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obituary

Gerald Hannon, a radical sex-positive activist, journalist and social commentator, on Dec. 13, 1996.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In late 1977, the Toronto gay liberation journal The Body Politic knew it had a ticking time bomb. A long feature article titled Men Loving Boys Loving Men – which would either be seen (by some) as a nuanced look at a different side of an adult-adolescent relationship or (by most) as an endorsement of pedophilia – was typeset and ready to go to press. Written by staff journalist Gerald Hannon, the article told the story of three men, including an elementary school teacher, and presented an uncritical look at their loving – and sexual – relationships with underage youths. Shocking then. Shocking now.

It wasn’t the first time Mr. Hannon had written about adolescent-adult relationships in The Body Politic. But his 1972 piece Of Men … And Little Boys was opinion and mostly unnoticed. This time, his story was more detailed. And in issue No. 39, with a long preamble explaining the decision to publish, the story came out. “We took the Gerald Hannon approach, jumped out of the airplane and waited for the parachute to open,” said Ken Popert, former executive director of Pink Triangle Press, referring to Mr. Hannon’s propensity to speak his mind, even when it would land him in trouble.

Mr. Hannon, a radical sex-positive activist, journalist, educator and social commentator, died in Toronto on Monday by medical assistance in dying after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.

When his 1977 article came out in The Body Politic, there was indeed a great hue and cry from the mainstream media. Before New Year’s, the newspaper’s offices were raided by Toronto Police. A few days later, Mr. Popert, Ed Jackson and Mr. Hannon, who all held executive positions on the board of the journal’s non-profit publisher, Pink Triangle Press, turned themselves in.

They were charged with “unlawfully using the mails for the purpose of transmitting indecent, immoral and scurrilous material.” The trial started on Jan. 2, 1979 and wrapped up a few weeks later. The charges were dismissed on the grounds of free speech. Said Judge Sydney Harris, “I must judge with objectivity and concern for the right of free discussion and dissemination of ideas unless there be a clear incitement to illegal action.”

The Crown appealed. The three were tried again and acquitted again in June, 1982.

But the furor would follow Mr. Hannon for most of his life.

Gerald Campbell Hannon was born in Bathurst, N.B., on July 10, 1944 and moved to Marathon, Ont., midway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, with his mother when he was 3. His father, Fred, often a violent drunk, worked in the Marathon pulp mill. Gerald’s mother, Yvonne, who years later would come out as a lesbian, stayed at home and raised Gerald and his younger brothers, John and David. To escape the violence, young Gerald would hide in his closet and listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio. It was a fantastical escape and created a passion for music that he embraced all his life.

Mr. Hannon graduated from St. Michael’s College in Toronto with an arts degree. He met Mr. Jackson while the two of them were teaching English as a second language. They struck up a friendship and later, Mr. Jackson would help Mr. Hannon come out. They vacationed in Europe one summer, and after attending a gay rights rally in London, returned to Toronto invigorated and determined to campaign for equality.

“We wanted to get involved in that movement,” Mr. Jackson said. He and Mr. Hannon joined a collective called The Body Politic, which produced the journal by the same name. The collective meant that writers, editors and others involved with the paper all worked for each other. In addition, most of the members of the collective lived in a shared house in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood. It was during this time that Mr. Hannon met Robert Trow, who would be his lover for nine years.

Mr. Hannon would remain as a writer and photographer with the publication until publisher Pink Triangle Press folded The Body Politic and started a bi-weekly newspaper called Xtra in 1987. During that time, The Body Politic was the epicentre of gay activism in Toronto, organizing protests and marches and protesting police brutality. Along with others at the collective, Mr. Hannon was instrumental in changing the city’s views on LGBTQ issues.

“I came out as gay in Toronto in 1968 and as an activist/journalist in 1972,” Mr. Hannon writes in his coming autobiography, Immoral, Indecent & Scurrilous: The Making of an Unrepentant Sex Radical. “By good fortune I have been alive to witness decades of social and political change, much of it thanks, in the early years, to a cohort of twenty-somethings like me, young men and women, rebelling against the constraints, legal and social, that confined queer people and their several communities. As a journalist, self-taught, I was both a witness and a participant.”

Mr. Hannon said he was a “bad writer” in his early days at The Body Politic, but by 1987, when the journal folded, easily slid into freelance writing.

Many of his former editors share a high opinion of Mr. Hannon, who won 13 National Magazine Awards over his career. Former Globe and Mail editor Sarah Murdoch, for whom Mr. Hannon wrote for several years, said she was always impressed and surprised by what Mr. Hannon would turn in. She said she would often only have to “wave her cursor” over his stories in the editing process. “I always knew if I assigned him something, he would always come up with something odd, often funny.”

In a Toronto Life profile of Rob Ford, who at the time was running for Toronto’s mayor, Mr. Hannon wrote: “Ford is a serial smiler who looks up slightly when he speaks. When he shows his teeth, his eyes vanish into a haze of blond, almost albino lashes, and you’re left with the disconcerting feeling that he’s not actually looking at you. There’s something preeningly feline about him, too – he has a tendency to sweep one hand back over his hair (a rather lovely winter wheat in colour), or stroke his cheeks from side to side, perhaps because they are often sweaty.”

Former Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane described Mr. Hannon as “one of the finest journalists I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with. I don’t think that anyone I worked with wrote better profiles. He had a great eye for detail, he noticed things. When Gerald delivered a piece it was like Christmas.”

But trouble had a way of following Mr. Hannon. In a Globe and Mail article in 1995, The Kiddie Porn Ring That Wasn’t, Mr. Hannon blew the lid off the story of a non-existent child sex ring in London, Ont., during which 45 men were charged but never convicted. However, London Police Chief Julian Fantino lodged a complaint with the Ontario Press Council which, after a two-day hearing, ruled the piece should have been labelled “Opinion.”

“It was ridiculous,” Ms. Murdoch said. “It was filled with interviews, including with the police chief. It wasn’t an opinion piece, just looking at a story from a different point of view.”

But Mr. Hannon’s annus horribilis was about to get worse.

In the fall of 1995, Mr. Hannon got a part-time job teaching journalism at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). “He was quite good at it,” said fellow journalism instructor David Hayes, who helped Mr. Hannon set up his curriculum. “He was a very, very effective instructor, kind of low key, kind of serious.”

But not everyone was pleased to see Mr. Hannon in front of students. Two days after Mr. Hannon’s appearance before the Ontario Press Council, Toronto Star writer Judy Steed, who crusaded against child exploitation, was horrified when she learned Mr. Hannon – the provocateur who had unapologetically written about pedophilia some 18 years earlier – was teaching journalism. She blasted Mr. Hannon, and Ryerson, in print, and compared him to a pedophile. The Toronto Sun’s Heather Bird took up the gauntlet. She, too, laced into Mr. Hannon and the school. There was no evidence that Mr. Hannon had promoted pedophilia in his class, but a lot of evidence that he was well liked and respected by his co-workers and students.

And then, the other shoe dropped. A Toronto Sun reporter interviewed Mr. Hannon and asked him: Did you work as a prostitute? Mr. Hannon said yes. “He saw what was coming, but he thought, ‘okay.’ He had to be honest. He never looked at the consequences,” Mr. Jackson recalled.

The next day’s front-page headline in the Sun was “RYERSON PROF: I’M A HOOKER.” Mr. Hannon had a long-time side hustle, so to speak, of being a sex worker, to supplement his freelance income. But the sex work was not in the seedy-lean-into-cars-and-proposition-men way. He took out a small ad in the alternative publication Now Magazine, listing his home phone number.

“He was good at it and he was probably the most positive experience for a lot of people who were coming out, fumbling with their sexuality,” Mr. Jackson said. “He was a very understanding, supporting person they could have sex with.”

Mr. Hayes said the sideline was “part of his philosophy of the openness of sexuality, gay or otherwise. He didn’t make much money.”

For Ryerson, however, the revelation was a bridge too far. Mr. Hannon was suspended, pending an investigation. His union appealed, citing wrongful dismissal.

John Miller, who was chair of the journalism department at the time, said there was no evidence Mr. Hannon spoke about his sideline with his students or discussed pedophilia. But when he concluded that students were being affected by the scandal, “I began to change my mind whether Gerald would be good for the school.”

Mr. Hannon was reinstated for the spring term but his contract was not renewed. The union was successful in its grievance and Mr. Hannon got a cash settlement. Mr. Hannon wanted to use part of the money to set up a bursary at the school, but was politely turned down. Ironically, such an award now exists. Writes Mr. Hannon in his autobiography, “To honour my decades of activism for both sexual freedom and freedom of speech, Pink Triangle Press created the Gerald Hannon Award to support trans and Indigenous students in financial need at Ryerson University. PTP’s contribution of $5,000 per year for five years was matched by Ryerson, with apparent full knowledge of our earlier history together.” The first awards were granted in 2021.

Mr. Hannon officially retired from sex-trade work when he was 65. Long-time friend Peter Kingstone, a Toronto-based artist and the visual and media-arts programs manager for the Toronto Arts Council, helped throw a retirement party.

“He was my muse,” Mr. Kingstone said. He would often show his personal work to Mr. Hannon, who was always supportive of the visual and aural arts.

Mr. Hannon’s first love, however, was opera. The first album he ever bought was Verdi’s Aida. He would often sing opera when home alone, and took music lessons. He and his friend Gerry Oxford, a former colleague from The Body Politic, joined amateur choirs, including the Toronto City Opera. In performances, Mr. Hannon was attracted to the big-ham roles, which suited his bass voice. “He was very devoted to music,” Mr. Oxford said. “Music was his main passion for many, many years. He tossed off articles on the side.”

In recent years, Mr. Hannon gradually lost the ability to write or sing. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, complicated by a rare neurological condition known as pseudobulbar affect. As his life became more difficult, he began to look toward assisted death. He had lived a full life on his own terms and decided he would die on his own terms. On Monday at his condominium in Toronto’s Gay Village, Mr. Hannon died peacefully with the assistance of a doctor. At his side was his chosen family: Ali Syed, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Oxford and Mr. Kingstone.