Toronto
3 min

The playful activist

"AN INDIVIDUAL TO THE CORE." Rick Bébout circa 1976. Credit: Brent Ledger

Rick Bébout was my first lover, the first person I had sex with and the only man I’ve ever lived with. He was the greatest single influence on my adult gay life and though we’d drifted by the time he died on Jun 10 his influence never waned.

He took me to my first gay bar, my first gay disco and my first gay dance — at the Church of the Holy Trinity, where the shock of seeing men dancing together almost undid me. He taught me to cruise and introduced me to artists, activists and most of the gay literary greats. One Christmas he gave me Christopher Isherwood, and one evening he took me to the Parkside, then a hotbed of gay dissent. Both trips were defining.

When I first met Rick he was living in a small, two-room apartment on the top floor of a grand old building that had seen better days. It was carefully decorated with chocolate brown walls, hand-built bookcases, art posters and a stack of unread New Yorkers a foot and a half high beside the bed. But there were no inessentials. Rick thought the very idea of a watering can bourgeois. Why buy a separate gadget when a jar would do as well?

Nothing much changed over the years. By the time he died last month at the age of 59 Rick had acquired none of the usual trappings of middle-class success. When he set up his will it was mostly to guarantee the preservation of his papers and his website. He left just enough money to cover his funeral.

In a way that’s almost unimaginable today Rick worked very, very hard for not much more than his ideals and the pleasure of the chat.

It’s ironic that Rick spent so much time corresponding with Jane Rule — the lesbian author who lived on BC’s Galiano Island — because he was very much not a West Coast person. The one time he visited me in Vancouver he remarked, afterward, that he didn’t feel at home. Born in Massachusetts, he was a New Englander to the core, fond of words like work, strength and responsibility, and in many ways the embodiment of all three.

Ricki, as everyone called him, was intensely playful but never frivolous. Whether it was a job he hated (the bakery where I met him) or a job he loved (The Body Politic, the AIDS Committee of Toronto) he worked ridiculously long hours.

Appraising his place in gay history will be difficult. Although he was an individual to the core and left behind much deeply personal work, Rick sometimes seemed happiest working in the midst of great hives of activity — at places like The Body Politic and ACT, where he could feed off the interplay of ideas, and there of course his achievement is interwoven with that of other people. As one friend who worked at The Body Politic in the late 1970s remarked, they were always referred to as “The Collective.”

Still, at least part of his legacy seems clear. His essays and memoirs offer an extensive first-hand account of The Body Politic and his various online publications (all available at Rbebout.com) have already made him something of local oracle.

Lord knows the number of people who have sought his help. Just a couple of months ago I ran into an academic who was doing his research in the confines of Rick’s tiny living room. Why go to the library when you could have both Rick and a complete set of The Body Politic — print history and personal testimony — as your guide?

I always thought of Rick as a writer manqué, but he was really more of a political bureaucrat with a penchant for process that might have been Kafka-esque had he been anything less than wholly devoted to the good. Years after he left the university library where he worked in his pre-gay career, he still told stories of old office battles past. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who could defend bureaucracy and he was very fond of memos. He believed in them. During one of his final interviews (available online at Xtra.ca) he quotes from one of his own.

Ours was not the most successful relationship of all time, but even at its worst (and there were several high-pitched low points) Rick never let up on his generosity, love and support. Certainly he gave me far more than I ever gave him.

For all his generosity, though, I think what I’ll always remember about Rick is his mind — its clarity and nuance and a quality that I can only describe as both light and demanding. Quicksilver, flitting in and around ideas from all points of view, but with a hard core of certainty that could be both inspiring and alarming.

Rick had a burly torso, spindly arms and hands that fluttered when he talked, not from triviality, but with an almost electric impatience to communicate ideas. Interest and eagerness shimmered through those hands.

The same hands, I guess, that inscribed my copy of Christopher and His Kind with a scrawl of spiky green ink. I still have that copy and I guess I always will. It ends with the words, “… with much love, Rick.”