50 years. 50 queers.

John Alan Lee

John Alan Lee

Nov 1, 2013

Name: John Alan Lee
DOB: August 24, 1933
Occupation: Union organizer / Journalist / Professor / Author
Favourite Book(s): ‘On the Nature of Things’ by Titus Lucretius, 50 BC / ‘Love Styles’ by John Alan Lee
Favourite Movie: ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’, Woody Allen
Favourite Music: Classical
Favourite Person(s) At/Over 50: Peter (son) / Johanna (friend)
One Word About 50: Free

If we are fortunate enough, we get to live the life we choose. This can be a challenge as it seems many choices are made for us by either circumstance or society. Not everyone has the wherewithal to navigate an existence perceived as predestined, to recognize when opportunities present themselves, to make choices. That, it would seem, would be the domain of the risk taker. In fact, it is the realm of the fully conscious.

John Alan Lee made a very important and very conscious choice when he was 30. He left his wife and plunged headlong into the gay world at a time when such an act could ruin someone’s life. Instead, that choice changed the course of his life and set him on a path that would see his next 50 years filled with adventure, passion, sex, philosophy, politics and activism. No excuses. No apologies.

Lee’s first steps into his life as an active gay man were tantamount to strolling into a political and legal minefield, especially in the early 1960s. “All I wanted to do was avoid being arrested or exposed as gay at the university,” he recalls of those heady early days. “The clubs were underground, literally. I remember the Cellar on Yonge Street. There was also the 511 and the Music Room. Both of them had setups that when you came in you had to show your membership card, and be recognized by somebody at the desk. At that desk also, there was a button they could push so that inside where people were dancing with someone of the same sex, the lights would go brighter, the music would change, you would switch to dancing with a woman or sit down. It wasn’t until the Melody Room on Church Street that the police actually succeeded in getting into the place while men were bumping and grinding, then they charged them.”

I think most older gay men in Toronto are not celebrated for their survival and for being elders of the tribe.”

It was when the police began arresting gay and bisexual men—or those even believed to be—that Lee became an early activist for gay rights. “That became the trial where we fought back. We went to ethnic communities and showed that Greek men had been dancing with each other for centuries. We beat the charges.” Those perilous times eventually led to a grassroots movement in Toronto that predated Pride. Lee and a number of other movers and shakers in the early days of the gay rights movement began to lay the groundwork that would change the lives of generations of queer people.

In the 1970s we had what we called Gay Days. A handful of people like Clarence Barnes and others, it was a small group who thought that there should be something in the summer, in a place that was advertised,” Lee remembers of that pre-Pride era. “We used Queen’s Park one year. Another year it was at the Grange by the Art Gallery of Ontario. We had T-shirts. I still have the T-shirt that says Gay Days Toronto. We had a truck with a platform that we could go around and put up flags on the lamp posts on the day at Queen’s Park. I supplied my dining tent because I was a camper. We put this big tent over the picnic table in the park so you could eat in peace without mosquitoes. It had a screen and a door. We were afraid it might rain so several people supplied tarps. There were exhibits. I think Ian Young was involved with his book. There were at least 100 people in one place, identifying themselves and celebrating their gayness for the day.”

Those small, almost clandestine events, were where some of the founders of Canada’s gay rights movement got together, celebrated and strategized. “Jearld Moldenhauer [who started the Body Politic and founded Glad Day Books] arranged to have the magazine printed himself privately,” Lee remembers of one of the first game-changers in the early queer rights movement. “We were using pseudonyms in those days. I was writing under the name Peter Alan, that was a blend of my son’s name and my middle name. Jearld took these papers and came around to essentially closed meetings of gay clubs like GLAD, a gay liberation group, OLGA, Older Lesbians and Gays Association, GAYLA, Gays and Lesbians Association. GAYLA became big enough to actually have a weekend conference with civic workers coming and talking about retirement facilities and so on.”

It was the Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981 that galvanized the gay community both locally and nationally and gave birth to what is Pride. As police swept through the city, arresting over 200 men, the community banded together to fight back. It started with protests on the street and ended a reign of tyranny that kept many gay and bisexual men fearful when they went out for a social drink or for sex. “That turned out to be a terrific backlash,” says Lee. “It made the police nervous about ever doing it again. You can now have places like Goodhandy’s, for example. I call it in one of my writings a ‘one-stop sex station’. They have strippers, simulated sex, they’ve got everything there, and they’re not raided.”

I thought of aging as a challenge. How to keep myself in the game? Quentin Crisp taught me a lot.”

It was big milestone in those burgeoning days of gay rights. Another milestone happened for Lee in 1983. He turned 50. “I had a wonderful party then. All my best friends and my son and ex-wife were there,” Lee says of his half-century celebration. “It was in the home I lived in for some years and with my longterm partner, out in the garden of course, I’ve been a gardener most of my life. It was a beautiful day. It was just great.” Lee had no qualms about getting older as, in those days, there were bigger fish to fry rather than worrying about having a few extra wrinkles. “I was at the peak of my form,” Lee says with a chuckle when remembering himself at 50. “We had only recently been liberated at that time and boy, were we taking every advantage of it”.

However, while marching steadfastly into mid-life wasn’t an issue for Lee, he did begin to notice changes in himself—and in the way he was being perceived by younger gay men. “I was very aware of that fact and I’d already begun to change my own behaviour,” he says. “I did everything possible to avoid becoming invisible, because I realized that that was one of the things that happened to older people in general, especially older women at that time, who became invisible to straight men. I thought of aging as a challenge. How to keep myself in the game? Quentin Crisp taught me a lot,” he continues, recalling his friend and international gay icon. “You could see him coming from down the street with those fabulous hats and scarves. He stood out in any crowd.”

As Lee has moved through the decades, he has noticed with some chagrin the way the larger society push older people to the sidelines—particularly the gay culture right in his own backyard—the one he helped to define decades ago. “I think most older gay men in Toronto are not celebrated for their survival and for being elders of the tribe,” Lee observes. “In Isherwood’s time you could be an elder of the tribe and be respected for just surviving. Today, hardly anybody calls me to say, ‘Gee, it’s nice to know you’re still around’. I’ve certainly never been invited to a Gay Pride parade or anything like that. I happen to be the oldest surviving gay pioneer in Canada now that Jane Rule and Jim Egan and George Hislop, and so on, are all dead. I’m the oldest survivor from the early 1960s. But nobody’s paying any attention to that.”

If there’s one word I would say, when it comes to your life, it’s choice.”

Another thing that has changed for Lee as he has gotten older is sex. Or rather, the lack thereof. “I don’t have sex anymore,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t have the urge to have sex anymore. The ancient Athenian playwright Sophocles, who lived to the amazing age of 70, said of no longer wanting sex, to paraphrase, ‘Thank the Gods I am finally free of a cruel and insane master’. I think that’s a pretty good translation of what he said. [The actual quote as translated: ‘Most gladly indeed am I rid off it all, as though I had escaped from a mad and savage master.’]. For me, certainly between when I became gay and left my wife and moved into the gay world at the age of 30, and my mid-60s, I was a sex addict. I didn’t have Saturday Night Fever, I had Every Night Fever,” he continues with a laugh. “There were places where you could go, like the Quest, on a Monday night at 9:30 in the evening and be out of there by 10:30 with someone to spend a few hours with and still get a good night’s sleep and go to work the next morning. That’s why I wrote the book, ‘Getting Sex’. It was to help gay men realize that there was a method to this madness.”

And while he may not be part of the sexual olympics any longer, Lee still wants to help gay men get sex at any age if they so desire. However, that game comes with changing rules for men clicking off the decades. “First of all, if you are going to continue to have sex after you stop being beautiful, you have to be more assertive,” he advises. “You can’t expect to be a head-turner, so you’ve got to make the moves, therefore you have to learn to accept rejection, how to realize that it’s nothing personal, it’s just what you look like and that’s all they know about you, all they see. You learn better how to keep conversations going,” he continues, “to avoid those deadly silences and how to break up three good looking young men who are protecting each other from being hustled by sticking together with each other. You must learn to get in there and go after the one that you want. I’ve done it,” he says with a laugh. “I ended up with a nice relationship.”

As John Alan Lee ponders his life from this vantage point, he has learned a few key lessons to living a fully actualized existence. And no matter how long that journey is and when it comes to an end, these are lessons he feels everyone—especially gay people—should endeavour to live by: “Take charge of your life. Make choices. Take risks. Don’t duck. Keep your head above the trench,” he says emphatically. “Perhaps you’ll be unlucky and have your head shot off, but if you don’t take a chance you won’t see anything. You certainly won’t have a good life.”

The philosophy of the Buddha, who lived to be 80, said, ‘There is no saviour. It’s your life. You have to make your own decisions. Recognize when something is good enough’. Good enough is not a pejorative in the Buddhist sense, it’s a pleasant acceptance. I’ve had a good enough life,” he continues when taking stock of his 80 years. “I haven’t got everything I wanted. I’m alone now in old age. But if there’s one word I would say, when it comes to your life, it’s choice.”

3 comments

  1. thank you for this. why isn’t he front and centre at pride march? yes, our elders are not celebrated in our culture or society. he certainly needs to be. lovely man.

  2. Robert Emerson /

    Rest in Peace! You will always be here in spirit!

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