By ALAN CONTER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
David Shannon, who died of liver cancer in Toronto on Feb. 2, just weeks shy of his 56th birthday, became a reluctant leader of Montreal's gay-rights movement at a key moment in its evolution.
News of Mr. Shannon's death provoked an immediate outpouring on social media among members of the gay community and his former colleagues at CBC, where he started working in 1991. He first became a presence on the LGBTQ scene in Montreal in the late eighties through his immensely popular Out in the City column in the Montreal Mirror and his weekly Homo Show on CKUT, McGill University's community radio station. His prominence grew when he co-founded AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM) and through his work with an ad hoc collective that founded a Montreal chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), in response to the fifth international AIDS conference, held in Montreal in 1989.
To understand what Mr. Shannon became, you must understand the confluence of these events. First, there was the mounting death toll of the AIDS crisis as the eighties drew to a close. Then there was the vile stabbing death of gay activist Joe Rose aboard a city bus on March 19, 1989. Mr. Rose was a friend of Mr. Shannon. Three months later, the International AIDS Conference saw ACT UP activists from New York join with Montreal's gay community to disrupt the opening plenary. The following year, Montreal police - not for the first time - would raid a loft party called the Sex Garage with stunning violence and repeat their brutality when a peaceful protest was held outside a police station.
Amid these events, Mr. Shannon became one of the leaders in a nascent - and diverse - political movement, alongside fellow activists Roger Leclerc, Michael Hendricks, Claudine Metcalfe, Douglas Buckley-Couvrette and others.
David Charles Shannon was born in Montreal on March 11, 1962, to Jack and Nan Shannon, the fourth of five sons. The family lived in the affluent suburb of Westmount and all five boys attended Selwyn House, an exclusive private boys school that runs from kindergarten through Grade 11. After high-school graduation, he headed off to Queen's University, in Kingston, but found academia too tedious.
"It wasn't just that it was boring," his brother Christopher said. "He was interested in making his own path. I think he's best described as a reluctant leader and he was pulled into leadership roles, whether it was gay rights, or treatment by police or the complete absence of elements of social justice. He saw injustice all over the place and he basically took the view that if you were gay and you were out, you had an obligation to be a kind of activist one way or another."
His radio show and Montreal Mirror column were his ways of reaching out to others in his community, his brother said.
Former activist Earl Pinchuk, who now heads the Art for Healing Foundation, joined ACT UP and also documented much of its activity. He recalls a demonstration on the night after the Sex Garage riot, at the corner of Amherst and Sainte Catherine streets in Montreal's Gay Village: "David was there and he was wearing his Queer Nation T-shirt, the whole activist look, black shorts, army boots and megaphone and someone said, 'We should start a Queer Nation and David should be president.' " His activism, however, was tempered with a deep sense of privacy. His own sero-status was not, in the early nineties, open for public discussion.
"For an atheist, he was to me awfully religious sometimes, but in the best way," long-time friend Greg Williams said. "It was a very confusing time and I made some big, sometimes impulsive decisions. Shannon didn't always agree with the path I took. He was ambivalent at best, or maybe even disapproved of me making myself into an HIV-positive poster child, but he never said it or tried to dissuade me of it."
In 1991, Mr. Shannon brought his quest for speaking for those without a voice to the Montreal CBC Radio show Daybreak. Around that time, Ron Peters, who is now a freelance television news producer in Los Angeles, also started working for the program. Together they formed a powerful team covering HIV/AIDS stories, Mr. Shannon bringing his sensibilities about the political dynamics and Mr. Peters having a solid background in biological science. Catherine Gregory, now senior director and chief of staff for CBC Radio and Audio, was one of the show's producers: "The thing about David was he was so very smart and so widely read that he fit right in with the team and was keen to cover all sorts of stories. And he was very funny. But his perspective on community was vital."
Mr. Shannon's time at CBC Montreal would end shortly after the devastating loss of his mother in August, 1996. Nan Shannon had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was being treated at home. In addition to the VON nurses, David and Christopher were in charge of her palliative care. "He had become in some ways an expert in palliative care for someone who wasn't a medically trained person," Christopher said.
Though we were five sons, I was available and so I was his assistant. Through [David's] work with HIV/AIDS he had already assisted with many people."
Following his mother's death, Mr. Shannon exiled himself to London, England, and reached out to Ms. Gregory, who had moved to Toronto. "We were doing a lot of syndication for the local shows across the country and David was perfect to help us cover London, everything from fashion and bits of royal watching to politics. He was great!"
By 2000, he moved to Toronto and joined CBC Radio News.
There he would eventually produce The World This Weekend, which was then hosted by Lorna Jackson. "Probably the main reason why we, in the newsroom, we just loved David [is that] he had a real generosity about him," Ms. Jackson recalls. "The younger people who came into the newsroom counted themselves very lucky if they got to work with David because he was very patient and very generous and very helpful. He knew what he was talking about. He was really good. That fervent interest in politics was tremendous."
Both Ms. Jackson and Brent Bambury, another friend from the late eighties and the current host of Day 6 on CBC Radio, recall Mr.
Shannon's activist inclinations re-emerging during the 2005 lockout of CBC employees.
Richard Stursberg, then CBC's executive vicepresident, was crossing the picket line when Mr. Shannon strode up to him with very firm and pointed questions. It was reminiscent of Mr. Shannon's clear-voiced determination to have legitimate questions answered during the Montreal demonstrations years earlier, Mr. Bambury said.
In 2007, Mr. Shannon went on a disability leave that would become permanent. He maintained contact with a close circle of friends, including Ms. Jackson, and wrote to her last June about his worsening health. The doctor had said he had only nine to 12 months to live, but Mr. Shannon was at peace with his prognosis and looking forward to spending part of the summer in Kennebunk, Me.
"I am in the best shape of my life and that goes for my mental state as well, as I can honestly say I'm happy," he wrote.
The e-mail went on to describe an awakening Mr. Shannon had had the previous week while attending a talk by Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prizewinning play about the emergence of AIDS in the United States in the eighties.
"[Mr. Kushner] was asked if he felt hopeful about the current state of affairs. I was profoundly affected by his answer. He said that he does not think hope is a feeling, rather it is a decision. That meeting with my doctor may have thwarted hope, but I can still decide to keep it as a foundation to my strength. I have made that decision."
Mr. Shannon died in Toronto at the home of one of his brothers. He leaves his brothers, Craig, Donnie, Christopher and John, and their families.
Alan Conter is a former executive producer at CBC Radio. He lectures in journalism law and ethics at Concordia University.
David Shannon, seen in a painting, had a weekly radio show on CKUT and his Out in the City column in the Montreal Mirror, which were his ways of reaching out to his community, his brother said.