After office hours ended at Dr. Lorne Warneke’s Edmonton Gender Clinic, one of the first psychiatric facilities in Canada serving transgender people, he would often work late into the night in his home office.
There were letters to write on behalf of patients, politicians to lobby and long-standing beliefs about gender identity and sexual orientation to change. Throughout his 50-year career, Dr. Warneke was a life-saving psychiatrist, clinical professor and a tenacious advocate for LGBTQ2+ people in Alberta.
Dr. Warneke died in Edmonton on Aug. 28, due to complications from a fall in his home. He was 77.
“The first time I met him, it was so affirming just to know that somebody believed me, saw me for who I was, and really was there to help me truly live in a world I was meant to live in, in the way that I was meant to live in it,” said Marni Panas, a trans advocate and former patient. The two later became friends and colleagues, working to break down barriers to improve care for trans and non-binary people.
Ms. Panas said Dr. Warneke was focused on the needs of marginalized people for a simple reason: “He just knew it was the right thing to do.”
In addition to his role as a psychiatrist, Dr. Warneke was also a fierce fighter for the rights of LGBTQ2+ people. He saw firsthand the obstacles his patients faced, and worked alongside them to make lasting changes.
“For many years, he was the only voice that you would hear,” said Dr. Kristopher Wells, associate professor at MacEwan University and Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth. “And because of his impeccable credentials, it was an influential voice. It was one that the media and government were willing to listen to.”
With courage and compassion, Dr. Warneke spoke up on many issues, including a 1997 government policy barring gay and lesbian Albertans from being foster parents.
In 2009, Dr. Warneke’s advocacy helped restore government funding for people in Alberta seeking gender-affirming surgery, and he was later instrumental in lobbying the province to allow trans people to change gender markers on driver’s licences and birth certificates.
Dr. Warneke was particularly proud of his role as a physician expert on the landmark Vriend v. Alberta case, involving a college teacher fired for being gay. The case, taken to the Supreme Court of Canada, resulted in a 1998 ruling to include sexual orientation as a protected area in Alberta’s human rights legislation.
Dr. Warneke’s devotion to such causes was rooted in his own experiences, said John Chan, Dr. Warneke’s husband.
“He understood what it was like to live with stigma, being gay himself,” said Mr. Chan, who called his partner “Mahal,” the Tagalog word for “Love.”
Mr. Chan said he would regularly wake up at one or two in the morning to find Dr. Warneke still working in his home office. “He would not give up,” Mr. Chan said.
Lorne Baird Warneke was born Nov. 16, 1942, to John and Ester (née Sundbye). John was serving overseas with the Canadian Forces when Lorne was born, and by the time he returned home and met his son, Lorne was three.
Reunited, the family moved from Athabasca to Calgary for one year before settling on a farm in the hamlet of Leedale, in central Alberta. It was a humble but happy childhood, Mr. Chan said, with Lorne riding a pony named Dobbin to school and enjoying plenty of space to run around with his younger sister, Diane Lorna.
After graduating from high school in Eckville, Alta., he studied zoology at the University of Alberta. He received a science degree then went to medical school, driven by a desire to help people in their struggles, Mr. Chan said.
Dr. Warneke’s first exposure to psychiatry was as a medical student, when he was assigned a case to work on with a patient who was a transgender woman. “He saw the need to know more about that area of life,” Mr. Chan said.
Dr. Warneke took extra psychiatric training at a hospital in London, England, where he became interested in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He went on to become an expert in the disorder, with patients travelling to Edmonton for treatment.
But his interest in care for trans people remained, and at one time he was the only psychiatrist in Alberta who would provide them with treatment and support.
“All the negative comments and the fear of being discovered … I knew to some degree what it was like to be living with stigma,” Dr. Warneke told the Metro Edmonton newspaper in 2017, adding that he didn’t come out as homosexual until he was in his 40s.
Dr. Warneke went on to found a gender identity clinic in 1995 at the Grey Nuns, the Catholic hospital where he worked, and served as the clinic’s medical director.
“I remember the hospital would not even let him advertise that there was a gender program, so he really had to work underground and covertly,” Dr. Wells said. “We kept saying, you know, Lorne, why don’t you move to another hospital where you can be out and advertise and talk about your program, and he said he was determined that the change needed to happen within.”
Threatening phone calls and hate mail followed, but Dr. Warneke was undeterred.
“This trail-blazing person, who didn’t care about attacks on him and his reputation in defending the population, he’s brought Alberta to a point in Canada where it’s probably the best place to be a gender-diverse person,” said Dr. Michael Marshall, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Alberta, president of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health, and director of the 2SLGBTQ+ Wellness Centre in Edmonton.
When Dr. Marshall moved to Alberta in 2014 and had a small caseload of trans patients, Dr. Warneke reached out, writing to Dr. Marshall to thank him for his work. A clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta, Dr. Warneke was passionate about mentoring others.
The two later met in person, and Dr. Warneke was generous in sharing “absolutely everything” related to his work, Dr. Marshall said. He recalled Dr. Warneke skipping down the hospital corridor that day, outwardly delighted that someone else was continuing his work.
Carla Grant and her daughter Ella Grant first met Dr. Warneke when Ella was in Grade 8, about a year after she came out as transgender. Dr. Warneke was warm and gentle with Ella, Ms. Grant recalled.
“We went to the school and it was complicated. We went to other physicians and it was complicated. We went to try and get her name changed and it was complicated,” Ms. Grant said. “He was that one person that regardless of the obstacle that we hit … I knew would have my child’s back.”
The Grants went on to file several human rights and privacy complaints, accompanied with letters of endorsement from Dr. Warneke.
Ms. Grant said her daughter has now transitioned, and recently moved to Vancouver to start film school. “I’m not sure that we would still have her if we didn’t have Dr. Warneke, and I’m sure a lot of patients would echo that sentiment,” Ms. Grant said.
When he wasn’t with patients or advocating on their behalf, Dr. Warneke was an avid gardener. Tending to the many flowers and plants in their lush backyard was therapeutic for him, said Mr. Chan, and also brought back childhood memories of his mom’s sprawling vegetable garden.
“He would love to get down on his knees and get his hands muddy and his nails dirty. Sometimes I would even get upset at him, saying ‘you’re a physician, you have to clean your nails before you go to work,’” Mr. Chan said.
Those colourful flowers often became Dr. Warneke’s photography subjects. He used photos he had taken to make greeting cards, branding the back of the cards with “Colours of the Rainbow Card Creations.” Inside, he wrote messages for friends and family members to mark special occasions.
Dr. Warneke retired in 2017, and was honoured by the University of Alberta that year with its Distinguished Alumni Award. He spent the first year of retirement anxious about leaving his patients, Mr. Chan said, but came to embrace the extra time he had for his hobbies, including reading, gardening, photography, travelling and cooking, especially for friends.
Dr. Warneke didn’t completely stop advocating, however. He continued to submit letters to the editor and op-eds to the Edmonton Journal, as he had throughout his career. His last opinion piece was about banning conversion therapy.
In January, Dr. Warneke and Mr. Chan returned from a trip to the Philippines for a family reunion. in mid-February, Dr. Warneke had the first of three massive falls at home. He was hospitalized and returned home after the first two falls, but the third fall led to an inoperable brain bleed.
Dr. Warneke leaves his husband, John Chan, as well as an extended chosen family.