As a symbol, George Hislop will go down in the statutes as the person who won survivor pension benefits for gays and lesbians. But, as a man, he will be remembered as a role model who showed generations of young men how to live openly and without shame.
"Before George was my client, he was my friend and, before he was my friend, he was my hero," lawyer George Elliott said yesterday. "He was the most famous gay activist in the country when I met him at Buddy's Bar in the late 1970s. To me it was like meeting Martin Luther King Jr."
As an activist, Mr. Hislop was expert at the charm offensive. "He was very funny and a great raconteur," says Toronto city councillor Kyle Rae. "He was able to disarm those who were not prepared to listen, not prepared to understand, not prepared to be compassionate. He disarmed them with his humour."
George Robert Hislop was born in Swansea (now in the western part of Toronto) on June 3, 1927, the youngest of three sons of John Hislop and his wife Ada. He knew he was gay early on and his family always accepted him. "He always said, 'I never came out of the closet because I was never in it,'" said Mr. Elliott.
He studied theatre at the University of Toronto in the 1940s and then worked as an actor on stage in Toronto and in London, England, often working in bars to pay the rent. Back in Toronto, he acted in live television on the CBC. Among other bit parts, he performed as singer Robert Goulet's hands in a du Maurier cigarette commercial.
Riding the ferry from the city to the gay beach at Hanlon's Point on the Toronto Islands in 1958, he met Ronald (Ronnie) Shearer. They became lovers, business partners and life companions. They were almost certainly the first openly gay couple in Canada.
Mr. Shearer had a well-paying job as a partner in a company that did industrial design and displays for large trade shows. He earned enough money to support Mr. Hislop's political activism and was the silent backer in many of the bars and restaurants that Mr. Hislop operated over the decades.
Growing up without shame or stigma, combined with the outgoing nature of his personality and his love of performing, were key traits that made Mr. Hislop a natural spokesperson for gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, he didn't become a public activist until after 1969, when amendments to the Criminal Code made sodomy legal between consenting adults (over the age of 21).
He supported the founding of the University of Toronto Homophile Association and took the cause from gown to town two years later by forming the Community Homophile Association in 1971. He then helped to organize the first gay rights demonstration on Parliament Hill.
The first openly gay candidate for public office in Canada, he beat out Jack Layton for a nomination for city councillor in the 1980 municipal elections. He was defeated, as was then-mayor John Sewell, one of the first politicians to support gay rights. Although never elected, Mr. Hislop played an active role in civic politics for the next 25 years as a member of various planning committees.
In 1981, he was charged as a "keeper" in a famous police raid on bath houses because he was part owner of one of the raided establishments. He led the protests against the ensuing prosecution and was active in the lobbying movements to include gays and lesbians in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and protection for sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code.
After Mr. Shearer died in 1986, Mr. Hislop enquired about receiving pension benefits as Mr. Shearer's survivor. They had been together for 28 years. "You are the wrong sex," he was told. And there the matter rested until lawyer Douglas Elliott asked Mr. Hislop to be lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the federal government for not giving Canada Pension Plan survivors' benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
In the landmark M v. H case in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the word "spouse" applied to gays and lesbians and that they were entitled to apply for support after the breakdown of a conjugal relationship. Mr. Elliott and many others, including the Canadian AIDS Society, believed these rights should include pension benefits. (The government agreed in 2000 and started paying CPP survivor benefits, but only from Jan. 1, 1998.) Mr. Hislop, with Mr. Elliott's help, officially applied for survivor's benefits and was rejected. Many trials and appeals later, Mr. Elliott persuaded the federal government to give litigants a partial payment for arrears and to start paying a monthly CPP pension cheque, even though the Crown is still appealing the cutoff date to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Hislop finally got a cheque for $14,000, in recognition of partial arrears, in August. "He was thrilled to bits and I was greatly relieved because I was concerned he wasn't going to live to see it," said Mr. Elliott. "He felt it was a tacit admission by the government that he was going to prevail in the Supreme Court."
Many of his friends feel that fighting for pension rights was Mr. Hislop's reason for living in the last couple of years as his health failed from the combined effects of Parkinson's, diabetes and esophageal cancer.
"Pension plans across the country have been riding on our backs," complained Councillor Rae. "We and our spouses have been paying money into pension plans and not able to benefit [from them]while the straight world is having a surplus riding on our backs. By the time George got the cheque he was bedridden."
A few weeks ago, Peter Bochove, co-owner of the Spa Excess bathhouse in Toronto, asked Walter Lee, one of his employees, to clean Mr. Hislop's home for him. "When he saw whose apartment he was cleaning, he was blown away. Walter did a wonderful job and when George tried to pay him, he waved the money away and produced the stub of his pension cheque," said Mr. Bochove, explaining that Mr. Lee, 50, was one of the litigants in the class-action suit for survivor benefits.
George Hislop was born in Toronto on June 3, 1927. He died of esophageal cancer in hospital in Toronto on Oct. 8. He was 78. He is survived by several nieces and nephews and many friends.