969, 19 years old, a draft resister who had fled his small hometown of Ayer, Massachusetts. He would remember it this way: “Just three months in Toronto…. told me I’d found the right town. In five years I could apply for Canadian citizenship and would, right away, swearing my oath of allegiance to the Queen on Apr 30, 1975. I’d be home in time for the six o’clock news: people clinging desperately to the last American helicopters lifting off from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. My first day as a Canadian citizen would be the last day of the war in Vietnam. I’ve said ever since that it was an irony so pat you could never get away with it in fiction.”

Like so many American draft resisters he fell in love with this town and this country (he’d end up knowing more Canadian history than any Canadian I knew. He even added the acute accent to his surname, changing the pronunciation from bee-bout to bay-boo).  He showed that love by actively engaging in our civic life (it always irritated him to be addressed by politicians as a ‘taxpayer.’ He thought of himself as a citizen). Within two years of his arrival he had joined the Committee to Save Union Station (then destined to be torn down and replaced with office towers), planned a book to help publicize the cause, secured an introduction to Pierre Berton (then Canada’s most famous writer and television personality), engaged him to write a chapter and, by December 1972, saw The Open Gate published, to critical acclaim. (Union Station would survive, though Bébout speculated that “shifting realty values likely had more to do with that than a book.”)

I can’t remember when I first met him. We must have crossed paths before 1977, when he became involved with The Body Politic (I’d been there since 1972). It would have certainly been long after he was moved to write in his journal, “I swear abstention, total and absolute, before I’ll ever go near the fag section downtown. It’s inhuman” (like the rest of us, he had trouble coming out). He’d been a volunteer with the Canadian Gay Archives, which shared office space with “The Beep,” as we called the paper. “As I sat there one day sticking clippings in a ring binder,” he wrote, “David Gibson [a collective member] handed me a piece of paper, a news story, and said, ‘Could you edit this?’ I wasn’t sure: I’d been an editor once, but years before — and what did I know about news? Nothing really. But I did it.”

He did it well, and it wasn’t long before he was doing a good deal more. With the help and guidance of volunteer graphic designers, he took a scrappy, counter culture rag and turned it into the best designed gay publication in North America. On top of that, he wrote. He edited. He wrote promotional copy for ads. He could typeset (a two-finger whiz). He could administer. He seemed to have his hand in everything and he wasn’t “qualified” to do any of it. He didn’t have a university degree (before The Body Politic, he’d worked in a bookstore and at a library and — a job he grew to hate — as part owner and full-time slave of a bakery targeting the Rosedale bourgeoisie). “No credentials, no permission” — that phrase became his favourite advice to aspiring activists.

He was a control freak. He prepared for meetings by writing long, articulate, thoughtful and persuasive memos. He would crouch down beside you at the office, rub your shoulder, and try to talk you into whatever he wanted. In a profile of the collective that I wrote in 1982 for the paper’s 10th anniversary issue, I said, “He will talk until he gets his way. He will go on and on and on — sometimes collective meetings seem like forums for Rick Bebout, with a too agreeable supporting cast.” I also wrote: “He could have taken over the paper, except that he said, ‘Stop me, I’m taking over the paper.’”

As a former lover of his told me recently, his reaction to Rick was always a mixture of awe and irritation. I understand that. You were in awe, and you were irritated, for the same reasons: because he was smarter than you, better read, more thoughtful, more strategic. It probably made it worse that he didn’t flaunt it. He wasn’t a snob — he worshipped competence. You could be a Remington’s dancer, a waiter or a prof, but all that mattered to him was that you did your job well. If you did, he was yours.

Now, he’s ours.

It’s a rich bequest. At least two of the 20 boxes are filled with his decades-long correspondence with novelist and essayist Jane Rule, a gift to literary scholars and the record of a kind of friendship that seems almost archaic these days: a friendship initiated, elaborated and maintained almost entirely on paper (they rarely spoke and met only a few times). Rule’s death in 2007 hit him very hard. Those letters to Jane helped him to analyze and make sense of his life, he told me. Long after she died he’d catch himself formulating, analyzing, structuring the record of his life for that week’s letter. Then he’d catch himself. He couldn’t do that. She was dead. He came close to tears once, describing that experience to me. In recent years he developed an intense epistolary friendship with Sondre Lerche, a twenty-something Norwegian singer of exceptional grace. Rick never underplayed his enthusiasms. More than one friend ended up feeling they got to hear rather more than was strictly necessary about Norway and its history and geography and Bergen and Oslo and Trondheim and the Lerche touring schedule. He never tired of showing us photos of the man, or introducing us to his music via YouTube clips (it became clear the affection was reciprocated — Lerche would post a touching tribute to Rick on his website not long after his death).

Perhaps all of Rick’s friendships were a little odd. He and I were not intimates, though for the decade that began with his arrival at The Beep in 1977, our lives were entwined in ways that not even lovers could compete with. We worked together every day. Rarely took a day off. We’d pull one all-nighter after another together, be near delirious with exhaustion together, giddy with lack of sleep together, dozily happy together as we’d pile into a cab, often at dawn, clutching the precious box of flats we were taking to the printer. He often called those the best years of his life. They were mine too, years I once described as a time of “transformation of The Helpless Queer with no history and an unlikely future into Someone, into a group of Someones, who uncovered a history, who found heroes, who grabbed today and shook it till tomorrow fell out of its pocket and there was a place there in it for us.”

We were fully in each other’s lives but we weren’t demonstrative about it, never greeted each other with a hug or parted with a kiss. Everyone does that nowadays but back then we just didn’t — it seemed too touchy-feely or too lesbian or somehow not quite the thing for cool intellectual radical activists. That changed, a few days before he died.

He never fully regained consciousness after his stroke. As he lay dying in a hospital bed at St Michael’s Hospital, he would sometimes stretch out his hand, blindly, tentatively. He couldn’t tell us what he wanted but the body language seemed clear. I could have ignored it. It might have been truer to our friendship if I had ignored it. But I didn’t. I reached out and took his hand in mine. His fingers, warm and slightly feverish, curled round my palm and held on tight. I’m glad I did that. Perhaps deaths should mark new beginnings too.

For those of you not lucky enough to have known him, the hundreds of thousands of his words you’ll find online are a virtual hand reaching out to you and to the world, offering a gift. If I were you, I’d take it.