Skip to main content
book review

Author Gerald Hannon wrote scores of articles for the pioneering gay journal The Body Politic and won a dozen awards for profiles in mainstream magazines.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: Immoral, Indecent & Scurrilous: The Making of an Unrepentant Sex Radical
  • Author: Gerald Hannon
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Cormorant Books
  • Pages: 319

Despite writing scores of articles for the pioneering gay journal The Body Politic and winning a dozen awards for profiles in mainstream magazines, Gerald Hannon will always be remembered for a polemic titled Men Loving Boys Loving Men (MLBLM), an ill-considered attempt to “humanize and demystify” inter-generational male sexual relationships. A friend underlined the point in a satirical alphabet he composed for Hannon’s 60th birthday in 2004: “M is for Men Loving Boys Loving Men/N is for Nothing of Interest since then.” I don’t agree with that jibe, and I suspect many of you won’t either after reading Hannon’s posthumous memoir, Immoral, Indecent & Scurrilous – the grabbiest title I have seen in a while.

Besides an intimate view of his own life, loves and outrages, Hannon’s memoir is a cogent insider account of radical gay activism in Toronto beginning in the mid-1970s: the bath house raids, the launch of Gay Pride and the history of The Body Politic collective, the publication where Hannon was a staff photographer, reporter and chronicler of sexual mores.

He learned to write at TBP, but his best literary work was at magazines such as Toronto Life, where he published captivating and fearless profiles of contemporary luminaries including architect Jack Diamond, art critic John Bentley Mays, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, society columnist Zena Cherry, and, my favourite, Tomson and the Tricksters, a 1992 profile of the Cree playwright Tomson Highway and his youngest brother, René, a dancer and performer, who died of AIDS-related meningitis at the age of 35, in 1990. I loved Hannon’s journalism, which was alluring but not show-offy, and I wish he had included more examples in Immoral, Indecent and Scurrilous.

Hannon had a wretched childhood, which I believe is central to understanding his life, both as he tells it in his memoir and as some of us have observed it as colleagues and readers. He was born in Bathurst, N.B., on July 10, 1944, but moved as a toddler to Marathon on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario because his father, Fred, had found employment in the pulp mill. When Fred was frustrated, drunk or both, he beat Gerald’s mother, but he also turned his fists on Gerald and his younger brother John. Another brother David, who was at least a decade younger, had an easier time because by then “my dad was getting too old to be quite as violent.”

His middle brother John was rebellious, sexually precocious and ended up in reform school, while Gerald was quiet, academically smart and behaviourally dopey. Addicted to Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he was a weird kid in an isolated town in Northern Ontario. As for sex, he didn’t make it with anybody, male or female, until after he had graduated, at 22, from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Another two years passed before he succumbed to the entreaties of Ed Jackson, a gay activist, a loyal friend and a man who exudes empathy the way others produce sweat.

Finally embracing homosexuality at 24, Gerald lamented that he was way behind his peers in sexual experience. The love, companionship and purpose he found in Toronto’s gay community in the 1970s turned him into an outspoken proselytizer, akin to a rabid convert to a new religion, which, in my view, persuaded him – a lonely boy/man who had never had a loving father figure – to argue that sexual relations between consenting children and adults could be a good thing.

He had no respect for boundaries, telling readers of TBP that sex is like lunch and comparing children’s hockey tournaments to kiddie sex rings. How a child consents in such a power imbalance was a problem Hannon avoided. Did he himself lust after five-year-olds? Absolutely not, he insisted, not because pedophilia was morally and legally wrong, but because kids didn’t turn him on. He was acquitted twice on obscenity charges for his MLBLM writings in TBP – at trial in February, 1979, and on appeal by the Crown in May, 1982, with a third appeal rejected by the court in July, 1982.

After TBP folded in 1987, Hannon added sex worker to his job skills to augment his chancy income. Tall and somewhat goofy looking, he wasn’t attractive enough to work the streets as a male hooker; instead, he took the safer route of running an ad in the personal section of a local newspaper promising to “work his fingers to your bone.”

“I feel on some nights when I am doing an outcall and sweeping across the city on my bicycle, that I am tracking the current of human need,” he wrote in an article that was edited and then killed before publication in Saturday Night magazine nearly 30 years ago. He described answering the call for paid sex as responding to “a current visible only to me and other whores, a current that will draw me … to the 17-year old high-school student who hasn’t figured out any other way of meeting people, or to the Italian grandfather who is finally getting what he wants. …” This passage, which Hannon expanded on in his memoir, was one of his great strengths as a journalist: He takes us places where we may never have been and lets us watch and listen without prurience.

Handout

Public turmoil about Hannon’s views of male/boy sex erupted again after he wrote The Kiddie Porn Ring that Wasn’t in The Globe and Mail in March, 1995. It was an expose of Project Guardian, a crackdown on an alleged child prostitution ring in London, Ont., led by then-police chief Julian Fantino. After Fantino objected to the article, Hannon and his Globe editors were hauled before the Ontario Press Council, which deemed that the piece, although not erroneous, should have been labelled “opinion.”

The ruling roiled the ire of a bunch of right-wing columnists and zealous protectors of journalism students at Ryerson University (as it was then known), where Hannon was employed as a sessional lecturer. Seizing an opportunity to attack Hannon on grounds of moral turpitude, they accused him of advocating pedophilia in his journalism classes, insisted there was no difference between him and rampant Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, and tried to claim that he was trying to sell his sexual services to his students. In the resulting furor, Hannon was suspended from Ryerson. Although he was reinstated and allowed to finish the year, his contract was not renewed.

I know all this because I was assigned by Toronto Life to figure out why Hannon, a once-lauded journalist and teacher, had been transformed into Hannon the Notorious. Our first meeting, at a party in his apartment in 1995, did not go well, although I wasn’t aware of his animosity until I read a journal entry that he included in his memoir.

“I don’t think I like Ms. Martin,” Hannon wrote. “She’s sneering and disdainful and that is the pose that sophisticated people adopt when they are either frightened or closet moralizers.” Moi? Well, Hannon is not the first nor will he be the last to recoil from an encounter with me, an irredeemable blurter and unabashed Scorpio. Second meetings often go better. “I was wrong about her,” he wrote in his memoir. “She was a sympathetic interviewer and a dogged researcher. …”

What I really wanted to see in his memoir was whether his attitudes to sex between adults and children had changed. Not really. Looking back, he wondered if he wasn’t “to some degree the author of my own misfortune,” and if, had he refused interviews or hidden behind the skimpy “no comment” camouflage, he might “be a retired teacher” instead of a “famously fired one.”

Keeping his mouth shut in public about ideas that mattered to him was about “as alien to my temperament as it was possible to be,” he concluded. He found it “exhilarating” to talk about “taboo topics” and he still believed that by doing so he could open people’s minds. Theoretically, such talk might be permissible, but there’s always the risk that it could encourage others to act in harmful ways. That’s why you can’t willfully and erroneously shout fire in a crowded cinema, a danger Hannon couldn’t understand.

We never became close friends, but I was genuinely sorry to hear of his diagnosis of atypical Parkinson’s in 2018. By earlier this year writing, singing, and even speaking coherently were impossible. Although he desperately wanted to live long enough to hold his memoir in his hands, his suffering had become so intolerable that in May he chose Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), surrounded by Ed Jackson and a few other close friends. He was 77. A man, who needed to be loved and admired, Hannon would have enjoyed the tributes that marked his passing. I miss him.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.