Personal Histories – Robert Stiefel (OC 63) (page 2 of 2)

Newspaper photo of Michael Lynch, date unknown. Courtesy of Robert Stiefel.

Newspaper photo of Michael Lynch, date unknown. Courtesy of Robert Stiefel.

Michael Lynch also met his future wife while in graduate school at the University of Iowa. She was aware of his attractions to men and was sexually involved with both men and women herself. They also married in 1969. They moved to Toronto in 1971, where Michael taught English at the University of Toronto and their son would be born the next year.

By then our correspondence had dwindled to next to nothing, and I think that my last note to Michael was in 1975 to tell him that Jennifer and I were both going on to an Episcopal seminary to earn the MDiv degree. In 1978 we moved to Colorado, where I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1979 and Jennifer served as a deacon to the bishop. Seminary had been more of the same: strong feelings for fellow students, couple therapy to “straighten me” out (I wanted so much to do this out of my love for Jennifer), and deep retreat into the closet. Colorado offered an even deeper closet.

In late 1980 or thereafter, I received a packet in the mail from Michael. At that time I was rector of my first parish. The mailing contained an article Michael had written about being a gay father, “Forgotten Fathers” [Body Politic, 1978], and other gay related articles by and about Michael’s life and work in Toronto. Sitting in my office in my very straight parish in a diocese with a wonderful yet essentially homophobic bishop, I read through all that Michael had sent me. There was no cover letter. I panicked and stuffed the envelope in the bottom of a drawer, and to my everlasting shame I never wrote a reply. And now, decades later, I think he was saying, “Here am I, where are you?” And I wish I had been able to answer, but I wasn’t ready to.

By 1991 I had finally landed a secure position in New Hampshire in what turned out to be a “safe” diocese for GLTB people, whether lay or ordained. In the summer of 1992 I read Michael’s obituary in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. He had died of complications from AIDS in the summer of 1991. News of Michael’s death stirred me to become active on behalf of GLTB rights in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and in time to become a member of the Board of Directors of AIDS Response – Seacoast and later on Seacoast Outright. Jennifer and I came to a deeper understanding of the strengths of our relationship yet also how much each of us had been missing over the years.

In June of 1996, at the first of several conferences for gay men I took part in at the Kirkridge Center in Pennsylvania, I finally came to grips with the fact that I had never mourned the loss of Michael. And I told my “Michael story” several times over. One night I had a “real” dream in which we finally made love together. I felt a healing beginning inside of me.

The next year, while Jennifer was finishing up a PhD in New Testament studies, I took a three-month sabbatical at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. We wrote back and forth and, in consultation with our bishop, prepared a coming out statement to my parish and the surrounding community. During the sabbatical I lived as an out gay man in the Bay Area. As the time of the leave drew to a close, I went to spend Holy Week and Easter with Chris, a beloved friend who is an instructor at the University of Toronto.

On Easter Day 1997 Chris and I visited the AIDS Memorial in Toronto. I had been there several times before, but I had never looked closely at the introductory writings on the first of the great standing stones upon which the names of the dead are fixed chronologically on bronze plaques. The first great stone had upon it two poems, one by a lesbian and one by a gay man. I read the first poem, “These Waves of Dying Friends,” and was deeply moved. Then I looked at the attribution beneath the poem: “Michael M. Lynch, 1945-1991.” I stared at it. I burst into sobbing tears. I went and grabbed Chris by the coat sleeve, unable to speak. I pointed out the poem and the name and croaked, “This is my Michael.” By then a lot of my friends knew about Michael, but none knew his last name or where he had lived. My friend looked at me and said, “You mean, your Michael is Toronto’s Michael?” And I said yes and began to cry again.

That day I discovered that Michael Lynch is considered one of the founding fathers of the Canadian gay rights movement. He co-founded the AIDS Committee of Toronto, AIDS Action Now!, and the AIDS Memorial, and founded the group Gay Fathers of Toronto. In 1974 he founded the Toronto Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, where he taught the first gay studies course in Canada. As a contributor of The Body Politic editorial collective, starting in 1973, he wrote the first major article in Canada on living with AIDS in 1982. Michael was also possibly the only gay academic to be a nude centerfold for both Honcho and Mandate magazines. He published his book of poetry, These Waves of Dying Friends, in 1989. His intended book about Walt Whitman was in draft form and unfinished at the time he was no longer able to do research and write.

My friend knew the head of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, housed in Toronto, where all of Michael Lynch’s personal correspondence, diaries, and journals, along with his public writings and many materials about him are kept. Chris arranged for me to have access to the archives and to spend every evening of the coming week working my way through the then unsorted 57 shelf feet of witness to the life of Michael Malcolm Lynch. I sorted, read, wept, wrote in my own journal, and made copies of selected materials within the limits allowed by the Archives. In a folder marked “Oberlin” was every letter or scrap of paper that I had ever sent Michael, even things written on napkins.

Michael’s diaries and journals contain no mention of the package he sent to me in the early 80s, just about the time he spent a sabbatical in New York City. But they do contain evidence of his lifetime struggle to integrate “Mike” from Dunn, NC, with “Michael” of later years. In the spring of 1990 he accompanied his son on a tour of prospective colleges. When they visited Oberlin, Michael worked very hard to contain his own thoughts about the college, with which he had had something of a love/hate relationship, so as not to influence his son. Sitting alone in a room at the Oberlin Inn, he wrote in his journal. Earlier he had visited the Allen Art Museum and reacquainted himself with his favorite pieces there – the same pieces he and I had looked at together nearly thirty year ago.

Then, being an intellectual and a man of letters he pours his feelings into a historical matrix. He writes that never have the Tappan Brothers, the founders of Oberlin, been more real to him than they are now. He says the same of C. G. Finney and even reaches back to J. F. Oberlin himself. Suddenly he is in his own past. In a clear hand he lists first Madame Ragnier, the vivacious and beloved Directrice of French House, with whom he had carried on a correspondence long after he left Oberlin. Then he names several faculty mentors and about five of his fellow students. There, in the last volume of the 70 some volumes of his journals, “never so present as … now,” I found my name. I loved you, too, Michael.

Michael’s story and my story go on, much longer than this essay can tell. His wife in California read about my coming out in New Hampshire. His son spent two September days with me, as I was the only man he could talk with who had known his father during Michael’s undergraduate days. His son had just bicycled across the United States raising money for COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), an organization he had founded (and which still thrives). Finally the evening came when my straight spouse and I sat down to supper in his son’s apartment in San Francisco with his mom and her partner. We talked of many things, and the wonderful blessing was that we really didn’t need to talk about Michael.

I have loved three people unconditionally in my life: Michael Lynch, my spouse Jennifer, and George, whom I had known at Harvard and who came back into my life in response to the national publicity about my coming out. Jennifer and George instill my life with joy and purpose. It’s a good thing they are fond of one another, because it is clear that the three of us are going to grow old together. In fact, we are already old together. I regret only that Michael didn’t get the opportunity to grow old along with us and with his wife and son and with the scores of colleagues and students and friends who cherished him so greatly.

Oh yes, I know the reader is wondering about those centerfolds. Even before I came along, someone had gotten into the boxes and stolen the archival issues of Honcho and Mandate. But there remains a Christmas card Michael sent out that year. It is one of the full-length nude shots not used in the magazines. And there are some other full-color proofs from the photo shoot. Even without a stitch on, Michael was charming, poised, intellectual, and witty. I don’t know that he ever really comprehended what a handsome and beautiful man he was, inside and out.

(The Reverend) Robert E. Stiefel, Ph.D.

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