After testing positive for HIV in the early 1980s, Alan Herbert fought for a good life – and the rights of others.
Mr. Herbert became a Vancouver city councillor – one of the first openly gay politicians in Canada – and gay activist, advocating for queer causes for more than three decades.
“He was someone who held very strong views about things and had a strong sense of what was right,” said his son Jason. “He never shied away from expressing his viewpoints, even when that might have created disagreement – or conflict – with others.”
Through his efforts, AIDS Vancouver became the first AIDS-based organization to receive government funding in Canada, in the form of a $50,000 municipal grant. Federal financial support soon followed.
Mr. Herbert, who died in a Vancouver memory care facility April 11 at the age of 78 while dealing with multiple health issues, including Parkinson’s disease, also founded McLaren House, Canada’s first housing facility for people living with HIV/AIDS. And he helped develop the country’s first pamphlet on safer sex – a topic that was considered taboo at the time.
He also pushed successfully for the expansion of Vancouver’s globally renowned gay district, Davie Village, in the city’s West End and spent about 15 years with the Vancouver City Planning Commission, including some as chair.
In 2013, he launched a support group known as Gay and Grey, which is designed to help homosexual men cope with aging. He created the group after improved treatments substantially reduced the risk of catching HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. (Both HIV and AIDS have no cures but improved treatments have made them much more manageable.)
“Before, I wasn’t supposed to exist as someone who had survived HIV,” he told CBC Radio. “I wasn’t supposed to exist – because I was gay.”
Lawrence Herbert (who had no middle name) was born Aug. 14, 1944, in Vancouver. He changed his first name to Alan after coming out as gay in the early 1980s. He was the second of two children, along with sister Bonnie, born to Sam and Beverly (née Corrin), Russian Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Canada separately as children. Bonnie died in her youth, in 1954.
Sam Herbert operated an electrical contracting business with his father (Alan’s grandfather). In addition, Sam and Beverly managed an apartment building, in which they and their son lived, and other family-owned properties.
Growing up on the city’s west side, Alan developed a love for travel and music, playing piano as a hobby and listening to Motown songs on the radio. He also entered a relationship with his future wife Carol, whom he met through the local Jewish community. Alan and Carol married in 1968, one year before he obtained a Master of Geography degree, specializing in urban rail, from the University of British Columbia.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, he served as a planner with public and private organizations, including Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, before co-managing his family’s properties. Alan and Carol had three children but the couple separated around the time that he came out and was diagnosed with HIV.
“She was very strongly supportive of Dad’s coming out and wanted to make sure that my sisters and I maintained a good relationship with him,” said their son Jason.
(Carol Herbert, a doctor and former Western University medical-school dean who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2020, maintained a close friendship with her ex-husband. She held a reception following his funeral in April.)
After coming out, Mr. Herbert joined AIDS Vancouver, a support group for people living with HIV, as AIDS was raging and scores of gay men were dying. He went on to chair AIDS Vancouver’s board, with the goal of raising awareness about the disease.
The key aims were to help governments and the public understand that HIV/AIDS was a health issue, humanize people living with AIDS and get past the prejudice that was prevalent, said his son.
Believing that money was critical to achieving his aims, Mr. Herbert led a fundraising charge. In addition to receiving the municipal and federal contributions, AIDS Vancouver secured funding through the United Way and raised $100,000 through a staging of the musical Cats.
Mr. Herbert largely got involved with AIDS Vancouver through co-founder Gordon Price, a fellow urbanist who was politically active in the West End. In 1986, Mr. Price became Vancouver’s first openly gay city councillor after Mr. Herbert and others helped him secure a nomination from the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association.
Mr. Price went on to serve six terms with the NPA between 1986 and 2002. However, Mr. Herbert’s own tenure as an NPA councillor was rocky – and brief.
Elected in 1996, he delivered on a campaign pledge to earn a liquor licence for the Fountainhead pub, Vancouver’s first gay bar. But he soon fell out of favour with the NPA, which governed under a strong majority.
“He had that capacity to be an effective politician, but at the same time failed to work well with others,” said Mr. Price, recalling their time on council together.
Mr. Herbert became a one-term wonder after the NPA refused to renominate him in 1999. He ran unsuccessfully as an independent that year and finished well back again in 2002 as a candidate with the short-lived Vancouver Civic Action Team (vcaTeam) party.
In following years, he founded several groups, including the Vancouver Pride Society, while leading them.
“He strode across the urban stage in Vancouver and played a multitude of roles,” said Mr. Price.
Mr. Herbert’s accolades included a Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal awarded in 2002.
During a eulogy at his funeral, Mr. Herbert’s daughter Keren called him a “kick-ass role model” for her career in outreach and harm-reduction, as a nurse practitioner for young people dealing with addictions on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
His activism around the safer-sex pamphlet in the 1980s for people with HIV/AIDS was later mirrored by people in today’s harm-reduction movement, she said in an interview.
“I lost many young, ages 12 to 24, patients and others I cared about to fentanyl poisoning, and often talked with my dad about the parallels between the two epidemics,” she said.
Mr. Herbert greatly regretted that his public life and personal struggles took him away from his children during much of their childhoods, she said in the eulogy. But she takes comfort in knowing that he was away fighting for dignity and humanity for the queer community.
“Vancouver is a safer and more joyful community because of his life, and I am honoured to be part of his lineage, carrying his tenacity and passion forward,” she said.
Mr. Herbert leaves his son Jason, daughters Keren and Alisa, four grandchildren and former wife Carol Herbert.